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Public Administration Code Release Communities: Dossier ONSFA

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Public Administration Code Release Communities: Dossier ONSFA
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Contact person: Mark Prutsalis, President/CEO. Sahana Software Foundation. United States.

Brief description of the project

Sahana is a web based collaboration tool that addresses the common coordination problems during a disaster from finding missing people, managing aid, managing volunteers, tracking camps effectively between government groups, the civil society (NGOs) and the victims themselves. Originally developed by the Lanka Software Foundation, Sahana's core operations directly pull from the Sahana Software Foundation's mission to “help alleviate human suffering and help save lives through the efficient and effective use of technology after a disaster; empower disaster victims and responders by providing them with the information they need to help themselves and others; build resilience and preparedness through training, education and the deployment of systems for managing disaster information in advance of a disaster; and provide a nurturing environment for community development of humanitarian free and open source software applications that support all four phases of emergency management.

The four phases of emergency management are:

  • Mitigation.Trying that the risks do not turn into disasters.

  • Preparation. Ciclo continuo de planificación, organización, formación, dotación de equipamiento, ejercitación, evaluación y mejora. Continous planning, organization, training, endowment of equipment, practice, evaluation and improvement.

  • Response. Mobilization of emergency services and the emergency team in the disaster zone.

  • Recovery. Reconstruction of the disaster zone to its previous state.

Sahana is split into three components:

  • Sahana-Agasti is the PHP based project that facilitates resource management and communication throughout all phases of emergency management by providing a turnkey open-source application that is reliable, scalable, extensible, and usable by both volunteers and professionals

  • Sahana-Eden is the Emergency Development Environment which allows the rapid deployment of customizable tools to support the 4 phases of the Emergency Management Cycle as well as Development & Environment projects.

  • Sahana-Mobile consists of the code base for the Android, J2ME, iPhone and other mobile platforms.

Internationally, Sahana has been adopted by national and local governments, including Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru, Taiwan, the United States and China. More recently, government agencies beginning to contribute to the project.

Target organization

urrently, Sahana is being implemented and utilized as part of a major effort by the Sri Lanka Ministry of Rehabilitation to manage all disaster relief activities for the Ministry, including the National Disaster Relief Services Center. In the past, Sahana has been used in Sri Lankan government by the Center for National Organization (CNO) in 2004-05 for the tsunami response; and in 2009 for assisting in the management of displaced persons from the end of their Civil War by the National Disaster Management Center and the Ministry of Resettlement & Disaster Relief Services.

Sahana targets:

  • Government agencies and jurisdictions at the national, provincial or state, and local levels

  • UN Agencies, international and local charitable organizations (NGOs)

  • Communities & disaster victims

  • Technology companies & software developers

Starting situation

Conceived during the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami (12/26/04), the system was developed to help manage the disaster and was deployed by the Sri Lankan government's Center of National Operations (CNO), which included the Center of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA). A second round of funding was provided by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). Aftermath of tsunami left people traumatized and waiting to be found or located family members. Aid groups needed to be coordinated effectively, requests for affect regions needed to be managed and delegated to pledges of assistance. Temporary shelters, camps, potable water, resources needed to be tracked.

Approach and proposed solution

Sahana’s approach to alleviating suffering the the aftermath of a disaster by providing a scalable management of information, efficient distribution of information, automatic collation and calculation (no delay for assessment), and live situational awareness (generate reports updated live as data is entered.)




Summary of technologies and project tools used

Sahana offers three core modules that maintain data of groups, organizations and volunteers responding to the disaster (Organization Registry), helps track and find missing, deceased, injured and displaced people and families (Missing Persons/Disaster Victim Registry) and tracks all requests and helps match pledges for support, aid and supplies to fulfillment (Request Management).

Other modules include:

  • Volunteer Management: Manage volunteers by capturing their skills, availability and allocation.

  • Disaster Victim Identification

  • Shelter Registry: Tracks the location, distribution, capacity and breakdown of victims in shelters.

  • Hospital Management System: Hospitals can share information on resources & needs.

  • Ticketing: Master Message Log to process incoming reports & requests.

  • Delphi Decision Maker: Supports the decision making of large groups of Experts.

