Real Problems Tougher Than Planners Imagined

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

Within the U.S. military, such recognition is growing. In Afghanistan and Iraq, military invasions were followed by reconstruction missions involving the Pentagon, humanitarian relief agencies and the United Nations, designed to convince the people of those countries that the U.S. wasn't hostile to them, only to their former leaders.

Even before those conflicts, the military was participating in humanitarian missions with increasing frequency, says retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, who instigated the first Strong Angel exercise back when he was commander of the Third Fleet. He kept championing the idea that the military needed to practice for humanitarian operations, just as it did for war, when he went to the Pentagon as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, in charge of warfare requirements.

"It's gotten better over the years, but it's far from where it needs to be," McGinn says.

In the 2000 Strong Angel exercise, Hawaiian citizens were recruited to play the part of refugees, and participants in the exercise practiced caring for them while simultaneously watching for terrorists in their midst. Rasmussen had the contacts to pull together a diverse group of participants from the World Food Programme, other U.N. agencies, and charities such as the Red Cross, as well as the militaries of Australia, Japan and other nations.

In 2004, Rasmussen brought a similar group of international organizations together with the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps and the Coalition Provisional Authority for Strong Angel II.

Groove played a major role in that exercise because Rasmussen planned to make its software the centerpiece of the Strong Angel collaboration system, integrating it with a variety of other technologies, including the following:

  • TrIM, translation software for instant messaging developed by Mitre, a federally funded research lab. A version that worked in 24 languages was integrated into Groove's instant messaging system to create "Babylon Chat." Among other things, English- and Arabic-speakers could type and receive messages in their own language.
  • Geographic positioning technology, which could immediately identify on a master map the location of every participant in an exercise who called in with coordinates.
  • Low-bandwidth videoconferencing, using software from San Jose-based startup Vsee Lab.

Rasmussen and Warner also turned to technician Clif Cox, known for his expertise at setting up high-speed wireless networks at the Burning Man Arts Festival, known for "radical self-expression" symbolized by the torching of a giant wicker man. Cox and cohorts set up camp in Nevada's Black Rock Desert to operate what Rasmussen calls "the best austere environment communications network you will ever see."

Among other things, the Burning Man crew extended the range of the camp's WiFi network by taking advantage of the local landscape and setting up a transmitter on top of the Kauhola Point lighthouse.

The combination of Groove and wireless networking led to the creation of the Strong Angel "Pony Express." To make the network truly mobile, they drove around the island in a Chevy Blazer dispensing doses of connectivity to a remote spot with a directional antenna. Specifically, they used a cantenna, a simple WiFi directional antenna originally designed by hobbyists who used a foil-lined Pringles potato-chip can to focus the radio beam. In place of a junk-food container, they used a commercialized version, the Super Cantenna, which costs about $50.

These connections are designed only to last a few minutes, so the key to making the Pony Express work was the Groove Relay Server loaded on a laptop in the back seat of the Blazer.

The relay server, which normally runs in a data center, is the part of the Groove system responsible for storing temporary copies of updates to a workspace. Without it, the updates might not be available when other members logged in to receive them.

By the time the Pony Express would complete a circuit of remote locales on the island and return to the Strong Angel base camp, it had sent and received updates from all the otherwise disconnected users in the exercise.

Once it finished updates from workers at the base camp as well as people able to use the camp's Internet connection to synchronize information with workspace participants in other physical locations, the Pony Express was ready to start its rounds again.

Something like the Pony Express could have been useful in Indonesia, not so much for those in Banda Aceh as for the humanitarian workers farther out in the field. With roads often impassable, the delivery vehicle might have been a helicopter, but the general concept is the same. "There's a lot of interest in this right now," Rasmussen says.

The DOD's Wells says Rasmussen's approach is gaining currency within the Pentagon, which continues to advance "network-centric warfare" that provides better information to commanders in the field, as action takes place.

The Strong Angel approach is more radical, though, because it suggests extending the decision-making network beyond the military's own boundaries to include other organizations, such as humanitarian relief agencies. That would require changes to the codified set of rules that govern military operations, he says.

But recent events might make that more plausible. "The combination of the Iraq experience and Afghanistan suggests to a lot of people that the time is right" for making communications a fundamental part of emergency responses worldwide, Wells says.

The approach Rasmussen has been promoting "is now coming to be recognized as a valid mission," he says. "Instead of a few folks laboring in the wilderness, it's being recognized as a valid, operational thing" to consider cheap, easy-to-use communications as much a fundamental requirement of disaster relief as bags of food or carts of medicine.

Next page: Strong Angel Team: Basic Stats

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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