Microsoft team brings tech help in disasters

By , IDG News Service |  Government

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.

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