UC Berkeley News


In the event of an actual disaster.
. a new virtual bulletin board will help the campus take roll. It will also let community members send messages to co-workers, friends, and loved ones

| 28 February 2007

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, emergency-center workers initially had no way to track the whereabouts of residents displaced by the disaster. With the creation of the UC Berkeley Emergency People Locator System (peoplelocator.berkeley.edu), which rolls out this week, a major step has been taken to help the campus community avoid similar confusion should a significant earthquake or other catastrophe strike the Bay Area.

The People Locator - not to be confused with the PeopleFinder, the online campus directory - is a Web-based contact system that enables Berkeley's 60,000 students, faculty, and staff to post messages about their location and status that can be accessed by anyone.

Hurricane Katrina provided an object lesson, says Tom Klatt, manager of the campus's Office of Emergency Preparedness. Previously, if a significant temblor were to strike here, "We didn't have the infrastructure or the staff ability or the knowledge to know where all 32,000 of our students might be - whether they were okay, whether they were available to return to school, or how they could be reached."

Klatt began seriously to consider the possible consequences of such a situation after reading about the work of John Radke, an associate professor of environmental planning and geographic information science, who had helped develop a sophisticated online data-organizing tool to assist in the Katrina search-and-recovery effort. Radke's virtual bulletin board enabled people with Web access to update their status (or that of someone about whom they were concerned) on a missing-persons page. Emergency-center workers matched the information they provided with records from shelters, hospitals, pharmacies, census data, and personal addresses to help search-and-rescue teams locate thousands of stranded and missing persons.

How does it work?

Klatt saw that Radke's Web tool could be replicated at Berkeley. A modest $15,000 budget covered hardware costs. A team of units across campus - Student Affairs, Information Services and Technology, Business Resumption, e-Berkeley, Disaster Resistant University Initiative, Human Resources, Public Affairs, and the Office of the Registrar - donated their expertise and time to the project.

The resulting tool is easy to use. When someone wishing to post to the People Locator accesses the site, they need only enter their CalNet ID and password to verify their identity. They then can post messages for loved ones or colleagues; in addition, a pull-down menu lets users indicate whether they are available to return to work or school.

Anyone - including parents, other relatives, friends, and co-workers - can access the People Locator to find information about members of the Cal community. External visitors can also respond to posted messages.

The People Locator's architects made every effort to envision numerous scenarios. For instance, says Tom O'Brien, a programmer in Student Affairs who developed the system, "There are 15 people named Jennifer Lee on campus. What does Jennifer Lee's mom do when she's looking for her daughter?" If Jen logs in using her CalNet ID, her status is confirmed, adding credibility to her report. If her parents know her e-mail address, adds O'Brien, "it will resolve the ambiguity of names and a lot of confusion."

In another scenario, a supervisor could post messages to the People Locator on behalf of his or her employees. "We wanted to enable that proxy," says Klatt, "because people may not have access to the Web. They may phone in their status."

Share and share alike

Part of the challenge in implementing a system like the People Locator at Berkeley is that the disaster most likely to occur here is an earthquake on the Hayward fault, says Klatt. When that happens, he predicts, "We'll probably lose our power, our Web servers, and our infrastructure."

To address that eventuality, Shel Waggener, Berkeley's chief information officer and associate vice chancellor of information services and technology, set up an exchange of server space with UCLA whereby the southern campus's computer facilities host Berkeley's People Locator, PeopleFinder, and CalNet authentication. (All three systems operate in real time and point to a berkeley.edu address.) "An application such as this must be available during an emergency," says Waggener. "We are leveraging our robust systemwide architecture by partnering with UCLA to mirror the solution at both locations."

While this kind of partnership between UC campuses is new, Waggener notes, other campuses have expressed interest in duplicating the People Locator's architecture, and plan to create similar relationships. Even outside of the UC system, Stanford, USC, and the CSU system are "waiting for us to roll this thing out and give it to them, because everyone sees this same vulnerability that we do with a large student population," says Klatt.

It's not a major disaster

Klatt sees other applications for the interactive bulletin board. The campus Office of Emergency Preparedness has been planning for a pandemic, such as avian flu. If an outbreak were imminent in the Bay Area, says Klatt, "One of our strategic options would be to cancel classes and send students home quickly, so that we wouldn't get stuck with a high-density student-living situation that we can't treat."

Klatt saw another potential use for the People Locator when the war in Lebanon broke out last year. Had it been operational at that time, one student in the Berkeley study-abroad cohort could have logged in to report on the group's status, an easier option than trying to make international phone calls when much of the local infrastructure was hit. "You can use the People Locator for situations that are less than a major disaster," he says.

The importance of the new application becomes even clearer when the campus's former bandwidth limitations are considered. "Our emergency phone system has 10 lines and a queue of 10. We can handle a total of 20 people in our queue at once, so our pipeline for getting out information has been very small," explains Klatt. By contrast, he expects the People Locator will be capable of handling 30,000 or 40,000 hits an hour. "This is real-time self-service. Before the People Locator, it would have taken us a week to process 60,000 calls."

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