Social Networking Stars in Disaster DrillBy David F. Carr | Posted 2006-09-11 Print
At Strong Angel III—a sort of humanitarian war games held last month in San Diego—vendors like Microsoft and Google set aside competitive instincts to piece together a $35 million computer network for aid workers responding to a disaster. One sc
At Strong Angel III, a sort of humanitarian war games held last month in San Diego, wireless networks, open-source software, mapping systems and technology mashups were pitted against the chaos caused by a pandemic outbreak and a breakdown of public telecommunications.
"Far before food and water and other things like that, you need communications—or your relief efforts tend to become so inefficient as to develop a degree of civil unrest," says Eric Rasmussen, a U.S. Navy surgeon and the event's organizer.
Rasmussen, who developed an interest in improving communications and information networks to support humanitarian operations through his work in war zones and disaster relief operations, was featured in Baseline's May 2005 cover story about his role in facilitating better communications in Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami (see Strong Angel Team: Unfilled Promise). He has also worked on improving humanitarian operations in Iraq and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Like the previous Strong Angel exercises, held in Hawaii in 2000 and 2004, this year's event was aimed at promoting more effective cooperation between the various military, emergency-response and charitable organizations that often converge at the scene of a national or international crisis.
The communications breakdowns that occur in those situations aren't always technological; sometimes, mutual suspicion between the military and humanitarian groups is a bigger factor. For that reason, Rasmussen often emphasizes the value of the "social network" created through the Strong Angel exercises, where individuals from the military and humanitarian groups learn to know and respect each other.
Still, the kind of breakdown in communications systems that occurred after the tsunami and after Katrina can make it much harder to collaborate, even when all parties want to. So, one problem Strong Angel III participants were asked to address was a situation where all cell phone and landline telecommunications, as well as Internet networks, were unavailable—knocked offline by a cyberterrorist attack. According to the scenario, this is supposed to have happened at the same time the crisis team was dealing with a lethal virus outbreak.
Strong Angel III put a greater emphasis on technology, partly because of the greater participation by vendors who deployed some $35 million worth of computer equipment for the duration of the exercise.
But Rasmussen says he was particularly excited by the work that was done on open-source and open-standards solutions, with the potential to be broadly adopted. "We're looking for solutions that are robust enough, accessible enough and, in many cases, cheap enough to be deployed in the field," he says.
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