The Human Face of Technology: Using Information Technology to Manage Disaster Response

REDMOND, Wash., — June 4, 2008 — The recent cyclone in Myanmar and earthquake in China were grim reminders of how tenuous human life and its comforts can be. Such disasters also underscore the vital role information technology (IT) can play in bringing desperately needed assistance to distressed communities – even to the point of saving lives.

When these tragedies strike, information can become as precious as food, potable water and shelter. And the effectiveness of rescue efforts relies heavily on the ability of the responders to effectively communicate, share information and manage resources. By enabling communication, collaboration and decision making, technology can literally save thousands of lives.

Compassion and Generosity

Within hours of each disaster, Microsoft employees began soliciting cash donations to the relief effort in the U.S., China and Thailand via the company’s intranet Web site. After the site for the China earthquake had been live for only 24 hours, more than 1,200 Microsoft employees in China had made donations. And in the U.S., an organization of Chinese Microsoft employees leapt into action with informational Web sites, fundraisers and remembrance ceremonies.

“Microsoft and its employees have been extremely generous with their donations to the relief efforts in both countries,” said Akhtar Badshah, senior director of community affairs. The company has matched contributions to China and Myanmar relief organizations from employees in the U.S. and the greater China region.

So far, the company and its employees have collectively donated approximately $95,000 for relief efforts in Myanmar, and US$1.7 million for the earthquake response in China. The China assistance includes US$743,000 in employee contributions and two corporate donations to the China Red Cross Foundation totaling US$225,000.

Back to School in Sichuan Province

The Sichuan earthquake destroyed some 175 schools in the province. Zhu Jiang, a Chengdu city official, was quoted in a recent Associated Press story as saying that the sooner the children in Sichuan return to school and other normal routines, the sooner they can begin to overcome the trauma they’ve experienced.

To help those children, Microsoft has pledged US$1.4 million over two years to help restore education in Sichuan Province. Initially, some of the money will be donated to the China Youth Development Foundation, a non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Beijing, to set up temporary classrooms in the Sichuan and Gansu provinces, which experienced the worst impact from the quake. The bulk of the money, however, will be earmarked for the construction of new schools and other education-related programs.

This donation brought Microsoft’s total donation to China relief to US$3.1 million.

Donating Time and Technical Resources

Financial contributions are just one of the ways that corporations like Microsoft help rescue and relief efforts in the wake of such natural disasters. Typically, Microsoft offers a combination of donations, technical resources and volunteer support.

“Cash is certainly helpful to relief organizations, but private companies can provide all sorts of needed resources by leveraging their core competencies,” said Claire Bonilla, senior director of disaster management at Microsoft. She is responsible for coordinating much of the company’s response to natural disasters that occur around the world.

“IT and communication companies have a unique opportunity to assist following disasters because the core of any disaster management effort is integration, communication and collaboration, three things that companies like Microsoft specialize in,” Bonilla said.

Microsoft has taken a number of steps to help the victims in both Myanmar and China. For example, to drive awareness amongst the global community, the company posted information on its and web sites to guide people to fundraising efforts by humanitarian relief organizations, as well as additional information about the situations in both countries.

Microsoft Responds to Earthquake in China

Microsoft China employees Huang Chen (rear left) and Chen Jian-Xun (rear center, in blue cap) helped reunite the six children in this photo with their families after they were separated in the chaos following the May 12 earthquake. The woman in the red cap is a relief worker.

Within three hours of the May 12 earthquake the Sichuan Province of China, Microsoft had several activities underway:

  • The safety and condition of the company’s own employees in the affected region was verified.

  • The company’s subsidiary, Microsoft China, had begun contacting customers in Sichuan Province to offer technical assistance.

  • The services team based in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, helped the local telecom authorities restore service.

  • And a team at the company’s Asian research lab had created and posted an interactive LiveSearch map to provide news from each of the villages hit by the quake.

Locating the survivors and the victims in Sichuan became a significant problem, so at the request of the Aba prefecture — which is near the quake’s epicenter — a Microsoft team in Sichuan developed and launched a missing people search site that was ready within 24 hours. On the site, individuals can post their status and whereabouts, the government can post names of known victims and those rescued, and family and friends can list people they are seeking. Thus far, at least 500 people have been found through this site.

Responding to an emergency request for assistance from the China Red Cross Foundation (CRCF), engineers from the Microsoft China Technology Center worked over a weekend to upgrade the foundation’s donation website — improving response time dramatically. This was more than a mere convenience. The Web site the CRCF had been using prior to the quake was woefully inadequate for the volume of donations that began to pour in following the event, causing it to crash. 24 hours after the organization requested help, Microsoft, working with several partner companies, had a new web site up and running on new servers. Whereas the old site could barely handle 1,000 transactions a day, the new one is now processing more than 10,000 transactions and millions of hits per day. More than US$10 million has already been donated through the updated Web site.

