Microsoft team brings tech help in disasters

Next time you're stuck in a long line at airport security, see if Microsoft's Claire Bonilla or a member of her team, loaded down with networking and other electronic equipment, is responsible for the hold up.

Bonilla is senior director for Microsoft disaster management, a small group of people that coordinates the software giant's support for governments and nongovernmental organizations that respond to disasters around the world.

In situations like a natural disaster that result in a complete communications blackout, a member of her team may travel to the affected site with hardware to deploy a wireless network that can be used by relief workers.

"When you travel with the gear, the minute you line up at the metal detector and have to start unpacking, the number of male gadget geeks that huddle around you and back up the line is hilarious," said Bonilla.

But what her team does is serious business. While Microsoft has always offered support for natural disasters, typically delivered by local offices in an affected area, it formally created the disaster response group in 2007 after noticing an increase in natural disasters and their effect on businesses and people, she said.

Bonilla has lead the seven-person group since its inception. In the past three years, the corporate team has been involved in responses to 34 crises around the world, including cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China.

The support that Microsoft offers includes technology and communications products and services and is offered free of charge. It can include supplying capacity for government Web sites that people use to find information during an emergency. Microsoft can deliver such "burst capacity" within about half an hour, Bonilla said.

Microsoft may also offer temporary free software licenses for products like SharePoint or Groove that help responders collaborate and coordinate their work.

In 2008, when it became clear that Hurricane Gustav was likely to be destructive in the U.S., Microsoft designed a program in advance. "We did proactive outreach to customers and partners in that area for days before landfall," Bonilla said. Customers were informed of a Microsoft customer service line that they could call for free support if they were having technical difficulties after being impacted by the storm. "Anyone who called in from the impacted area was guaranteed support and services for free for the duration of the impact until they were online again," she said.

In addition, Microsoft sent two local workers to the Houston emergency operations center to support the emergency response team. They helped deploy a SharePoint service hosted by Microsoft facilities in Washington and India.

In Galveston, Texas, there was a complete power and communications blackout. Three members of the Microsoft corporate emergency response team including Bonilla, a specialist from Iceland and another from Washington, D.C.. flew to Houston. There, they picked up a trailer, one of a handful that Microsoft has used to tour the country showing off Microsoft products. They drove to Galveston -- after securing their names on a list of people whom the sheriff would allow over a bridge into town -- where the trailer, with its generators and computers, became the local emergency response center. Officials used cards donated by AT&T that enabled Internet access via satellite, Bonilla said.

Microsoft has also designed a package of support worldwide related to the H1N1 pandemic. It launched a Web site called the H1N1 response center in the U.S. where people can do a self-assessment to determine if they might have the flu. They can then opt to share the information with public health officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is using the data to track the spread of the flu and symptoms.

One country that was particularly hard hit by H1N1, which Bonilla declined to name, responded to a letter that Microsoft sent out to governments around the world offering assistance. Microsoft helped that government build a public portal that offered citizens information from the health ministry in the local language.

In addition, Microsoft hosted a private portal that allowed health clinics across that country to share information about the flu in their region and make requests for medical equipment.

In Microsoft's home state of Washington, it is currently helping officials prepare for expected flooding of the Green River. "They want to be savvy as they plan to set up shelters for people who might be impacted," Bonilla said. Officials will use tools and information supplied by Microsoft to try to identify people who might have H1N1 symptoms and place them in a separate shelter so as not to infect other people.

Bonilla is in the enviable position of being able to draw on a wide array of Microsoft resources, such as the trailer on Galveston. "Many of these resources in the company are at our disposal to convert into disaster response capabilities," she said. For instance, her team has an agreement where it can immediately post content on MSN.com to draw awareness to a disaster that it is responding to.

Bonilla wouldn't say what her group's annual budget is but she said it's smaller than you might think. "The wonderful thing we've found in this space is the passion and conviction to help and volunteer is tremendous," she said. Her group draws on the 96,000 employees at Microsoft as well as 800,000 partner companies that often volunteer their products and services.

Microsoft is among a handful of big companies that have formal disaster relief programs. FedEx leverages its logistics expertise and worldwide presence to help in disasters, often to deliver aid products. It has worked closely with aid organizations such as the Red Cross to lend support during a number of major disasters including the Sichuan, China, earthquake; the 2007 Peru earthquake and the 2005 hurricane in Mexico.

Other companies may lend a hand on an ad hoc basis, sometimes when a disaster affects its workers. An organization called Hands On Disaster Response has a corporate partnership program that helps organize support from corporations.

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