|Disasters Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 33 - January, 1988 (PAHO)|
Electronic mail is a means for organizations and individuals who subscribe to the same network, to send messages among themselves using their computers and simple telephone lines. Information is transferred from a user's computer to a large mainframe computer, often thousands of miles away, via a modem, a device that converts the digital signals of a computer into analog signals that can travel through telephone lines. The information is then transmitted to the receiver's "mailbox" where it is stored until it is read. To read messages, or to use the other varied services unique to each network, users connect to the same mainframe computer.
Over the past few years, many organizations, including both international and private voluntary agencies, have begun to use electronic mail to disseminate information on disasters and assess post-disaster needs. In some instances, electronic mail has become a cost-effective solution to overcoming problems posed by other traditional means of communication - telex, mail, telephone. Information sent by regular mail can experience substantial delays in arriving, especially when sent long distances or to remote areas. Special delivery mail can be very costly to use. Telephone and telex services, while much quicker, have also become quite expensive. In addition, when those who want to exchange information find themselves half a world apart, it becomes difficult to arrange a mutually agreeable time to communicate. Thus, the advent of electronic mail and the portability of the equipment needed to make a network functional, can be a solution.
Yet for all the advantages of electronic mail, there are some drawbacks too. The hardware is expensive for many organizations who find themselves facing perpetual struggles to make ends meet. Often they will regard telex equipment as a more necessary investment than computers. Training, or lack of, is often another stumbling block. If training is not made readily available, many people who believe that one must be a computer expert to use electronic mail will shy away from using the system to the fullest. It must also be taken into account that not all countries have fast, efficient, and inexpensive telephone service and this can hamper the speed with which information is transmitted-one of the principal advantages of these electronic information systems. Thus many organizations are adopting a policy of wait and see" when it comes to making a decision about affiliating themselves with a network.
While it is impossible to estimate the exact number of electronic mail networks operating worldwide, below is a description of two whose activities include disaster management.
UNDRONET is a disaster-specific network being developed by the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator (UNDRO) in Geneva. It is intended to provide the worldwide disaster community with ready access to a significant body of disaster-related information. This includes electronic mail for communicating among disaster management organizations; a "bulletin board" facility that shows current disaster situations and international disaster management meetings and, conferences. It also allows users to search for UNDRO Situation Reports and peruse lists of NGOs dealing with disasters, consult bibliographies, etc. For more information on UNDRONET contact Mr. Charles Kerpelman, UNDRO, Palais des Nations, CH-1211, Geneva 10, Switzerland.
CARINET is an electronic mail network of individuals and organizations involved in the economic development of the Third World. This network is also involved in disaster relief coordination worldwide. Presently, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA/USAID) uses CARINET to report on declared disasters and exchange information with some 12 private voluntary organizations. This can, for example, include information about volunteers and potential donations to disaster-stricken countries. The main purpose of this exchange is to avoid costly duplications of efforts, supplies and expenses by letting all involved know what others are doing. For more information on CARINET contact Dr. Noreene Janus, Executive Director, 50 F Street N.W., Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20001, U.S.A.
Other international organizations also have electronic mail networks, although their primary scope of interest lies outside of the area of disaster management. Some of these networks include:
UNET is UNICEF's electronic information network. It allows subscribers to send and receive messages among themselves and to scan bulletin boards for news briefs and other information. Of particular interest is their electronic publishing feature that contains the full text of articles written by UNICEF staff. These articles include newswires and related feature articles; press releases; information notes; summary of the state of the world's children, etc. Because the articles appear in their full text, they can be searched and retrieved by any word in the text or title. For more information on UNET write United Nations Children's Fund, 3 U.N. Plaza, New York, New York 10017 U.S.A.
DEIN is the network of the U.N.'s Division for Economic and Social Information (DESI). It provides information about the U.N. in general and U.N. concerns, with special emphasis on economic and social development. DEIN provides access to daily news releases, and a weekly news roundup. Future plans include a calendar of U.N. events worldwide as well as information NGOs and schools, among others. For more information on DEIN write DESI Electronic Information Network, Room S-1061L, DPI-DESI, United Nations, New York, New York 10017 U.S.A.
PAHO is in the process of studying the feasibility of establishing a specialized health emergency network to disseminate information related to disasters. The decision of whether it is best to participate in one or more of these networks, or create a regional electronic disaster information network, will depend on the cost effectiveness of each approach and the ability to disseminate immediately the information that disaster-stricken member countries consider critical concerning post-disaster health needs, to those organizations and individuals worldwide with a need to know. We invite readers to share their views, experiences or comments with us.