Web channels cash to disaster zone

Several Web sites are helping people donate money to the victims of Tuesday's attack, boosting online donations to their highest ever level

In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center the Internet has proved a resilient communications method for people tracking their loved ones, and has also formed the backbone of international relief efforts. Within hours of the disaster, charity sites had special appeals running online with support, which have been receiving unprecedented amounts of money.

With its New York headquarters eight blocks away from the site of the disaster, the Salvation Army was among the first relief agencies to respond. It had volunteers helping at the site by 10.30am, while IT staff had set up a special Web appeal by the end of Tuesday.

Thanks to donated banner ads on major commerce sites, and links through from such established Web charity sites as www.thehungersite.com and www.mercycorps.com, the level of online donations is the highest it has ever been, according to Karl Larsson, Webmaster at the Salvation Army's international headquarters in London.

"The appeal has raised more in the last two days than in the whole of this year so far, excluding Christmas," said Larsson. It is too early to say how much is being raised, as donations by post and phone are also running very high. The Salvation Army will be one of the main groups spending money raised for emergency aid, said a spokesperson: "Long term we will be supporting single parents, orphans and people who have lost their jobs," she said. "Huge amounts of money will be needed to rebuild people's lives."

The Army was able to set up a special appeal instantly because of a central Web system hosted at its world headquarters in London. It has had online appeals for the last three years, but a new central appeals system was put in last November. Staff in New York could set up their appeal by simply filling in online forms.

All international appeals are hosted in London, and donations are accepted in all major currencies. An audit trail allows the Army to tell where donations have come from. While the Army says that most online donations come from the US, Larsson says the system will allow them to tell how much of the emergency aid came from countries, such as Bangladesh, which might more usually be expected to receive aid.

All the Salvation Army's Web site is built using Lotus Domino, and supported by a nine-person IT department. "We've been surprised how well it's held up," said Larsson. "It's been taking three or four donations a second."

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