Starting From Scratch

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2006-09-11

At Strong Angel III, a sort of humanitarian war games held last month in San Diego, wireless networks, open-source software, mapping systems and technology mashups were pitted against the chaos caused by a pandemic outbreak and a breakdown of public telecommunications.

"Far before food and water and other things like that, you need communications—or your relief efforts tend to become so inefficient as to develop a degree of civil unrest," says Eric Rasmussen, a U.S. Navy surgeon and the event's organizer.

Rasmussen, who developed an interest in improving communications and information networks to support humanitarian operations through his work in war zones and disaster relief operations, was featured in Baseline's May 2005 cover story about his role in facilitating better communications in Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami (see Strong Angel Team: Unfilled Promise). He has also worked on improving humanitarian operations in Iraq and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Like the previous Strong Angel exercises, held in Hawaii in 2000 and 2004, this year's event was aimed at promoting more effective cooperation between the various military, emergency-response and charitable organizations that often converge at the scene of a national or international crisis.

The communications breakdowns that occur in those situations aren't always technological; sometimes, mutual suspicion between the military and humanitarian groups is a bigger factor. For that reason, Rasmussen often emphasizes the value of the "social network" created through the Strong Angel exercises, where individuals from the military and humanitarian groups learn to know and respect each other.

Still, the kind of breakdown in communications systems that occurred after the tsunami and after Katrina can make it much harder to collaborate, even when all parties want to. So, one problem Strong Angel III participants were asked to address was a situation where all cell phone and landline telecommunications, as well as Internet networks, were unavailable—knocked offline by a cyberterrorist attack. According to the scenario, this is supposed to have happened at the same time the crisis team was dealing with a lethal virus outbreak.

Strong Angel III put a greater emphasis on technology, partly because of the greater participation by vendors who deployed some $35 million worth of computer equipment for the duration of the exercise.

But Rasmussen says he was particularly excited by the work that was done on open-source and open-standards solutions, with the potential to be broadly adopted. "We're looking for solutions that are robust enough, accessible enough and, in many cases, cheap enough to be deployed in the field," he says.

NEXT PAGE: Starting From Scratch

Starting From Scratch

The Strong Angel III exercise was carried out at a former Naval training facility where participants from the military, international charities and dozens of technology vendors simulated the challenge of starting from scratch in a location with no networking or electric power. Their task: rebuilding basic communications and "situational awareness" of the crisis.

In the military, situational awareness usually refers to mapping out the locations and numbers of troops and tanks on both sides, but in a humanitarian crisis it's a matter of understanding where the greatest needs are and the locations of your supplies and transportation resources. For that reason, mapping technologies from ESRI, Microsoft and Google played a big role in the exercise, with the vendors working to show how their technologies could be used to display humanitarian data. In the past, Rasmussen has promoted Groove Networks' desktop software as technology that lent itself to crisis operations because of its ability to replicate documents and free-form databases, and particularly because of its ability to support collaboration between the users of intermittently connected computers. Groove founder Ray Ozzie—who's now a chief software architect at Microsoft, which bought Groove Networks last year—also encouraged employees to donate time to Rasmussen's projects.

At Strong Angel II in 2004, a group of volunteers from Groove came up with a concept they called The Pony Express, which involved using a Groove replication server driven around in the back of a truck to periodically synchronize with the computers of Groove users in different locations. But although this was an interesting demonstration, its practical applicability was limited by the fact that it was accessible only to Groove users.

But now that Groove is part of Microsoft, Ozzie has established a dedicated team that is taking a broader look at using technology to benefit humanitarian operations. The 2006 edition of The Pony Express put a Windows-based Web server, rather than a Groove server, in the back of the truck and used a replication protocol Ozzie designed as an extension to Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the Web syndication protocol. Ozzie's Simple Sharing Extensions (SSE) essentially makes RSS bidirectional so that software on each computer can detect items to be replicated from the other.

Robert Kirkpatrick, a Groove veteran who is now lead solutions architect for Microsoft's humanitarian systems division, says SSE can't do everything that Groove replication can do, but it ought to be sufficient for tasks like synchronizing records of requests for help and offers of help between the systems of agencies with otherwise incompatible technologies. SSE is good for handling structured lists of content, but not complex relational database data or large binary files, he says.

"In a crisis, people come to the table with the best they have, and there are always many different technologies in use," Kirkpatrick says.

Some of these agencies have fairly sophisticated systems for tasks such as data mapping, but proprietary data formats limit their ability to share those data resources. "The truth is, they need to collaborate with one another as much as they need to collaborate internally," Kirkpatrick says. So, they're intrigued by the possibility of using SSE to address that problem, he adds.

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'Not a Competition'">

'Not a Competition'

At Strong Angel III, SSE was used as the integration "glue" to unite a number of systems, including handheld computers being used for data gathering, a Web portal running on open-source technologies—Linux, Apache and the Drupal content management system—and mapping software from Microsoft, Google and ESRI.

"Not only did we cross the civil/military boundary, but it was really cool to see the Microsoft team and the Google team working side by side," Kirkpatrick says. "And it did work—we now have some tools we both have in our back pockets to integrate our systems." "We enjoyed every minute of it," Phil Dixon, Department of Defense manager for Google's enterprise unit and the leader of Google's delegation, says of the time his team spent working with Microsoft. "We set aside what we do in the marketplace, which is compete, understanding that this was not a trade show, this was not a competition."

Rasmussen says he told all the vendors in advance not to treat this as some kind of technology bake-off. Instead, he told them, "We want to see how you can make your world-renowned stuff work with everyone else's."

Another open-source system that was put through its paces at Strong Angel III was Sahana, a Web-based disaster management system originally developed for use in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Chamindra de Silva, the Sahana project lead, said his participation was valuable for both the connections he made and some code modules that were developed during the event that will improve Sahana's support for public-health emergencies such as a pandemic.

This was the best Strong Angel exercise to date, according to Rasmussen, partly because "we're asking better questions" with each iteration but also because more military units participated this time, showing an increased recognition of the importance of humanitarian operations. "I feel a greater sense of progress this time around," he says.

"I think this is one of the most transformational things the Department of Defense has been involved with in years," agrees Linton Wells II, the assistant secretary of defense in charge of networks and integration, and the project's sponsor.

In addition to sponsoring the Strong Angel exercises, Wells says that the DOD has changed official military doctrine to recognize the importance of humanitarian aid and the goodwill it can bring, while changing its systems to promote better information sharing.