Peace on earth. (computers' role in social issues)
by Sherry Roberts
So far, no one has written a classic Christmas carol about computers. Few people deck the halls with computer cables, and even fewer jingle computer chips while sleighing through the snow.
But the fact is that in today's high-tech world, computers play an increasingly importan role in maintaining stability and peace on earth.
In organizations such as the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service, computers help protect us, warn us of danger, and rescue us from catastrophe. Computers are also helping farmers and aid workers in famine-prone areas to reduce world hunger.
VITA (Volunteers In Technical Assistance), a nonprofit organization founded in 1959 to facilitate economic growth in developing countries through technical information, uses computers to make possible dairy farms, training schools, and printing companies in countries such as Chad.
VITA has designed a communications program using packet radios, computers, and a low-earth orbiing satellite called VITASAT that enables farmers in remote Sudan to plug into highly technical resources. VITA president Henry Norman says requests for technical information are anwered by 5000 skilled volunteers.
Since 1988, VITA's Disaster Information Center has operated an electronic bulletin board called VITANet to track offers of relief assistance, time, money, and commodities. When a disaster is declared, volunteers enter offers of help into a database that can be accessed and downloaded by subscribers.
Disasters such as the Armenian earthquake may generate 500-1000 calls. More than 100 agencies access the information by computer for use in their relief and rehabilitation efforts.
Computers have made possible new inroads into famine relief in seven drought countries in Africa--Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. Agricultural, economic, and meteorological conditions are monitored in those countries by the Famine Early Warning System.
Tulane University started developing the Famine Early Warning System for the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1985. Software packages created by the projec's researchers analyze information gathered by satellite imagery and field workers--such as reports on the progress of the rainy season, the development of vegetation, and harvests--and issues bulletins used by relief agencies to predict food shortages and to plan shipments.
Marian Mitchell, operations specialist, runs the Early Warning software on 386-class computers. Fieldworkers use NEC Pro Speed laptops.
"It used to be that people on the ground knew what was going on but the information did not get back to the States until there was a crying need for food," Mitchell says. Now, thanks for computers and the Famine Early Warning System, relief officials can have as much as a three-month lead on famine.
A Change in the Weather
Catching the lead on disaster is also the job of National Weather Service computers, which generate global and regional forecasts.
Increasingly powerful computers have improved the weather service's forecasting edge, which in turn saves property and lives.
According to Wayman Baker, deputy chief of development at the National Meteorological Center in Camp Springs, Maryland, in 1955 (precomputer), the weather service was capable of producing a reasonably accurate 1 1/2-day forecast. Today the weather service can provide a 4 1/2-day forecast with the same accuracy.
Using a Cray--the world's fastest computer--the weather service issues a ten-day global forecast and a 48-hour regional forecast every day.
When Disaster Strikes
Many lives are saved by the advanced weather warnings made possible by the computers at the Natonal Weather Service, but when disaster is unavoidable and lives and property are in harm's way, people look to the American Red Cross--and its computers--for help.
Computers used in national disaster operations are warehoused in three locations--Cleveland, Dallas, and Burlingame, California. From those sites they can be shipped anywhere in the mainland United States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and U.S. Pacific possessions within 24 hours.
This inventory consists of about 100 pieces of hardware: IBM PS/2 stand-alones, printers, Novell local area networks, and IBM 80 file servers.
The Red Cross has sent computers into the field for only three years, according to Armond Mascelli, manager of operations and technical support for disaster services. The organization tried using computers on relief operations in 1976-77. However, the process, which involved field workers traveling to a mainframe computer at night to process data, was tremendously cumpersome and was discontinued.
"Autmation for disaster was put aside," Mascelli says. "Then when the PC explosion happened, it was the right piece of technology for the problem. Portable computers with a lot of memory and capable of running large databases and applicatisons became useful for disaster-type activities.
"On the planning side, we use computers to try to anticipate where disasters are going to happen," Mascelli says. Using Conquest, a commercial demographics analysis program, the Red Cross pinpoints disaster-prone areas, such as hurricane-plagued coastal areas, and assesses what types of services will be needed in the event of a disaster. Analyzing demographics--income levels, degree of home ownership, age of homes (were they built before earthquake building codes?)--provides good indicators to gauge probable relief needs.
Although the computers are popular in the field, they cannot be used in relief operations where the environment is too hostile for computers, such as when Hurricane-Hugo knocked out power on whole islands.
While the American Red Cross is the first to use computers extensively in disaster services. Red Cross societies around the world are watching this high-tech experiment closely.
Computers also help run Red Cross blood services. In the Washington, D.C., headquarters and 52 local centers they perform functions from day-today donor operations to donor deferral (an updated list of disqualified donors) and rare-donor registry.
The rare-donor registry tracks more than 11,000 donors with rare blood types. When a pregnant woman with a very rare blood type in England required a blood transfusion at delivery, a computer search found a matching donor in Michigan in just hours.
In day-to-day operations, computers are used to record medical history of donors as well as the test results of every unit of blood, information on which hospital received the unit, and what components were made from it.
Elizabeth Hall, a spokesperson for blood services at the Red Cross, says this is not a simple chore. In the United States the Red Cross collects 20,000 donations of blood per day--that's six million units of blood a year. From these, fifteen million blood components are transfused into as many as four million patients.
"We have gone from manual entry at every level to completely automated systems where testing equipment sends messages to the central computer in the blood bank so they can never be recorded wrong," Hall says.
The accomplishments of the Red Cross are even more impressive when you realize that it struggles along with a mishmash of computer systems. Hall notes that each donor center has different software and hardware. And so the Red Cross has set a lofty goal: By December 1993, every donor center and Red Cross facility in the country will be online with one national computer system. The budget for the entire program is estimated at $120 million.
Critics aren't sure the American Red Cross can pull off this daring computer project. But if it does, it will be a giant technological step for mankind and certainly worthy of a Christmas carol.