Low Expectations Were Still Too High

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2005-05-04 Print this article Print

It's nearly half a year since a tsunami reduced the coasts of 11 countries abutting the Indian Ocean to rubble. Roads, bridges and houses still need to be rebuilt. Some relief workers think military and humanitarian organizations could use cheap, portable

If the tsunami mission could have deployed the kind of inexpensive but effective networking found on the lava beds of Strong Angel II, relief efforts in Aceh would have included:

  • Voice, video and data networks that could be installed in any improvised office space—or tent.
  • Wireless communications, linked to the Internet by satellite, and shared freely among military and civilian relief workers.
  • "Virtual" workspaces for organizing deliveries of services and materials that non-technical relief teams could create, on the fly.
  • Synchronization of documents that required only the occasional ability to get online.
  • A "Pony Express" system of communications vehicles that could bring network access to users, as needed.

Rasmussen wasn't surprised to find that few of the technologies tested in July in Hawaii had found their way to Indonesia six months later. But he still hoped to prove austere networks could make a difference in Indonesia—and, in so doing, improve future disaster relief efforts.

In particular, he hoped to test tools developed with the help of software supplier Groove Networks that could wirelessly replicate databases wherever they might be found.

After all, what could be more important than matching offers of assistance from around the world to requests for help? Or finding the doctors, logistics experts or other specialists who had come to the scene to help, but were not hooking up with the people who could put their services to use?

But getting into the Groove products was not easy.

Shortly after arriving in Banda Aceh, Rasmussen found himself standing in deep mud at a makeshift airfield that had been created out of a drenched soccer field. Forget communicating from one computer to another. With helicopters roaring overhead, just carrying on a face-to-face conversation with Gregg Nakano, the head of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), was difficult.

The DART leader, who had worked with Rasmussen in Iraq, was charged with supervising the distribution of emergency aid, primarily through private charities like CARE and Save the Children. But he faced the same limitations: He was limited to cell phone communications—no access to Web sites, no e-mail, no radio communications.

He was scrounging for detailed maps and aerial photos that would show where the roads were still passable, and thus food and clean water could be sent by truck instead of helicopter.

In the Strong Angel model, any member of DART's relief team or any other relief organization would have maps or photos on their hard drive, for ready access.

With Groove, members of the network can see designated files on each other's laptop or desktop computers. When any member makes a change to any of the designated files, other members' copies of the files automatically update each time they connect to the network.

Next page: Technology Wasn't the Only Problem

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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