Groove : The Humanitarian Tool

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

Groove was founded by Ray Ozzie, best known for creating Lotus Notes. Ozzie, now one of Microsoft's three chief technology officers after his company was acquired in April, wanted to create a new kind of collaboration software for workers from many different organizations, who might spontaneously form teams to complete specific tasks.

Rather than relying on technology staff to set up databases and file servers for shared work, Groove users can establish "workspaces" on their own personal computers and invite others to participate.

A workspace for a given project can be assembled easily from templates for sharing information and files, or it can be custom built.

Data is replicated directly on personal computers. Servers in a network play only a coordinating role. To save bandwidth, only changes to a document are transmitted over the network. In the process, the application encrypts (and decrypts) information so it can operate securely on public airwaves or land lines. No firewalls needed.

When Rasmussen discovered Groove, he saw a tool for bridging the divide between military and civilian participants in a humanitarian mission. He convinced Ozzie that his company should help adapt it for that purpose. Because it wouldn't be running on any one organization's servers, a Groove application would put everyone on a level playing field, Rasmussen reasoned. That would make civilian organizations more likely to participate than if the U.S. military owned and operated the system. Meanwhile, Groove's encryption made it more acceptable on his side of the divide.

Rasmussen brought Groove's software with him to the military's joint command center in Tampa, Fla., in November 2002, when he was helping organize a humanitarian response to the coming U.S. invasion of Iraq. He carried it with him into Kuwait and then Iraq in the spring of 2003.

Working over a long-distance hookup and across time zones with Groove developers, he came up with an assessment form to measure whether the Iraqi people's quality of life, compared with international norms for health and nutrition and other measures, was rising or falling. The form could be shared and synchronized by relief organizers after the U.S. invasion.

He then gave the form away to humanitarian workers who could use it, encouraging them to download Groove's free trial version.

The Strong Angel II team developed more Groove applications for humanitarian use, including an early version of databases for tracking requests for help and offers of assistance. Following the tsunami, Rasmussen asked his friends at Groove to assemble those tools and any others that might be useful into one package that could assist the relief effort.

Rasmussen got a chance to demonstrate the usefulness of Groove shortly after he arrived in Jakarta. He checked in at the U.N. command post, met friends from the World Food Programme, and heard about the trouble they were having establishing a satellite link to Aceh.

Rasmussen popped open his laptop and saw a green icon next to the name of Enrica Porcari in his Groove contact list.

That meant Porcari, who was both a Strong Angel participant and formerly a WFP field director for telecommunications and emergency operations, was online. Better yet, she was close by, working in Malaysia, just across the Strait of Malacca from Aceh.

Though she was now CIO of another U.N. agency specializing in sustainable agriculture, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, she knew emergencies, knew the region, and knew telecommunications. The gist: She had a lot of expertise to offer the WFP in Jakarta, and yet the food relief agency had no idea where she could be reached.

Rasmussen sent an instant message, got her cell phone number, and within minutes had recruited her to help figure out both the satellite networking problems and more basic practicalities like locating translators who knew the languages spoken in Aceh.

It took Rasmussen longer to find someone at the Jakarta command center who could sit still long enough for a full demo of the Groove application. Finally, he pinned down a U.N. logistician and gave him the guided tour. But before he was finished, his victim's eyes glazed over.

"He finally said to me, 'Uh, now there's Groove under here somewhere, right?'" Rasmussen recalls.

Looking at the application anew, Rasmussen realized he had pushed the Groove developers to layer on too many menu items and tabbed windows. The easy-to-use features of Groove, such as directories of who belonged to a given Groove network, were buried. The whole thing had to be radically simplified, he realized, if it was to get used.

Making apologies, Rasmussen retreated to his hotel room and woke up Robert Kirkpatrick, Groove's humanitarian solutions architect, in Boston, 12 time zones away.

Next page: Discovering That Simple IT is Good IT

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.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.