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Asim Khwaja: “The nice thing about computers is that they don’t go into shock."

AsimkwajaA while back I noticed this interesting site called RISE-PAK which I've featured prominently in my sidebar for about a week.  The site provides and gathers demographic, disaster, access, and assistance data and maps on all earthquake affected villages to help coordinate relief efforts. I had the vague impression it was run to of Pakistan, so I was surprised when Harvard Gazette article about RISE-PAK noted that the project was co-founded by a professor, Asim Khwaja, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. That's Khwaja to the right, as shown in the Harvard Gazette.

KSG prof starts earthquake relief Web site

As an urgent call goes out for relief supplies to aid those homeless and hungry from Pakistan's Oct. 8 earthquake, a Kennedy School professor is using cyberspace to get relief supplies where they're most needed. Assistant Professor of Public Policy Asim Khwaja, with collaborators Jishnu Das and Tara Vishwanath from the World Bank and Tahir Andrabi from Pomona College, has rushed to create a Web site that can help coordinate relief efforts. The site, complete with a list of affected villages and satellite maps, aims to ensure that places off of main roads and in other less accessible locations aren't forgotten.

The site, https://www.risepak.com, gathers information from census data, maps, satellite photographs, and other sources together with real-time postings from relief workers, government agencies, and individuals visiting the affected areas. It was created with the help of the World Bank, WOL (Pakistan's largest Internet service provider), and dozens of volunteers in Pakistan.  . . .

"People [relief workers] go to the most accessible areas. They may not realize that right behind the mountaintop there's another 60 homes," Khwaja said. "Our motto is 'no village left behind.'"

RISE-PAK's approach seems to me one of the most sensible on the Internet, in that it is very obvious to me, sitting here in Pleasantville, that people in rural agricultural areas must be having a terrible time. And following the New Orleans experience (also over the Internet), it is morally unacceptable to me that the world might decide that some of those in jeopardy just aren't worth rescuing. (I am also a fan of the Citizen's Foundation's plan, in collaboration with the Institute of Architects Pakistan, to build earthquake-safe housing following the initial relief effort.) So I had been trying to help get out the word.

I called him up. Asim Khwaja is this high-octane fast-talking intellectual who is at the same time deeply compassionate and respectful of the people he's trying to help. He had a good idea fast and acted on it fast. And within that context he was able to visualize a situation in which rescue would not be a luxury reserved for those in urban areas, unavailable to the rural poor.

There's also a nice piece on RISE-PAK in the Harvard Crimson:

Khwaja added that in the wake of a disaster, relief efforts tend to be somewhat disorganized.

“It is like a dartboard. If you blindly throw all the darts at once, you might miss something,” he said. “It doesn’t work. . . . You might get 10 to 20 percent of an area, but who is doing the rest?” . . .

RISE-PAK’s frequently-updated Top 100 Villages list provides information about the location of villages that need help and informs relief workers about exactly what is needed. The website gleans information from a network of villagers, volunteers, and student call center workers in Pakistan.

This kind of technology would have been useful in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when ordinary people wanted to help but didn’t know where to go, Khwaja added.

“You and your friends get together and rent a van, decided to buy some tents and some food. This website can tell you where to go and what to take,” Khwaja said.

Although Khwaja said the effectiveness of the RISE-PAK initiative is still unclear, he thinks that the technology could be used in the event of future disasters.

He said that part of the reason relief efforts are often uncoordinated is because people are in shock.

“The nice thing about computers is that they don’t go into shock,” he said.

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