One More on Katrina--the Emergence of CampusRelief.org

A little more than two weeks ago, many of us watched in alarm as the floodwalls in New Orleans breached and it became apparent that Katrina was bringing hurricane disaster on a new scale – especially on a new scale for colleges and universities. Never before had so many institutions been so seriously impacted by a disaster. (Note that I do not call it a ‘natural disaster’ as in fact it was the result of decades and decades of mismanagement of the Gulf environment.

But it seemed that the federal government and even the news media were slow to realize the long-term consequences of the shifting situation: Things were not going to be back to normal soon. So my boss at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), and I came up with a low-tech, short-term method to get higher education connected around this disaster; and I wrote my column that week about the need for higher education to “come up with a plan for an always-on Internet-based resource for assistance to institutions that have met with disasters.”

FEMA has for years pursued a Disaster-Resistant University program that had been previously featured in SCUP programming; but the program had not been aggressive for years and was always underfunded. There was no governmental site for higher education to use. I concluded:

We need a constantly-on higher education disaster communications center with links to knowledge resources, agencies and other institutions that can help, and an active subscriber base using email and postings to share needs and available assistance. The folks in IT are the people with the expertise and resources to build it.

Well, as things shook out, it turns out that plans were quickly underway to create just such a site. The first quality database-driven site up was the one from EDUCAUSE, but it focused solely on IT-related offers or requests for support. SCUP’s own (www.scup.org/knowledge/katrina/) list quickly had more than 1,200 subscribers and lots of offers flying back and forth, but our IT person was away at a FileMaker conference and we had no ability to database the offers and queries.

Sorting through Lyris-based email threads is a painstakingly slow way to find such things, so I developed a simple, hand-coded HTML page with an alphabetical index on the left-hand side which had same-page links to more complete information in the right-hand column or to institutional Katrina sites. As offers came into the list, I updated the web document by hand. I also took offers from the many other lists I am on – quite a few came from UWEBD (University Web Developers) and many from PUBS-L.

As you might have guessed, that sort of killed my weekend. What I had hoped was that the list would be a useful resource, which it was, but I had not anticipated the intensity with which every college and university would want to be sure its offers were on the list. So, I spent the weekend maintaining the page, and I mean all weekend, while fielding calls from university and college presidents and their assistants or public relations people asking that their offer be placed on the list ASAP. [All my phones go to my cell phone, even my office phone for which I no longer have even a handset, so I get work-related calls at the strangest times. The best was when my boss called me at 4 am to leave a message and I shocked her by answering live ?] Luckily, before the weekend started I knew that help was on the way.

First, I heard that during a teleconference of the Council of Higher Education Management Associations (CHEMA), that the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) and the American Council on Education (ACE) were working to create just such a centralized disaster assistance site as I had called for in my column.

Then, I think it was on Friday, I received a call from Anne Gross of NACUBO who told me more about the project and informed me that the first stage of it was being populated from the offers being sent to the scup-katrina site and elsewhere. What a relief! At least going into that hectic weekend I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sure enough, very early the next week, NACUBO and ACE flipped the switch on campusrelief.org and I was able to direct new offers of assistance and queries for assistance to that site. Whew!

Now, campusrelief.org is currently no technological marvel . . . yet. It’s still serving up downloadable Excel spreadsheets rather than through online interactivity, but it’s going to become what we need, and it is intended to be a permanent resource, currently funded by the graciousness of TIAA-CREF.

Later last week, we in the SCUP office in Ann Arbor participated in a teleconference, which included senior staff from a huge number of higher education association organizations, many of whom were physically present in a meeting room in Washington, DC, and others, like SCUP, at offices all over the United States but participating virtually. I am confident that what NACUBO and ACE are building, with support from TIAA-CREF will be what we need; and it will link to the more specialized sites from some institutions like the EDUCAUSE site; and the folks who do financial aid work.

It’s all very heartwarming, and all that has been done so far has been very helpful, but I read an article just today by Jennifer Granick of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, Open Internet, We Hardly Knew Ye, wherein she warns/notes that many of the current changes that government agencies and corporations, and others, are trying to impose on the laws that regulate information exchange

Some of her points:

What happens with access if the courts continue to rule that it’s illegal to access a wireless access point that is unsecure without obtaining permission first? D'es that deter victims from getting online whenever they can? In future disasters will we see people ‘looting’ someone’s access point for connectivity?

What would have happened if I had had to get ‘permission’ before taking related Katrina posts from various lists before including them on SCUP’s Website? I didn’t ask – although at least one other organization called to ask me, NAICU, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. But the folks creating campusrelief.org didn’t ask me for permission, either, and that was/is fine with me. That’s probably because they already knew me, but even if they didn’t, quick response to urgent situations must not be delayed with layers of permission to penetrate.

I believe, along with Granick, that “The law should treat the internet as open by default.” It’s all about having to ask permission, or not, and once again circumstances have made it clear that the internet works best when it is open and free, as Granick puts it, “a public resource rather than a gated community.” Something to not only think about, but to keep constantly in mind.

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