IBM and several Minnesota companies have teamed up to send 1,000 specially equipped laptop computers to Thailand to help identify tsunami victims.
The volunteer effort by Eden Prairie software developer Laser Data Command Inc., Anderson Cargo Services of Eagan, Northwest Airlines Inc., IBM and other equipment makers on both coasts came together quickly despite the New Year's holiday.
Dozens of employees pulled an all-nighter in a dimly lit warehouse to install software on the computers; test the laptops, fingerprint scanners and webcams; and box them up before they were shipped out starting Monday.
"You're dealing with a great deal of investment by people in time, money and personal sacrifice, and that all adds to the complexity of getting this done," said a bleary-eyed George Beaudin, chief operating officer of Laser Data Command.
His company makes software that will collect fingerprint and photo data of victims and survivors, store it in a database and produce a two-dimensional bar code that contains information from each person.
The undertaking would have cost millions of dollars, but none of the companies charged for its equipment or services, said Brian Anderson, chief executive officer of Anderson Cargo, which packed the computers for shipping and assisted with logistics.
"They needed something that was plug-and-play, that they could use on the ground," Anderson said. "You couldn't send all of this in from five vendors and expect them to get it to work over there."
After victims are identified, relief workers can use the equipment to help produce new travel and other documents for survivors who lost such items in the disaster.
The computers will aid in the difficult process of confirming identities, said Dhama Dhamavasi, consul at the Royal Thai Consulate General in Chicago.
The sooner relief workers find out who the victims are, the sooner their bodies can be disposed of, helping suppress disease outbreaks from decomposing remains as well as providing answers to surviving relatives.
"We don't have the facilities to put all these bodies in cold storage," Dhamavasi said. "It's very difficult for us to identify the victims, especially in a drowning. The bodies decompose very quickly in a tropical country like Thailand."
Beaudin said Laser Data Command jumped when IBM called with the idea of donating the laptops a week ago.
The company typically sells its PassPro software for airport security and health benefit card applications. It had foreseen identifying disaster victims as another possible benefit, but this will be the software's first use for that purpose.
Two Laser Data Command employees left for Thailand over the weekend to work with IBM officials there. IBM staffers in Thailand will work with authorities there to get the laptops to relief workers.
Besides the 1,000 Thinkpad laptops from Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. and the software from Laser Data Command, the project received 1,000 webcams from Freemont, Calif.-based Logitech Inc., 1,000 fingerprint-reading scanners from Redwood City, Calif.-based Digital Persona Inc. and video-streaming software for 100 machines from Farmingdale, N.Y.-based VectorMAX Corp.
Eagan-based Northwest Airlines flew the gear to Bangkok.