“Microsoft played a decisive role in restoring the function of our Foundation’s Web site and greatly enhanced the performance of the site by optimizing the operating software,” said Cheng Gang, director of China Red Cross Foundation IT Center. “This cooperation demonstrates Microsoft’s social responsibility.”

Individual employees in China also volunteered to help with the rescue efforts by driving carloads of food and other supplies to the earthquake area.

Raising Funds, Raising Spirits

Microsoft employees gathered to mourn the victims of the earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province. Redmond, Wash., May 23, 2008.

Within minutes of the earthquake in China, news of the tragedy spread throughout Microsoft’s community via e-mail. The day after the quake, members of CHIME, an internal group of Microsoft Chinese and Chinese-American employees, held an emergency meeting to discuss what their nearly 3,000 members could do to support relief efforts. Since then, CHIME has held several fund-raising events, set up a SharePoint site to help those who want to donate money or time, identified relevant charities that are eligible for the company’s matching gift program and organized a mourning ceremony on Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash. campus.


Like many others, Microsoft’s ability to provide assistance in Myanmar has been limited by the country’s closed borders, so the company has focused on supporting non-government organizations (NGOs) with donations, technology and employee engagement. Working with the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Microsoft and several of its partner companies developed a Web portal that can help relief organizations collaborate more effectively and efficiently.

Although Microsoft has no operations in Myanmar, there are some customers using Microsoft technologies there (consistent with U.S. export control regulations). Company employees in Thailand (which borders Myanmar) also volunteered to help coordinate the activities of the local NGO community there and uploaded information about the situation in Myanmar to the Web portal to aid collaborative efforts.

Preparing for the Unimaginable

Microsoft doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time a disaster occurs. About a year ago, the company created a centralized disaster management team that could be deployed to work side by side with government, inter-government and non-organizations such as the United Nations, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) and NetHope (an IT-focused consortium of leading international NGOs).

“We’re now in the process of building a standard portfolio of offerings that can be used to aid disaster response and recovery efforts worldwide,” said Bonilla, who heads the team. “It includes things like providing information and communications technology to lead response organizations, having trained volunteers on the ground, driving global donations and awareness through and coordinating our response with Microsoft partner companies that have hardware or applications that could be helpful.”

“Our goal is to use Microsoft’s core competencies around information management and communication related technologies – as well as our global resources, partners and relationships – to help disaster response and recovery efforts,” she added.

In addition to the Myanmar cyclone and China earthquake, Microsoft has responded to a number of natural disasters this year, including wildfires in California and floods in Mexico.

“We believe our work with disaster and humanitarian relief organizations is having a positive impact on the effectiveness of the mobilization that is taking place following natural disasters,” added Badshah. “By helping these organizations strengthen their core communications infrastructure, we can help save lives.”

Microsoft Employees in China: “Ad Hoc” Heroes

In the days following the earthquake in Sichuan Province, China, authorities discouraged well-meaning volunteers outside the region from travelling to Sichuan to help, unless they were professional relief workers carrying their own supplies. But more than 30 employees from the Microsoft office in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, were able to help by delivering food, medical supplies and other materials to disaster sites.

Among them were Chen Huang, an account technology specialist, and Jian-Xun Chen, a solution sales professional, and their spouses, who delivered three carloads of supplies bought with their own money to the heavily devastated site of Anxian.

On their way back, they were asked by some policemen – clearly overwhelmed by the needs of thousands — to help find the relatives of four boys and two girls, ages six to 14, who had been separated from their parents two days earlier. The children were from three different families in Beichuan County, and were trying to get to Mianyang City, where most Beichuan survivors were rumored to have been relocated in the chaotic hours following the earthquake.

Aided on their trek by dozens of people along the route offering water, food and valuable information, they finally reached Mianyang several hours later, at dusk. Phone service had just been restored, and it didn’t take long for the two older children to reach their parents. But the four younger children couldn’t remember their parents’ cell phone numbers.

Standing on a crowded, crumbled street with their options running out and panic setting in, one of the children happened to notice a man in distance who he thought looked like his uncle. Indeed the man was his uncle, and he told the boy and his young sister that their parents were still alive and that he would take them to them.

Chen and Huang brought the last two children to a stadium where teachers and other survivors from Beichuan County had gathered. Though they couldn’t find their parents or relatives there, tears poured down the children’s faces as they recognized two of their teachers.

So after a five-hour ordeal, Huang and Chen could finally breathe a sigh of relief and begin their journey back to Chengdu.

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