Microsoft Brings .Net to Katrina Relief Effort

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2005-09-06

Microsoft Brings .Net to Katrina Relief Effort

Microsoft Corp. is bringing the power of its .Net technology to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, delivering a system to help locate people displaced or missing since the hurricane.

A group of Microsoft technologists quickly deployed to contribute their time and talent to the relief effort, and decided to develop a Web site and supporting applications to help Katrina evacuees reach out to relatives and friends and also enable families to locate people they have not heard from since the hurricane hit, said Jim Carroll, chief architect and project manager for the system, known as KatrinaSafe.

KatrinaSafe is based on four primary components, Carroll said. The Web site and supporting system is based on Microsofts .Net Framework 1.1, SQL Server 2005, Microsoft Speech Server and Web services "so other sites can easily connect to us and send data via SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol]," he said.

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The Speech Server component will enable the system to notify families via phone calls when their relatives have been found, or enable evacuees to leave voice messages for people, said J Sawyer, a Houston-based Microsoft developer evangelist in the companys Gulf Coast District.

For the bulk of the Web application work, the team used Visual Basic .Net, while they wrote all the classes and Web services in C#, Sawyer said.

"It is a heterogeneous language implementation," he said. "People chose what they knew best."

The system also includes a Smart Client application that enables users to deploy via HTTP and provides the capability for case workers to do things like perform offline search or enter new data into the system.

"Jim Keane from the MTC [Microsoft Technology Center] and I have been working on a Smart Client app for the aid workers to use in the field," said Sawyer on his blog. "It will have some functionality thats not on the web site, but, with the beauty of web services, we are using a common data store ... so what gets entered by the aid workers will be on the web and whats entered on the web will be available to aid workers."

The Smart Client application gives users the capability to track people and plug in data, and then the system will batch upload all the information to try to match evacuees with inquiries coming from people looking for friends and family members.

"When that match happens, Microsoft Speech Server kicks in, and either a call or an e-mail will go out notifying the searcher that the person they are looking for has been found," Sawyer said.

"Picture this ... a family waiting to hear from a loved one who was in the disaster area," Sawyer said. "Theyve not heard from them since the hurricane hit. Then they get a call saying that their loved one has been found and is at such-and-such evacuation center. Thats what were working for."

The KatrinaSafe site enables people to type in the name of the person they are looking for, as well as the persons home phone number and home city, and then it seeks to make a match from information in the system.

Next Page: Grassroots effort.

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The core team working on the KatrinaSafe effort has been in Austin, Texas, at the Microsoft Technology Center there, said Dan Manrique, a Microsoft information worker technology specialist who is part of the core team.

"We wrote the first line of code at 11 p.m. Wednesday night," said Dave Gardner, a developer lead on the project and another of the core participants on the team. But the requirements for the system changed and the team had to scrap the initial code base. "Then we wrote the first line of code for the current code base Saturday at noon, and we completed that code Sunday at 9 p.m.," he said.

"Microsoft brought in people to work on their own time and over a holiday weekend," said Manrique. "This is a company that really cares about people and cares about this situation. … Its been a pretty massive effort."

Sawyer said on his blog: "Every once in a while, Im reminded what a great company Microsoft is ... and what great people I work with. This is one of those times. Im in Austin right now, and were going live with right now. This is a web site that will help victims of Hurricane Katrina find their loved ones ... and will also allow victims to send messages to family members."

Sawyer said KatrinaSafe started as a grassroots effort inside Microsoft, but is being supported by the "highest levels" of the company.

"All this work, all this time, all the software is being donated by Microsoft and some of our partners to help the relief effort," Sawyer said in his blog. "Weve got support from the very highest levels of the company to do whatever we need to do to make this happen. Its a small thing, perhaps, but if we can help provide some comfort, help someone locate a lost loved one ... then its all worth it."

Microsofts Carroll said although the effort started with the software giant, it could not have been accomplished so quickly without help.

"Microsoft as a company could not have done this without our partners," he said. "Our partners have donated time and money. Two ISPs hosted the app for us. It would be completely unfair to say this is just a Microsoft effort."

Since the team—which includes members who came from California, Florida, Alabama and Texas—began working on the project last Wednesday they have averaged only 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night, Manrique said.

A project providing victims of Hurricane Katrina with Linux-based public access to information, e-mail and services is seeking volunteers. Click here to read more.

And they wasted no time getting to work on the project. "I was chatting on IM about it that morning, and by that afternoon I decided I would go, but the only flight I could get was at 3:10," Manrique said. "My wife had just stepped out for lunch, and by the time she got back I was leaving. And she had no idea before she left for lunch that Id be going at all."

Carroll said the project transcends the technology.

"Ultimately its not about the code; its about the people," he said. "Were lucky enough to work for a company that supported this project. And we couldnt have done it without our partners. Not one single company said no. Its been a privilege to be a part of it."

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