COMPUTER SAMARITANS

Out of the Earthquake Is Born  An  Electronic  Center  for  Data
Collecting, Rehabilitation
In the chaotic aftermath of the 1988 earthquake, the collapse of the infrastructure in Armenia's disaster areas & the disruption of communication lines had created a massive information crisis. Survivors of the catastrophe were cut off from the rest of the world, & the magnitude of the human cost - in terms of fatalities, injuries & dislocations - was yet unknown to the people & government of Armenia.
In the weeks following the earthquake, Voronoom (Search), an emergency communications center & data bank, was established by a group of around 200 young volunteers who had set about painstalkingly collecting vital information on the victims of the catastrophe.
With only rudimentary computer equipment & facilities at its disposal, Voronoom nevertheless managed to identify & locate some 25000 survivors during its initial phase of operation; it also published Hope, a widely circulated newsletter that helped people find missing relatives & friends.
"Very often parents would send their children to other Soviet republics without themselves knowing the destination; we found many of those children, too," said Grigor Vahanian, director of the center.
Bolstered by such an excellent track record, the Voronoom group soon decided to widen its scope. It obtained official recognition from the government in January 1989, & with an impressive staff of 20 electronic engineers, social scientists & cyberneticists, it put forward an ambitious program that comprised international information exchange, statistics, computer education & even software development.
Among the most pressing tasks of the enterprise was completion of an earthquake data base; the project has since been carried out systematically, & to date Voronoom has gathered information about 160000 people from the disaster areas. Concurrently, the earthquake data base has paved the way for a more ambitious statistical work: Voronoom initiated an extensive, analytical study of the demographics of Armenia that would encompass the last 160 years of the country's history. In their attempt to construct a comprehensive demographic portrait, Voronoom scientists had to grapple with many errors throughout the official records. The ongoing study, which has earned the organization prominence as a highly reliable source of historiographical information, includes such topical data as the number of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan who died in the earthquake areas; the number & situation of Armenian orphans before & after the pogroms in Azerbaijan, & analytical data on nearly 25000 Armenian refugees who fled the Baku massacres in 1990.
One of the most significant operations of the Voronoom program is a broadly interactive telecommunications service that can be accessed by radio & computer. Through an agreement with the U.S.-based International Radio Network, Voronoom became part of a vast network that provides direct communication with rapid deployment teams & authorities in 45 nations during natural or industrial disasters.
Voronoom's telecommunication services have had a considerable impact on the flow of information between Armenia & the outside world & within the republic itself. With radio & computer equipment donated by American radio amateurs, a hot line with Karabagh has been set up, thus enabling Voronoom - & the Armenian government - to keep abreast of the volatile political & military situation in the isolated Armenian territory. In fact, Voronoom has assumed a multi-faceted advisory function for the republic's democratically elected leadership.
Said Vahanian, the 37-year-old scientist who manages the center:"Government officials come to us for urgent information whenever there is a crisis situation in the republic or in Karabagh."
On a more popular level, Voronoom international links have been intrumental in the gathering of information about relatives & friends of Armenian citizens. And in early 1989, Voronoom's global reach was completed as the organization became an exchange member of various European & American news & information services.
Recently, Voronnom announced a rehabilitation plan for disabled & traumatized children in Armenia. With a view to establishing telecommunications between Armenian children around the world, the project intends to foster creative expression & mutual support through both personal & computer interaction. So far, Voronoom has distributed 10 personal computers obtaining from the Armenian Relief Society to various Armenian schools, & has designed its own curricula for computer literacy.
The organization has also been involved in software development. Voronoom's two main products - an unprecedented communications program in the Armenian language, "Hayas", & a desktop publishing system, "Hayk" - have sold by the thousands. Another software program, written by Voronoom's biocybernetics team, is designed to manage & increase farming & agricultural productivity.
The latest in Voronoom's flurry of activities is a computerized, on-line educational project of a truly international scope. In conjunction with Professor Paul Levinson, an American scientist & president of Connected Education, Inc., Voronoom is currently in the process of working out an on-line college credit program that would allow students in Armenia to earn bachelor's degrees from the United States. By Gourgen Khazhakian AIM Yerevan Bureau