Even Satellites Lacked Sufficient Reach

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

Strong Angel II had run on a free wireless network, connected by satellite to the Internet. Something like that would have been very useful in Banda Aceh. In fact, the French organization Telecoms Sans Frontiers (Telecommunications Without Borders) was trying to set it up, but the satellite connection it shared was limited to the bandwidth of a dial-up modem.

The U.N. was having its own problems establishing a high-bandwidth satellite connection.

One problem, Snoad says, was that communications kits for rapid deployment were optimized to work with the satellites over Africa, where the U.N. has seen the most frequent humanitarian emergencies in recent years. The kits were not adjusted for satellites hovering above the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, the U.S. had brought plenty of bandwidth ashore, but it was not the kind of bandwidth that could be shared with outsiders.

Limited to a single military transport plane for his gear, the Marine Corps officer setting up the onshore network brought communications equipment that supported the military's classified Internet protocol network, SIPRNet—which is only meant to create a secure, private network.

No one could fault him for following standard operating procedures, Engle says, since maximum security is the military's default mode. But one recommendation he made upon his return was that the military develop a different "fly-away kit" of network equipment for use in humanitarian operations, where information sharing is more important.

"Other than food and water, communications infrastructure should be one of the first things considered," he wrote in his preliminary report to the Pentagon on Feb. 16.

Back on Jan. 8, when the observer team stopped at the joint command center in Utapao, Thailand, en route to Indonesia, Engle was struck by the lack of what the military calls "situational awareness."

Generally, that refers to a military commander's understanding of what is happening on a battlefield, based on the information available at a particular moment. For example, the Navy uses its WebCOP software to give its crews a "common operational picture" from wherever they are, through a Web browser. The system constantly updates maps of a given region, superimposing locations of friendly and enemy forces, to help commanders make better decisions.

A humanitarian mission ideally would have a common operational picture of where food, water, transport planes and trucks are, and where they needed to go. What Engle instead saw at this military command center was a single PowerPoint slide. Projected on the wall was the status of available transport aircraft, among other items. But the data was static, not updated on the spot.

"I would have expected more, frankly," Engle says.

But the U.S. military's battlefield collaboration and decision-support tools aren't well suited to a humanitarian operation, where information needs to be shared broadly. Tools like WebCOP are designed for use in command centers with high-bandwidth networks, whereas the ideal situational awareness tool for a humanitarian operation would be accessible to team leaders in the field with only sketchy network access.

This was essentially what the Strong Angel team tried to construct in Groove Virtual Office, and which Rasmussen and his collaborators from Groove transformed into a virtual emergency operations center after the tsunami.

Next page: Groove: The Humanitarian Tool

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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