A brief history of Sahana by Sanjiva Weerawarana

An IBM colleague just forwarded to me a post by Sanjiva Weerawarana to the humanitarian-ict list that gives a fascinating and compelling history of the Sahana project, an effort dear to my heart that has been discussed in several earlier posts in this blog.

Since humanitarian-ict is a public list but is I expect not one that is very well-known I am taking the liberty of copying Sanjiva’s post here in its entirety to share it with you:


The recent message by Paola on the humanitarian-ict list has made me realize that there now are probably many on this list who don’t know how this all started. So let me take a bit of time to write a short narrative of the story of Sahana .. told from my memory and perspective. My
apologies if I missed any key people (I probably did :(..) and for any other mistakes in my narrative. I’m on a long flight so I don’t have net access to check my old blogs to validate the dates. If anyone is interested you can read the blogs I wrote during the tsunami to see the
gory details of the really early days; Google will help you find those.

Sunday, December 26th, 2004. Tsunami hits Indonesia, Sri Lanka and many other Asian countries. In the first week of the tunami, 1m people (or 5% of our population) was homeless. 2/3rds of Sri Lanka’s coast was affected in some way. Later on we find that nearly 40,000 of our people have died.

Tuesday, December 28th, 2004. Many different organizations in Sri Lanka start efforts to write various bits of software to help manage the disaster. (This bit of the story was repeated in other countries- India, Indonesia, Thailand etc..)

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004. Many of these folks get together at the ICT Agency in Narahenpita, Sri Lanka to discuss ways of putting the software all together to make it easier to manage the situation. That nite I called the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s CIOs office (after finding the phone number in a powerpoint presentation he had done
proposing developing a disaster management software system) and asked for whatever software they had. I was told that FEMA had no software that could help .. they only had software that was used to cut checks to people after hurricanes.

In the 3-4 weeks that followed, many many individuals, universities and software companies and Sri Lanka Telecom contributed to what became known as Sahana. Amongst the IT companies, Virtusa was the leading contributor with more than 75 of their engineering staff helping at some time or the other. While most contributors to the initial effort were from Sri Lanka, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the urgent support we got from folks at Tigris.org (which we didn’t end up using) and later SourceForge. We desperately needed a code repository and other infra (like mailing lists) and these folks willingly and urgently came out of their holiday slumber and got everything that we needed. Special mention also needs to go IBM’s Crisis Response Team lead by Brent Woodworth, who were then regular visitors to Sri Lanka. From day 1 that entire team supported, encouraged and cheered on the Sahana effort. In fact a good part of the initial development was done on 15 notebooks that IBM donated within a week or so of the tsunami.

This joint effort was organized and managed by the Lanka Software Foundation. In the early days we had a 24×7 operation and the first bits of software went into production use in about a week. Over time more and more capabilities were added and used in various ways. After about 3 months this initial phase was completed and the software and its deployment reached a certain level of equilibrium.

In the meantime, it became clear to us that there was a huge hole in the world of disaster management software. The state of the art that the UN team that came to Sri Lanka with was a system called SUMA- something written on FoxPRO. (Anyone remember FoxPRO? Yes, that was the pre-relational desktop database system from Microsoft!) IBM had some stuff based on Lotus Notes but it wasn’t easily deployable, scalable and, most importantly, didn’t embrace the Web. The tsunami gave us a unique opportunity to look at disaster management in the modern world: even though there was sooo much death and damage, the communication network was in tact. Cell phones worked. The IP networks worked. Land-lines worked. A modern disaster management system must work in a connected environment .. and if communication has indeed failed (as often happens in earthquake type disasters) its now quite easy to airdrop a box that sets up a local communication network with a satellite uplink. Clearly, there was a huge need for modern software that could live in this world and help first responders and follow-up recovery folks be more effective at responding and managing a disaster.

We were not going to let Sahana die; we decided we are going to make it into something the world can reuse readily. “We” at the time was primarily Jivaka Weeratunge, co-founder of LSF and its then volunteer COO, and myself. Chamindra de Silva, who had been one of the original people from Virtusa who started the people registry which became a key component of Sahana,
agreed to leave his job at Virtusa and take a 1-year position in LSF to take Sahana forward if we could get the funding for it. Chamindra became part of the “let’s take sahana forward” team.

On February 11th 2005 I wrote the following in a cover letter on the proposal we submitted to Ms. Asa Heijne, First Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Colombo along with a proposal seeking Rs. 8.548m (approximately $85k) in funding from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to re-do Sahana:

“Further to our discussions in late January, enclosed please find a proposal to further develop the Sahana Relief Management system into a fully reusable, globalized relief management system. We believe the potential global impact of such software will be tremendous and view this as an opportunity to help the world at a time when the world is helping Sri Lanka so willingly and widely.”

SIDA approved our proposal and Sahana phase II started with that funding on August 1st 2005. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of Per-Einar Troften in getting this funding- Per-Einar is in SIDA in Sweden. He and Asa have (with the grant of $100k to start the Apache Axis2 project and the Sahana grant) singlehandedly (two-handedly?) changed the role of Sri Lanka in the FOSS world. If not for their trust in what LSF was proposing to do Sahana wouldn’t exist in its current shape today.

I must also acknowledge LSF’s co-founder and then COO Jivaka Weeratunge- he’s the one who helped manage LSF and make sure that we ran a superbly tight and clear ship which made it easier for a funding agency to trust us. Oh yeah, Jivaka was a total volunteer doing all of that, as is the entire LSF Board. Jivaka was a key part of the strategy behind LSF overall and then both and Sahana as we took them forward.

