Wired Angels in New York

By Darby Patterson
Government Technology Magazine

New York City was nearly paralyzed during the hours after the hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers. Transportation systems screeched to a halt and communication lines became overloaded – even cell phones failed in the crush of calls. Thousands of fearful people desperately looked for loved ones and had to no reliable way to get important information.

In the middle of the chaos, Microsoft’s New York office looked for a way employees could contribute their expertise to help in the aftermath. According to Kim Daly, general manager of the New York office, four employees were scheduled to be in the Trade Center that morning. “Fortunately, all of our people got out,” she said, “including one gentleman who was on the 68th floor of Tower 2. We were incredibly lucky.”

And they quickly became incredibly busy. Forming a partnership with Compaq, Microsoft contacted the American Red Cross to volunteer their resources. The first assignment was to build an application that would allow people in and near the disaster to contact their families. It took all night, but four Microsoft engineers developed new software that was rapidly deployed to the Red Cross.

Compaq donated 225 PCs to the organization and Microsoft personnel unpacked, configured the systems, loaded the new software and delivered the ready units to Red Cross centers throughout the city. The custom software will also be available in the future, when the Red Cross responds to other emergencies.

Yet another challenge was met with technology when a Microsoft employee created a database of people who had been admitted to area hospitals. Because of the communication breakdown, families had been unable to locate loved ones who had been transported to emergency rooms. The new database was made available on the New York City Web site.

Another somber task was also handed to technology experts. The New York City Police Department needed assistance in expanding an application that could be used in DNA comparisons. Engineers improved the limited software that was being used, placed it on a server and made it available to multiple users on a Web site. Working with the Medical Examiners Office, DNA was collected from Ground Zero and compared with that submitted by victims’ families and friends.

IBM also stepped in with technology and talent. “Imagine,” said Daly, “100,000 people have lost their jobs because of this tragedy, so they need unemployment assistance. A lot of people are homeless and need housing, people need to collect insurance, there are all kinds of things.” The city had one service center that was overwhelmed with handling death certificates. IBM came on board, along with Microsoft, to set up another center that offered a wide variety of services. IBM wrote an application that simplified the many versions of forms that people needed to complete, and created a database that could be shared by several agencies.

Many technology companies donated their technical skills throughout the disaster including SAP, MapInfo Corp., Apple Computer and WorldCom, among others.

Most local governments have not been in a financial position to develop their own technical solutions to deal with major crises. Although New York City has been a leader in this arena, it still was not fully prepared to handle such an unexpected event. America’s technology companies responded and, sometimes literally overnight, created applications to address challenges that, prior to September 11, were unimaginable.

As the nation moves forward there is no doubt that technology will continue to play a major role in homeland security and defense, along with being a 21st century tool in disaster preparedness.

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