  • Mapping: Situation Awareness & Geo-spatial Analysis.

  • Messaging: Sends & Receives Alerts via Email & SMS.

  • Document Library: A library of digital resources, such as Photos & Office documents.

Technology and other tools:

  • Synchronization

  • Web Services

  • Messaging

  • Localization

  • IS & Open Standards (KML, WMS, GeoRSS, WFS, EDXL., CAP)

  • Mobile Accessibility

  • LiveCD, LiveUSB

  • Portable App

  • Virtual machines

Community governance model

The Sahana has modeled its governance structure on that of the Apache Software Foundation. SSF is a membership organization, with a board elected from the membership, who in turn appoints the officers of the Foundation. Sahana Projects are managed by Project Management Committees (PMC), initially established by the Board of Directors, but then become self-governing with some board oversight. Two executive committees exist to address community development and financial oversight.

The role of the Project Management Committee (PMC) is to ensure that the community is behaving and governing itself in a manner that is consistent with the objectives of making Sahana a successful open source project. This includes operational, legal and procedural oversight on Sahana releases. The Foundation has established multiple PMCs to manage its projects.

Today the Board of Directors operates at the policy level, having established the bylaws and governance structures of the projects to allow them to dynamically progress reasonably independent of oversight.

Licensing include:

  1. Sahana-Agasti: GNU LGPL v2.1, GNU LGPL v3

  2. Sahana-Eden: MIT, X, Expat License

Community operating model

The SHS development community operates on a meritocracy basis, where contributors earn recognition through voluntary contributions, becoming code contributors and possibly committers before joining a Project Management Committee. When a contributor gains membership, he/she gives is now responsible for the health of the entire project. A developer community and a user community exist within Sahana.

New York's densely populated and highly developed coastline makes the city among the most vulnerable to hurricane-related damage. As part of the NYC Coastal Storm Plan, Sahana chosen for use in managing the evacuation facility structure necessary to house the thousands of evacuees in the NYC Metropolitan area.

NYC's Office of Emergency Management utilizes a customized version of Sahana, and upon review in 2009 opted to bring together a team of developers to further customize and optimize the software. Developer resources were acquired through a partnership with City University of New York's (CUNY) School of Professional Studies. Code and documentation of the CUNY process were contributed back to the Sahana community.

In another public sector collaboration, the US National Library of Medicine has developed a set of medical-related tools with Sahana as part of the Bethesda Hospitals Emergency Preparedness Partnership.

Model of knowledge transfer

Knowledge is transfered in relation to Sahana’s operations: local deployment and pre-deployment. Both situations require participation from Sahana’s internal staff or affiliates familiar with Sahana information protocals. Rather than an explicit or formal process, information exchange is customized to the location of activity. In most deployments, formal training sessions are provided pre-deployment by qualified Sahana staff to industry volunteers or IT employees. During deployment, Custom Sahana-Agasti modules, in most cases, need to be built to integrate current local software with Sahana’s software. This requires knowledge transfer between Sahana deployers and local technical support (usually government IT workers) within the affected area or country.

It’s important to note that Sahana’s deployments have been volunteer-based by members of the project, and in one case, by the CEO himself.irector general.

Training model

Training differs depending on the emergency/disaster, whether or not Sahana has a deployment similar to the current emergency or a partnership already in existence within the affected area that can be used in the deployment.

Immediately after the 2008 earthquake in Chengdu within Sichuan Province in southwestern China, three Lanka Software Foundation developers conduct a training workshop. Ten employees from IBM-China receive instruction in how to deploy and use Sahana. Initially, local teams in Beijing and Chengdu consisting of corporate citizenship, government relations, and technical professionals led in demonstrating Sahana to local officials, securing buy-in, and establishing channels to proceed. Then a large team of developers, language specialists, and others, including a team based in Chengdu, Sichuan, eventually took charge of the deployment effort in Chengdu.

Individuals can become familiar with Sahana’s operations and become a contributor by training themselves. Similar to most open source joining processes, Sahana recommends following these steps:

  • Join developer mailing list.

  • Introduce self and coordinate with other developers.

  • EReview documentation.

  • Review and/or participate in technical discussion for each sub-project.

