Anthony Doesburg: Quake's shock brings web team back to basics

By Anthony Doesburg

Tech editor turned to providing news sheets for embattled residents.

Vicki Hyde discovered that in an emergency, fear grows out of a lack of information. Photo / David Fisher
Vicki Hyde discovered that in an emergency, fear grows out of a lack of information. Photo / David Fisher

A sign that Christchurch - or part of it - is getting back on its feet has appeared on the internet. SciTechDaily, a Christchurch-based website described by the New York Times as a "porthole" on the world of science and technology, is once again being updated by managing editor Vicki Hyde, after a six-week hiatus.

It was a break during which Hyde and husband Peter were kept busy with things other than the website and web and software development business they run from their home in Augusta St, Redcliffs.

In the absence of any other local information source, they set up a noticeboard, then a printer on which to produce a news sheet, in the carpark of the supermarket - since condemned - at the end of their street. Without power at home, they tapped into a Telecom generator set up in the carpark to supply a cell site, which enabled them to operate their information bureau.

"Once we did get power, by nicking it from the Telecom generator, we found the web was pretty useless for the important, relevant local information we needed," says Vicki Hyde.

So they went back to word of mouth: with names, addresses and contact details of passersby, they acted as an information exchange for people trying to establish the whereabouts of friends and relatives; and from Orion workers based in a van in the carpark, they would find out which streets were due to have power reconnected, pinning the details to the noticeboard.

The Hydes' home survived the quake, but was without power for more than a week and water for nearly a fortnight. They also had to evacuate from the hilly eastern seaside suburb for 24 hours until given the all-clear that the land above their street wasn't going to fall.

Hyde's mother, who lives in the same neighbourhood, was also evacuated, but neither knew where the other had gone, and there was no easy way to find out, inspiring the Hydes to establish their informal information service.

"We spent most of our time trying to provide local information locally because no one else was."

Hyde says the importance of information and communications was one theme of a workshop she attended last week run by Crown research institutes ESR and GNS to assess the immediate response.

"They were particularly interested in what kinds of responses people had made, what worked and what didn't work, and what areas of research in terms of communicating risk and communicating natural disasters could actually help."

Her observation was that lack of information - easily alleviated through simple spreadsheet and email tools - "creates fear and uncertainty and dread".

"It does things like empty out a suburb because everyone thinks it will be months before the power is back on, or empties out a city because some idiot says there is going to be another earthquake because the lunar signs have told him so."

Hyde, a member of the Skeptics Society, took a public stand against "Moon Man" Ken Ring's alarmist prediction of a big quake near noon on March 20. With other sceptics, Cabinet minister Nick Smith and broadcaster Sean Plunket, she dined at the Sign of the Kiwi, a stone building in the Port Hills near the epicentre of the February 22 aftershock that killed 170 and sent her website into hibernation.

SciTechDaily was launched in 1998 at the urging of Skeptics Society founder Denis Dutton, who started Arts & Letters Daily, the science and technology site's cultural equivalent. Dutton died last year.

Both sites were in the running for Webby awards, billed as the internet's Oscars, in 2002, with fellow nominees Nasa Earth Observatory and the BBC. (Arts & Letters Daily won the popular vote, news category, but the Beeb was the judges' pick.)

Hyde says the quake narrowed her science and technology focus to "anything to do with geotechnical hazards or what the power situation was down the street".

And such was the disruption in the immediate quake aftermath, letting people know her fate wasn't a high priority.

"We were probably among the last of our social network to check in and a number of people only figured out we were alive because they had checked out our 14-year-old daughter's Facebook page."

SciTechDaily readers sent supportive messages, Hyde says, including one from a survivor of Hurricane Andrew in Kentucky, and another from a Canadian military research psychologist on coping in disaster.

And donations, which help fund the site, have increased. "Just knowing people are wishing us well and thinking of us is a real boost in these trying times," she says.

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist.

- NZ Herald

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