Software helps Ottawa track Canadians stranded overseas

A set of case- and emergency-management software tools has helped Foreign Affairs Canada (FAC) track the status of thousands of Canadians stranded overseas in aftermath of the tsunami disaster.

Dubbed COSMOS, the system was jointly developed by FAC and Ottawa-based WorldReach Software Corp. in 1993.

After the tsumani struck, COSMOS enabled FAC to handle massive incoming call volumes, monitor the latest statistics and resolve most cases related to the crisis.

The approximately 90,000 calls received by FAC so far has led it to open more than 4,000 tsunami-related case files. Each “case” relates to an individual or a family that someone is inquiring about, according to Scott Corcoran, deputy director, emergency planning at the FAC’s consular affairs bureau.

Corcoran heads up the family liaison unit that makes contact with family members looking for missing Canadians in regions hit by the disaster.

He said FAC used COSMOS effectively following the 9/11 attacks as well as in 2004, following the civil unrest and evacuation of Canadians in Haiti, and from Cayman Islands and Grenada due to Hurricane Ivan, and after terrorist attacks such as the Madrid train bombing and bombings in Jakarta, Indonesia.

FAC implemented the case management portion of COSMOS in 1994. The software linked up FAC’s Ottawa officers with consular officers abroad and updated cases in real-time. Back then “the technology was a huge advance and it allowed us to communicate much faster than other foreign ministries,” Corcoran said.

COSMOS now includes several integrated modules, according WorldReach president Gordon Wilson. In addition to CAMANT, the case management system used for daily case followup, the suite incorporates emergency management and crisis management tools such as CONPLAN, a program that houses contingency plans developed by embassies abroad.

Other components include PMP, a passport management database that tracks passports issued abroad for Canadians who have lost their documents; ROCA, the Registration of Canadians Abroad database; and Communicator, an internal mail system for reliable and secure message transmission.

GENSEARCH – another component – enables users conduct a single search to retrieve any matching files in CAMANT, ROCA and PMP. This helps avoid duplicate or unnecessary files. The system also includes a special feature called Soundex, which searches for all names with a similar pronunciation, and helps eliminate redundancy, Wilson said.

EMSERV is a separate tool that FAC’s operations centre in Ottawa uses to log incoming calls. EMSERV is linked to COSMOS and, when used along with CAMANT, enables staff to capture, manage and follow up on individual cases during a crisis.

Corcoran said soon after tsumani FAC had around 40 people at its operations centre answering the phones at any given time. The calls, he said, ranged from inquiries about family members in the disaster area, to requests for financial, travel document or health assistance from people stranded overseas.

“EMSERV logs the information into various databases and matches it to other information in COSMOS. It enables our people look into the case management system, see what case has been entered” and all other information related to it, he said. CONPLAN and EMSERV were developed and implemented at FAC between 1996 and 1997.

Eighteen months ago WorldReach began developing a new crisis management tool, for now simply called Crisis, specifically developed as a tool to help people directly affected by the crisis. “This software came out of the experience and feedback we got after 9/11,” Wilson said. “It is geared to specialized use at the front end of a large crisis, where you might have tens or hundreds of thousands of calls coming in to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and you need a quick way to deal with that volume.”

In June 2004, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) implemented this newest module during its term as president of the European Union (EU). Although the Dutch presidency officially ended on December 31, the MFA will continue to coordinate EU response to the tsunami disaster. According to WorldReach, to date the Dutch have received thousands of calls that have generated approximately 2,600 case files.

In the U.K., the software is being used to set up cases and deliver assistance to hundreds of citizens and families impacted by the disaster, WorldReach added.

According to Corcoran, FAC’s tsunami statistics so far include six Canadians either confirmed deceased or presumed deceased. Seventeen people fall into the “grave concern” category: based on credible information, were in the affected areas at the time of the tsunami but have not been found. Meanwhile, 46 people are unaccounted for, meaning they were known to be in the region but there is no credible information to indicate they were in the affected area.

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