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Technical Challenges

Communication looks to be a major challenge as people displaced by Katrina attempt to reconnect with loved ones without the benefit of the phones we all take for granted. A couple of posts on this topic on Robert Scoble’s blog caught my eye last week. He points to a piece at Skype Journal where Stuart Henshall suggests “virtualizing” phone numbers. He’s asking for people’s old numbers to be transferred to a soft phone with voicemail. Great, but that would require Internet access.

Now, bear with me for a second. If I had lost everything I owned, Internet access wouldn’t be the first thing I would want to replace, but when I think about it, it would be pretty high on the list. When we moved into this house two years ago, literally the first thing we did after the movers left was stack up some boxes and set up our computers. We wanted to feel “connected” —and we avoided unpacking. Win-win.

Apparently, Internet access is coming to the shelters. The Red Cross is asking for donations of equipment and expertise to set up Internet kiosks.

The other Scoble post that caught my eye had to do with how Microsoft is helping. For one thing, their home page features a prominent graphic that links to a list of relief organizations. What’s more important is Microsoft is making a sizable contribution. I’m sure other companies are doing the same, although without the same fanfare. For example, my company is matching all employee donations 100%.

Besides cash, Microsoft is also helping out with technical support as well. Scoble reported that “Red Cross servers under extreme load” and that “We have more than 100 employees working on their infrastructure...” Not only admirable, but probably essential. You see, the Red Cross web site runs Microsoft’s web server, IIS version 5.0. Learning this, I was reminded of a story I heard recently from someone about this software. This person worked for a company with a significant ecommerce presence and, due to the nature of the business, experienced periods of intense traffic. During these spikes, the servers would overload, and the only cure was to have technicians walk around rebooting them. Perhaps that was what was going on at the Red Cross. I’ve certainly seen Windows servers go “deaf” to connections or have services simply stop running even under a light load. The only fix was a reboot. What’s more, most people baby their servers by having only a single process running on them. By the way, the ecommerce company switched to Linux which solved the problem.

Well, I don’t know whether those people were rebooting servers at the Red Cross data center or not. It doesn’t matter; they are helping, and that’s what counts.

I’m not a Linux apologist any more than I’m a Microsoft basher, but as if FEMA hasn’t taken enough heat, let me bash them for this. It was reported in a number of places that registering for assistance from FEMA required Internet Explorer 6.0 running on Windows. Sure enough, after you enter the “captcha” image, you are informed that “In order to use this site, you must have JavaScript Enabled and Internet Explorer version 6.” Of course, you can call to register, but sheesh.

This is at odds with FEMA’s help page, which states:

The FEMA Web pages are best viewed using Netscape 4.0 or above or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 or above (for Mac) and 4.0 or above (for windows). You can download a browser at the Netscape site or the Microsoft site.

Oh, right, they said “viewed” not “used.” Not only lame, but it’s probably some kind of violation of the government’s own Section 508 web site accessibility requirements.

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