Technology Wasn't the Only Problem

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

There are other ways to share files, like posting them to a public Web site. But in Aceh, the maps and photos were bottled up on servers aboard Navy ships such as the U.S.S. Lincoln, an aircraft carrier whose helicopters were being used to distribute food, medicine and other urgently needed goods. Only military personnel—offshore—had access to the most current information.

While on board ships operating off the coast of Aceh, Engle had been hearing similar complaints about lack of information sharing from Navy pilots.

Particularly in the first days of the mission, the pilots found themselves repeatedly flying the same "assessment missions" up and down the Indonesian coast for different relief organizations because the photos and observations brought back by one weren't shared with the next.

"While we were flying these assessment teams around for all these different organizations, we could have been flying food and water," Engle says.

In the meantime, Navy pilots swarmed the half-flooded soccer field, with seven helicopters doing the work of 30. Female soldiers, ankle-deep in mud, lugged 40-pound bags of rice, loaded them onto choppers, then turned around and did it again. And again. Only their muscles could speed up the relief effort, reducing each flight's turnaround time.

With a collaboration "space" and the network to support it, reports from observers could have been available to all.

"The problem was there was no such place, and no plan for that," Engle says.

At least Banda Aceh had a working cellular network, although it was frequently overloaded. Farther afield, where fishing villages had been wiped off the map and survivors huddled around campfires, even the cell phone wasn't an option.

Rasmussen instead had brought along a phone that operates as either a cell phone or a satellite phone, working with the orbiting relays of Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications of Abu Dhabi. In fact, he had brought extras, which he gave to the relief workers who needed them most.

That experience in Aceh reaffirmed for him that the "social network" between relief workers, doctors, government officials and military officers was more important than the electronic one.

Finding a single person like Snoad here, familiar to him from the Strong Angel exercise, let him make connections with other key players and get more work done than he could have otherwise, regardless of the technology at hand.

"Technology is not the point," says Rasmussen. "It is simply the facilitation technique."

A big reason he had come to Banda Aceh was to fill in the gaps of his wish list for information on what was happening on the ground; he had been collecting information from various relief organizations he met along the way.

There were no secrets here. There was information that could be, and should be, shared freely online—updated maps, satellite imagery, and aerial photos of the roads and likely areas where survivors might be found—but much of it was bottled up offshore, in the server rooms of Navy ships.

The reasons weren't entirely technical. Diplomacy often dictated that the U.S. release information to the Indonesian military rather than directly to relief organizations.

So, once Rasmussen managed to navigate the bureaucratic maze, he found himself acting as the highest-speed connection in this emergency network. He would fly out to the Abraham Lincoln, burn a CD with maps, photos and other key data on it, fly back to shore and share it.

Warner makes a techie joke of the experience. "What's the bandwidth of a kilo[gram]'s worth of CDs?" he asks. "Pretty good, but kind of bursty."

Next page: Even Satellites Lacked Sufficient Reach

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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