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Starting From Scratch

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2006-09-11 Print this article 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

Starting From Scratch

The Strong Angel III exercise was carried out at a former Naval training facility where participants from the military, international charities and dozens of technology vendors simulated the challenge of starting from scratch in a location with no networking or electric power. Their task: rebuilding basic communications and "situational awareness" of the crisis.

In the military, situational awareness usually refers to mapping out the locations and numbers of troops and tanks on both sides, but in a humanitarian crisis it's a matter of understanding where the greatest needs are and the locations of your supplies and transportation resources. For that reason, mapping technologies from ESRI, Microsoft and Google played a big role in the exercise, with the vendors working to show how their technologies could be used to display humanitarian data. In the past, Rasmussen has promoted Groove Networks' desktop software as technology that lent itself to crisis operations because of its ability to replicate documents and free-form databases, and particularly because of its ability to support collaboration between the users of intermittently connected computers. Groove founder Ray Ozzie—who's now a chief software architect at Microsoft, which bought Groove Networks last year—also encouraged employees to donate time to Rasmussen's projects.

At Strong Angel II in 2004, a group of volunteers from Groove came up with a concept they called The Pony Express, which involved using a Groove replication server driven around in the back of a truck to periodically synchronize with the computers of Groove users in different locations. But although this was an interesting demonstration, its practical applicability was limited by the fact that it was accessible only to Groove users.

But now that Groove is part of Microsoft, Ozzie has established a dedicated team that is taking a broader look at using technology to benefit humanitarian operations. The 2006 edition of The Pony Express put a Windows-based Web server, rather than a Groove server, in the back of the truck and used a replication protocol Ozzie designed as an extension to Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the Web syndication protocol. Ozzie's Simple Sharing Extensions (SSE) essentially makes RSS bidirectional so that software on each computer can detect items to be replicated from the other.

Robert Kirkpatrick, a Groove veteran who is now lead solutions architect for Microsoft's humanitarian systems division, says SSE can't do everything that Groove replication can do, but it ought to be sufficient for tasks like synchronizing records of requests for help and offers of help between the systems of agencies with otherwise incompatible technologies. SSE is good for handling structured lists of content, but not complex relational database data or large binary files, he says.

"In a crisis, people come to the table with the best they have, and there are always many different technologies in use," Kirkpatrick says.

Some of these agencies have fairly sophisticated systems for tasks such as data mapping, but proprietary data formats limit their ability to share those data resources. "The truth is, they need to collaborate with one another as much as they need to collaborate internally," Kirkpatrick says. So, they're intrigued by the possibility of using SSE to address that problem, he adds.

NEXT PAGE: 'Not a Competition'

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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