Monday, October 17, 2005

The Avian Flu, Business Continuity and Traffic Congestion

My 76-year-old mother frets about everything from the U.S. balance of trade deficit to the war in Iraq, from the spread of Hollywood morals to the spread of avian flu. The flu has been bleeping the brightest on her radar screen of late, and she has earnestly advised me to protect my my family by stocking up on Tamiflu and loading my larders with enough food to allow us to stay safe inside our house for weeks should a flu outbreak reach the pandemic stage.

I tease my mom for her chronic worrying, but the avian flu is no laughing matter. As an op-ed published this morning in today's Wall Street Journal has advised, the H5N1 variant of the avian flu has had a 50 percent mortality rate among the 60 or so humans known to have been infected. The disease is not easily transmissable at present, but given the formidable mutation rate of the virus, epidemiologists believe it's only a matter of time before it breaks loose in the human population.

A disease with a 50 percent mortality rate would be more deadly than the bubonic plague, too frightful to contemplate. The world would return to the Dark Ages. But even a one percent mortality rate would wreak havoc as millions of Americans seek to reduce their exposure to the disease. The best way to protect oneself, as my mom suggests, is for each family to quarantine itself at home. That would keep people alive, of course, but what would happen to the economy if no one went to work?

"Business continuity" is a concept that has gained a lot of traction since the 9/11 terror attack, and it was dramatized by the remarkable ability of many New York corporations to reconstitute their operations elsewhere within short order. It's a concept that John Vivadelli, president of AgilQuest Corporation, continually preaches as well. (Full disclosure: I publish an electronic newsletter for Vivadelli.) Richmond-based AgilQuest develops a software that allows workers to share workspace in the office. The premise is that employees equipped with cell phones, blackberries and wireless laptops are equipped to work anywhere and don't need a personal desk that stays empty half the time. The most commonly acknowledged benefits of shifting to a "distributed workforce" arrangement are improved productivity and the opportunity to reduce real estate costs. But business continuity is third benefit. Should an avian flu pandemic strike, a business with a distributed workforce could more readily reconstitute itself as a virtual organization whose workers were caccooned at home.

Vivadelli, many of whose customers are based in Northern Virginia, has focused primarily on business continuity in the event of terrorism. But as events in New Orleans so amply demonstrated, natural disasters can interfere with business continuity as well. Now, if we heed my mother's advice, we should add global pandemics and quarantines to the list of potentially disruptive events.

How does this relate to transportation and land use? Simple. One of the social benefits of a "distributed workforce" is that employees are equipped to work from home. The more they do, the less they're clogging Virginia's transporation arteries during the great commute to and from the office. I have argued that the benefits to traffic congestion alone justify state backing for a distributed workforce in Virginia. With terrorism, hurricanes and now avian flu omnipresent worries, the Commonwealth needs to take a more aggressive posture in promoting the distributed workforce.


At 9:27 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I think a distributed workforce is fine, but don't expect it to make much of differnce in transportation needs, maybe a few percnt at most.

Land use might see a larger effect as people opt for more space farther out, since they travel less often, they may figure they can afford to travel farther.

As for business continuity, we have seen that denial of service attacks and worms have taken down major portions of the system. A single point of failure can have wide reaching consequences for continuity of service.

One thing we don't seem to have figured out about disasters is that one of their defining characteristics is that, while some mitigation is possible, there is no realistic way to guarantee to save yourself.

While ordinary precautions can make your life more comfortable in the short term (stored water and food, emergency generator), those only work if your storage place is not destroyed. Anything that causes mass destruction is going to cause mass dislocation or death. Anything that causes extended disruption of normal events will cause dislocation, hardship, and death.

Not to say that planning is a total loss, but we need to be realistic about what is possible and what is not. New Orleans was first flooded in the first year of its founding, and most of what there was of it was destroyed in a hurricane 3 years later. Mudslides and earthquakes are endemic in mountain areas, particularly if they have been deforested.

Our cities need to have better planning, but he idea that mass transit can be used for evacuation, for example, strikes me as silly. What happens when you have several thousand people milling around Vienna Metro or VRE, trying to find a car so they can really flee?

In War of the Worlds, the invaders were wiped out by microorganisms, but the reverse outcome was just as likely. Some people foresee long term trends that suggest we are going to have to accept much less comfortable lifestyles, with concomitant social upheaval.

Whatever happens, the hardiest, least needy, and most adaptable critters will survive, up to a point.

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Steve Haner said...

North Chase Communications (little old sole proprietor me) has always operated out of my house on North Chase Road (brilliant name, huh?) since I first enjoyed a brief period of self employment in 1993. But the question I always get is, where are you set up, where is your office? I can't tell if the look I get when I tell them is contempt or jealousy, but I do get a look.

Does it save me gasoline? Oh, yeah. I guess when I don't get the Bird Flu, I'll really get the last laugh.


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