Most people who are familiar with Microsoft’s Windows Azure platform know of it as a cloud platform for building, hosting, and scaling web applications. Since it is a cloud-based platform it helps users save on physical resource costs, allows greater flexibility for online work and collaboration and the ability to get applications off the ground quickly. What few are aware of, however, is that the Windows Azure platform also has the capability of serving communities that have been affected by disasters.

How, You Ask?

Recently, the folks at Microsoft ,with help from public sector and nonprofit partners including TechSoup, have been examining and refining the use of an Azure-based disaster and emergency response portal. The portal would allow emergency response teams, municipal actors, and other community agencies to use mapping, social media, translation, and other tools for online communications. Users would have the capability to pinpoint and direct help to where it is most needed, broadcast important information, collaborate with one another, and keep up with the latest developments following a crisis situation.

Since the portal lives in the cloud there is no need to worry that a central server that is storing and processing this information would be or become inaccessible at a moment when time and information are of the essence. Residing in the cloud also means that the portal would also be able to handle large numbers of users looking for or contributing information. The flexibility offered by the Azure platform lets users customize the tool to suit the nature of their emergency and the immediate needs of the affected community.

Second Harvest in Japan

Second Harvest Japan’s use of the Windows Azure emergency response portal following the disasters that struck Japan in March 2011 provides the best test case for how this tool can be used. Using the Windows Azure emergency response portal, Second Harvest Japan was able to provide their supporters and partner agencies with information regarding food donation and distribution needs.

Although Microsoft approached its public sector and nonprofit partners following the disasters in Japan to refine the tool, their decision to do so demonstrates their commitment to making the Windows Azure emergency response portal a truly user-friendly and highly effective cloud-based tool to help any and all communities as they endeavor to respond and rebuild following disasters.