I think the following paragraphs we put in the proposal about why open source was a critical component of disaster management may be useful for folks to read:

“Very few countries and organizations today can afford to invest a lot of resources in disaster management when there is no disaster present. While this is obviously true of poor, developing nations, it is also true of richer, developed countries as well because there are always higher
priority items that need the funding. Worse yet, even if there are some national scale systems that may get deployed, it is very unlikely that regional and local level systems will ever get deployed if they cost any significant amount of resources.

Because no one is willing to pay for the software, no one is willing to build it either. This is what we see in the world today – while disaster management software is critically needed, there is no complete commercial or non-commercial software solution that is widely available.
Going the open source way can address both these concerns. Using the open source development model, it is possible to develop this software at a much reduced cost compared to pure commercial development models. This is true because while commercial entities are not willing to invest into these systems, there are hundreds and thousands of well-meaning IT
professionals who are very happy to donate a few hours of effort to helping build such systems. We are already seeing this with the nascent Sahana project. Thus if there was a small team which was driving such a project, then it is possible to get a lot of assistance from the global IT
community to make those systems truly exceptional.

Going with open source approaches can also greatly reduce the deployment cost of this software in peace (i.e., non-disaster) times. The Sahana system, for example, can be deployed on any PC with just a Linux LiveCD (that is, a CD from which the entire system can be booted up and brought on-line). Thus, not only is it possible to run this on commodity, inexpensive hardware, it is in fact possible to not even have dedicated hardware around – just take any office PC and make that the “disaster management center”! In fact, that is how Sahana was first deployed in Sri Lanka – on a borrowed PC. (Later it switched to running on a borrowed
server as the capacity requirements increased.)

Thus, open source is the natural way to providing disaster management solutions.”

So that’s how Sahana Phase II was born.

LSF has managed the Sahana project (and charges 20% overhead on the human resources part of the budget to do it .. a grand total of Rs. 1.008m or around $10k for phase II) with the LSF board being the final authority for how the Sahana team was deployed.

For those of you who know nothing about LSF- the board of LSF consists of local software company senior executives (usually CEOs), heads of CS departments of the 4 main public universities in Sri Lanka) and a few other distinguished individuals. The board is not compensated and everyone participates to help improve Sri Lanka’s position in FOSS- not for direct commercial or personal benefit. We’re of course a non-profit organization legally registered in Sri Lanka. LSF’s finances are annually audited by Ernst & Young in Sri Lanka.

What LSF does is find the funding for and run projects like Sahana.

After the funding for Sahana from SIDA finished at the end of July 2006, we’ve received a few additional grants .. with special thanks again to IBM for both cash and significant hardware donations. Google also donated some funds for LSF/Sahana.

Sahana has of course been a TREMENDOUS success. Kudos go to the core development team (Chamindra, Pradeeper, Ravindra, Mifan and the rest of the gang) for producing superb software, the committed bunch of folks on the Sahana mailing lists (with special mention to Paul, Louiqa, Don and Gav) and to the numerous others who have helped with developing Sahana, deploying it or just talking about it. Special mention must go here to the efforts of the IBM Crisis Response Team in deploying Sahana in numerous disaster and pre-disaster situations. On the recognition side, the recent FSF Award is clearly the high point, being the second recipient of that after Wikipedia. The list of deployments of Sahana is absolutely incredible .. and now includes both poor and rich (richest?) countries.

In this context the LSF Board started thinking last year about how to best take Sahana forward and about the role of the LSF Board. We concluded that the best thing to do was to hand over “reigns” of the LSF part of Sahana to a new team of people who would be focused purely on making Sahana climb as high as it can. In doing that, we CLEARLY separated the successful FOSS project that Sahana is from the LSF managed work in developing and deploying Sahana. In order to further the FOSS project of Sahana, we created the Sahana Project Management Committee, modeled closely on the Apache Software Foundation’s model. The FOSS project and the PMC are purely community efforts- while we created the PMC, the future membership
of the PMC will be determined by the current PMC members. We bootstrapped it and now its off on its own. Good luck!

The board has been appointed by LSF and will take overall charge of all LSF activities related to Sahana, including budgets. Sahana Board members are all volunteers and we’re extremely grateful for their willingness to help take Sahana forward. LSF is the underlying legal authority for the activities that the Sahana Board governs.

The specific roles and responsibilities of the community, PMC and the Board were documented in an email I posted to this list earlier. See:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/humanitarian-ict/message/2674

I hope this helps people understand how Sahana got started and how it has evolved. Most importantly, I hope it makes clear the governance structure of Sahana and its intrinsically open nature.

I personally drove the creation of this model (in close consultation with a bunch of folks, esp. Chamindra, Louiqa, Paul, Don, Gav, Pradeeper and more) and I used my 10+ years of experience with Apache and other open source efforts to help create what I think is an absolutely open model. That said, there’s always room for improving the structure and activities-
make constructive suggestions and I’m sure the community, the PMC, the Sahana Board and the LSF Board will be willing listeners!

Sanjiva.

Sanjiva Weerawarana, Ph.D.
Founder & Director; Lanka Software Foundation; http://www.opensource.lk/
Founder, Chairman & CEO; WSO2, Inc.; http://www.wso2.com/
Director; Open Source Initiative; http://www.opensource.org/
Member; Apache Software Foundation; http://www.apache.org/
Visiting Lecturer; University of Moratuwa; http://www.cse.mrt.ac.lk/


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