  • Begin to contribute.


Official planning takes place at the annual membership and Board of Directors meetings. The Board is relatively new and there has only been one annual meeting so far. Sahana dedicates time planning through e-mail on an ongoing basis. Continuous planning occurs at the project level.

Tools used to create the community

Basic communications tools were used in the creation of the Sahana community. Tools used in the community, for the community, include mailing lists and IRC (internet relay chat). The question forum features in the developer tool Launchpad hasn't yet become as effective a means of communicating with people who have questions.

During disaster crisis moment, Sahana developer community had used Skype for virtual meetings, this action helped the internationalization of the software.

Change management

At a low level, software issues that need to be fixed during deployment are reported on both the user and developer mailing lists. Someone from the core team then takes responsibility for getting them added to the bug tracker. Patches can then be provided by the community to the deployers. Often new modules are developed for a specific deployment (e.g., the situation reporting module used during Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh) This code was returned to the community for consideration by the Project Management Commitee for being merged into the main codebase. Similarly, enhancements to existing functionality is often made during deployments to meet the specific need of the operational situation - such as the financial disbursement tracking that was linked to the DVR for the Peru deployment. Again, this code should be returned to the community for consideration by the PMC of being merged into the main codebase. On a higher level, the Board of Directors has empowered the CEO with typical CEO like authority to make most decision about the organization. Sahana’s projects each have their own project management commitees that are self-governing, so the Foundation and its officers and directors do not make changes about development.


Since its creation, the Sahana Software Foundation deployed software in 14 Emergency or Disaster Relief efforts:

  1. Tsunami, Sri Lanka – 2005. Officially deployed by CNO. Tracked approximately 26,000 families

  2. Kashmir Earthquake, Pakistan – 2005. Officially deployed and integrated with NADRA (Pakistan Government) to track all victims

  3. Landslide, Philippines – 2005. Official government deployment to track all victims, organizations and camps

  4. Yogjakarta Earthquake, Indonesia – 2006. Deployed by ACS, Indonesian Reliefsource

  5. Cyclone Sidr, Bangladesh – 2007

  6. Ica Earthquake, Peru - 2007

  7. Bihar Floods, India - 2008

  8. Chendu-Sitzuan Province Earthquake, China – 2008

  9. National Disaster Management Center & Ministry of Resettlement & Disaster Relief Services, Sri Lanka – 2009

  10. Earthquake in Haiti - 2010

  11. Earthquake in Chile - 2010

  12. Floods in Pakistan - 2010

  13. Hurricane in Veracruz, Mexico - 2010

  14. Floods in Venezuela - 2010


Sahana’s technological solutions help facilitate resource management and communication throughout all phases of emergency management. With their current features, including volunteer management, disaster victim identification, shelter registry, hospital management system, ticketing, geo-spatial mapping and messaging, Sahana has effectively raised situational awareness linking emergency personnel on the ground and victims of disaster with emergency resources and aid.

Key aspects to success

The following advices are to be taken in consideration:

  • Spend time to understand the target organization’s requirements and get them in writing.

  • Understand the problem first and if Sahana is a match and not vice versa.

  • Understand the IT literacy and vocabulary of your target audience.

  • Understand the security constraints of the target organization early in the process and match Sahana to it.

  • Understand the security constraints of the target organization from the beginning of the relationship.

  • Make sure beneficiaries have been helped.

  • Deploy Sahana on an environment comfortable to the target organization.

  • Deploy Sahana on a stable release.

  • Use bug trackers and capture change requests to prioritize and schedule tasks.

  • Clearly understand maintenance and training needs and it ensure someone is responsible for them.

  • Use staging servers and an update process for change requests.

  • Understand modern approaches to disaster response (Red Cross Code of Conduct, Sphere Handbook).

Lessons learned

Sahana was created in response to a disaster, and as a result, its community is comprised of open source developers from around the world in areas of deployment and pre-deployment. The community, then, is developing for the specific needs of victims or agencies involved in the effects of, or preparedness for a disaster. Consequently, there are lessons learned in both the community not involved directly with disaster management as well as with community personnel on the ground deploying Sahana’s software.

