Microsoft brings tech help to disaster zones

Tech giant's disaster response team brings infrastructure support to those dealing with earthquakes, hurricanes and pandemics.


If you are stuck in a long line at airport security, check to see if Microsoft's Claire Bonilla or a member of her team, loaded down with networking and other electronic equipment, is responsible for the hold up.

Bonilla is senior director for Microsoft disaster management, a small group of people that coordinates the software giant's support for governments and nongovernmental organisations that respond to disasters around the world.

In situations like a natural disaster that result in a complete communications blackout, a member of her team may travel to the affected site with hardware to deploy a wireless network that can be used by relief workers.

"When you travel with the gear, the minute you line up at the metal detector and have to start unpacking, the number of male gadget geeks that huddle around you and back up the line is hilarious," said Bonilla.

But what her team does is serious business. While Microsoft has always offered support for natural disasters, typically delivered by local offices in an affected area, it formally created the disaster response group in 2007 after noticing an increase in natural disasters and their effect on businesses and people, she said.

Bonilla has lead the seven-person group since its inception. In the past three years, the corporate team has been involved in responses to 34 crises around the world, including cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China.

The support that Microsoft offers includes technology and communications products and services and is offered free of charge. It can include supplying capacity for government Web sites that people use to find information during an emergency. Microsoft can deliver such "burst capacity" within about half an hour, Bonilla said.

Microsoft may also offer temporary free software licenses for products like SharePoint or Groove that help responders collaborate and coordinate their work.

In 2008, when it became clear that Hurricane Gustav was likely to be destructive in the U.S., Microsoft designed a program in advance. "We did proactive outreach to customers and partners in that area for days before landfall," Bonilla said. Customers were informed of a Microsoft customer service line that they could call for free support if they were having technical difficulties after being impacted by the storm. "Anyone who called in from the impacted area was guaranteed support and services for free for the duration of the impact until they were online again," she said.

In addition, Microsoft sent two local workers to the Houston emergency operations center to support the emergency response team. They helped deploy a SharePoint service hosted by Microsoft facilities in Washington and India.

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