As an institution, IBM has made it a priority throughout its history to provide emergency support in response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises while also advancing the fundamental science behind understanding, preparing for and responding to such events. To this end, the company has harnessed its technology and talent to develop novel systems, solutions and alliances that can help predict events, save lives and accelerate recovery.
IBMers are particularly well-suited to aid in disaster scenarios. With hundreds of thousands of employees spread across 170 countries, there are invariably many IBMers nearby wherever disaster strikes. And a spirit of humanitarianism was ingrained in the corporate culture early on. In 1914, the first year Thomas J. Watson Sr. joined the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, the predecessor to IBM, the company donated funds to more than 20 charities. One of the first grants went to the American Red Cross to help relocate refugees from World War I. In 1929, Watson began imploring IBMers to “strive to be outstanding citizens of your community and of your country.”
IBMers have repeatedly and consistently responded to that charge by rushing to help those in need. Over several decades, IBM employees have continued the legacy of helping clients, fellow employees and community members during crises, whether it was during fires (Van Nuys, California, 1967), hurricanes (Corpus Christi, 1970), floods (Kansas City, 1977) or earthquakes (San Francisco, 1988).
In the 1990s, the company formally established global disaster relief efforts. In 1993, it started a global volunteer and service network now known as IBM Volunteers to help employees find volunteer opportunities, training and resources related to disaster preparedness and response. The combination of dedicated and compassionate employees, innovative thinking and an enduring sense of corporate responsibility has enabled IBM to have a dramatic impact around the world. The company’s disaster response program, initiated in 2001, has provided aid during more than 80 crises through employee giving, Call for Code and IBM Service Corps.
Following the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, IBM established a wireless network at Ground Zero after all cell phone access had been destroyed. The company also created a database for the major aid organizations to help avoid duplication of efforts or fraud, and to facilitate getting all available and appropriate aid to the families of victims. The company further pledged USD 5 million in technology, services and cash to support relief and recovery efforts.
IBM helped establish the September 11th Fund, which issued grants to individuals and small businesses affected by the terrorist attacks. The company provided call center support and highly secure online capacity for contributions during the historic all-stations telethon, which raised USD 120 million in its first 20 hours and more than USD 500 million overall.
To facilitate communications, the company donated hundreds of IBM laptops and other computers to the New York City Mayor’s Office, the National Guard, the American Red Cross and the Disaster Assistance Service Center (DASC). According to the Ford Foundation report, Responding to the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks: Lessons from Relief and Recovery in New York City, IBM also donated personnel to digitize information on affected families, and that information was used to create an ad hoc system to empower the DASC. This system became the basis for the 9/11 United Services Group, a consortium of 13 major social services organizations.
On the morning of December 26, 2004, an undersea megathrust earthquake measuring 9.1 in magnitude occurred off the coast of Indonesia, in the Indian Ocean. A few hours later, 30-meter waves surged far past coastlines in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, washing away buildings, cars and people. An estimated 230,000 people would lose their lives; more than 1.5 million others would be displaced from their homes.
IBMers mobilized to help across the region. In India, employees collected more than eight tons of food, clothing, blankets and medicines for the Red Cross. They developed applications to track and create ID cards for victims and to monitor the distribution of relief materials. In Thailand, IBMers built a website to provide updates from government agencies. In Indonesia, the company developed the Aceh Disaster Management System, established a wireless network and donated four servers, 275 ThinkPad notebook computers and other hardware to run the application. In two months, it collected International Displaced Person registrations for more than 150,000 people. In Sri Lanka, IBMers collaborated with volunteer developers to create a free, open-source disaster management system called Sahana. The software, now governed by the Sahana Software Foundation and often referred to as “disaster relief in a box,” was used to track missing and displaced persons in refugee camps and to formulate plans for rebuilding.
“There were clearly major logistics challenges in getting food, drinking water and supplies to remote areas,” said Brent Woodworth, former leader of the IBM Crisis Response Team. “Communications were highly disrupted because the tsunami had destroyed major portions of the lifeline infrastructure.”
All told, IBM contributed more than USD 3.2 million to relief efforts — including the dedication of some 700 employees — and helped locate more than 40,000 missing children. Six years later in Chile, in the wake of the massive 2010 earthquake, the company used the Sahana platform, along with IBM-donated servers, notebook computers and software, to transform the basement of the Chilean Red Cross building into a Smarter Command Center.
Natural disasters don’t just pose immediate dangers. They can hamper local economies for years. Many IBMers have the type of technical talents that can help people get back on their feet. After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, more than 400 IBMers volunteered for cleanup and housing rehab in the city of New Orleans. “To say they are traumatized is a feeble understatement. They look like they are in a daze. Now they are in an apartment complex but without food, nothing to lie on or cover with,” said Bobbi Brown-Alexander, IBM Global Services, of her efforts to help Katrina refugees find stability after some were relocated to Dallas. “It is just unimaginable, and the stories are heartbreaking.” The company also developed the Jobs4Recovery website, joining with the US Chamber of Commerce to connect post-Katrina job seekers with employment opportunities.
IBM has used its technology to assist in emergencies as well. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, the company collaborated to create an innovative solution to help people deal with hurricanes and other disasters in Florida. Through a pro bono Impact Grant, IBM used Cognitive Automated Response Learning Agent (CARLA) technology to create a virtual agent (chatbot) to augment 2-1-1 services. The company has activated the developer community as well. In the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017, the company’s Call for Code hackathon brought together developers from 156 nations to build technology to help communities prepare for and recover from disasters. IBM committed USD 30 million to the five-year Call for Code Global Initiative, to deliver open-source solutions in local communities around the world. IBM produced a documentary titled Code and Response to highlight the heroic efforts of IBMers and partners in this effort.
Call for Code winners have included:
Each winning team receives USD 200,000 and support from IBM Service Corps, technical experts and ecosystem partners to incubate, test and deploy their solution.
In the winter of 2019-20, the COVID-19 pandemic set off a catastrophe of historic proportions, resulting in millions of deaths around the globe and causing health and economic effects that will be felt and studied for decades. IBM provided several categories of assistance to government and healthcare workers seeking to better understand the disease, track its spread and find cures.
In partnership with the White House and the US Department of Energy, IBM created the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium of technology companies and universities to provide researchers free access to more than 600 petaflops of computing capacity. Projects included modeling COVID-19 variants of concern, simulating the removal, via ventilation and air cleaning, of aerosolized saliva infected with the virus, and understanding hospital strain by predicting the number of ICU beds available to people sick with the virus.
IBM also launched the COVID-19 Design Challenge to help educate the masses to support affected people and their families and even mitigate spread. Spearheaded by the World Design Organization, IBM Design and Design for America, the effort rallied 225 designers from 33 countries. Their contributions included a campaign to encourage social distancing and effective hygiene, novel apps to optimize remote learning, and streamlined communication platforms to help senior citizens stay connected with their families and receive greater support.
Fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and pandemics may not seem on the surface to have much in common. But each takes a dramatic toll on humanity. And likewise, each has brought out the best in IBMers over the years — intelligence, compassion, grace under pressure, and a top-down edict to always strive to have a positive and lasting effect on the community.
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