For pre-deployment stage:

  • Sahana’s meritocracy, highlighted in the community operating model, has successfully encouraged and rewarded volunteer contributors, and as a result, has increased community retention.

  • Inviting developers to be a member of a project committee increases developer retention.

  • Community outreach through academic programs and partnerships creates a steady flow of incoming developers.

  • Using well-known programming languages (PHP) allows even novice programmers to make significant contributions and become involved in the project and community more quickly.

For deployment stage:

  • Ensure you have a quality process in place to track and fix bugs.

  • Use bug trackers and capture change requests to prioritize and schedule tasks.

  • It’s better to have a dedicated team assigned to ensure delivery and deadlines.

  • Clearly understand maintenance and training needs and make sure there is a support group responsible for this after deployment.

  • Understand the problem first and discover whether or not Sahana is a match and not vice versa.

  • Take time to understand the requirements and get them in writing, which will help plan expectations and schedules easier.

  • Meetings are more effective in person than virtual.

  • Understanding the IT literacy and vocabulary of your target

Barriers encountered in the implementation of the community

None noted.

Barriers in the maintenance of the community

Attrition occurs as people change jobs, shift to other interests within the Sahana project (not uncommon with source projects). The meritocracy highlighted in the community operating model encourages and rewards volunteer contributors through being invited to be a member of a Project Management Committee. Sahana used to have "committers" but as they have moved to a distributed version control system (Bazaar Version Control), this concept doesn't really fit the development model as well. Eventually, people may be invited to become Members of the Sahana Software Foundation, which entitles them to vote for and to serve on the board, but it remains to be seen if it will retain members.

Community outreach through Google’s Summer of Code, academic programs like Humanitarian Free/Open Source Software (HFOSS), SahanaCamps and CrisisCamps, generate some interest in Sahana, with about 10% of the active contributors retained and therefore core contributors rotate frequently. There is a small inner core of people who have been major contributors for years. Many participate in the overall governance of the software projects but many of these are less active at writing and maintaining the code.

With the successful adoption of the Sahana software comes the concern of sustainability. The software will always remain free, part of creating a sustainable HFOSS project includes the successful and viable commercialization of a product with a service industry surrounding it. However, despite the success and recognition that the Sahana Software Foundation has already received, there has admittedly not been enough user adoption to generate enough demand for widespread industry growth; it is simply not being deployed fast enough. One of the factors holding Sahana back is the lack of a qualified service sector to support it.


Already stated in the Key aspects to success and Lessons learned sections.

Executive summary of the case study

Sahana came into existence through the collaborative effort of IT professionals in Sri Lanka and around the world to provide relief to victims of the December 26, 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia. In October 2009, the governance and management of this community based, open source disaster management software program, through sponsorship from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), IBM and the National Science Foundation (NSF), was given to the Sahana Software Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Sahana has been successfully deployed in 14 disaster relief efforts as well as 14 pre-deployment preparedness and mitigation strategies around the world.

Sahana is primarily supported through the donation of funds, infrastructure and resources from organizations in industry (e.g., Google, IBM, Sri Lanka Telecom IDC), government (e.g., NSF, SIDA) and the non-profit sector (e.g., World Food Programme, Lanka Software Foundation). By establishing onsite teams that train IT professionals in the disaster area, Sahana has successful integrated industry workers, government agents, volunteers and resources. This effort not only alleviates suffering for victims, but streamlines interagency communication and improves the robustness of Sahana’s software.

Drawing heavily from the Apache Foundation’s community model of a meritocracy, the developer and user community is directed by the Sahana Software Foundation’s Board and Project Management Committees. This governance directs Sahana’s three primary internal projects: Sahana-Agasti (PHP-based, resource management), Sahana-Eden (Emergency Management Environment) and Sahana-Mobile (code base for mobile platforms)

In general, governments around the world have benefited or may benefit from the Shahana software with no financial investment. As the project has matured, it has gained the confidence and interest of government agencies for permanent deployment within their Emergency Management Operations. Most recently in the US, government has begun contributing to the development effort.

The Sahana project has called to the open source industry to help develop at cooperative business model, one which supports the viable commercialization of a product with a service industry to support and sustain the project while maintaining its humanitarian principles.