Dec 31 2009

IT Innovation in a Pressure Cooker

Simulated disaster creates an "extreme lab" that tests people and machines and offers lessons for agencies across government.
Photo: Paul Souders
“In an austere environment, you find out where the bugs are,” says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, a Navy surgeon.

When a disaster, be it natural or manmade, knocks out networks and communications, the most valuable person in the initial recovery effort isn’t necessarily the information technology expert. Rather, it’s the person who knows how to get the power turned back on — and keep it on.

But once power and networks are re-established, the immediate flood of communication may appear to traffic monitors as a denial-of-service attack, causing them to block incoming messages.

“When you turn it on, the information surge goes from zero to 100. Many IT people on the receiving end have only experienced this kind of explosion as a denial-of-service attack,” says Eric Frost, co-director of the Center for Homeland Security at San Diego State University. But it’s not an attack, it’s the pent-up desire of people in the disaster area to communicate with others.

Frost was speaking from his experience in Strong Angel III, a demonstration of military and civilian communication capabilities during disaster ­recovery operations. The weeklong event brought together ­public and private sector officials to test how well they could create effective communications and ­information-sharing systems in a simulated disaster. This is the third iteration of the demonstration, held in San Diego in August, and it attracted more than 800 participants from U.S. and international military, civilian and industry organizations, including academia. Among the companies that brought hardware and software to demonstrate were Cisco Systems, Google, ESRI, Intergraph and Microsoft.

Emerging from the simulated disaster was a plethora of lessons learned, including some exciting new ways to combine existing technologies and applications. Participants discovered useful tools for Voice over Internet Protocol communication, videoconferencing, obtaining satellite connectivity in hard-to-reach areas, and combining geographic information system products to create an effective visualization tool for tracking information, people and supplies.

“There are no perfect solutions,” says Navy Cmdr. Pete Griffiths, who helped plan Strong Angel III. “But in a disaster, you find that ‘good enough’ works. The key is to find those basic technologies that are good enough to get people the critical connectivity they need.”

‘We Need MacGyver’

During the demonstration, participants had to establish communications and a command and control structure during an infectious disease outbreak. At the same time, terrorists attacked their infrastructure, causing a loss of electricity, water flow and other vital resources. Consequently, unlike traditional exercises, participants started without communications, connectivity or power, and had to cobble together the networks and applications to create a necessary infrastructure.

“It was an extreme lab where we were challenged to make things of value through cooperative effort,” says Nigel Snoad, lead capabilities researcher for Microsoft’s humanitarian systems group.

Photo: Tim Tadder
“If you can develop the social network, you know who to call, who to trust and who to stick your neck out for,” San Diego State University’s Eric Frost says.

Not surprisingly, many industry participants discovered that not all of their products worked as expected. “In an austere environment, you find out where the bugs are,” says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, a Navy surgeon and director of Strong Angel III. “In some instances, people who were responsible for code either changed stuff on site or sent back blistering e-mails” to their companies describing the problems.

As participants worked to get networks established and create a visualization or command center that could share relevant information with participants in various locations, they were forced to integrate hardware and applications that typically did not work together as part of a single system. “People often were heard to say, ‘We need people like MacGyver,’ ” Frost says.

Frost was referring to the TV character Angus MacGyver, the inventive hero who battled villains and escaped weekly predicaments by fashioning ladders, lock picks, weapons, explosives and anything else he needed from available resources. In fact, Lee David Zlotoff, creator of the MacGyver series, which ran from 1985–1992, participated in Strong Angel III and provided insights into tapping outside-the-box problem-solving skills.

Beyond Unflappable

When responding to a disaster, you want “people who are good-humored, creative, able to use the tools at hand and able to clearly identify the problem that really needs to be faced,” says Rasmussen, who has deployed to 17 disasters during his career and worked in 35 countries, including Indonesia after the tsunami, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of the chief goals of Strong Angel, which was also held in 2000 and 2004, is to help improve cooperative efforts among military and civilian organizations. Although the U.S. military has a long tradition of providing food, shelter, medical relief and other humanitarian assistance following disasters, military and civilian officials, especially in the international arena, often struggle to communicate effectively.

Civilian organizations recognize that the military brings great strengths to disaster relief — heavy logistical support and vast experience and expertise — but many people still remain suspicious of the military’s motives and question its long-term commitment. “Nongovernmental organizations tend to think the military is self-interested, overly protective, and interested mostly in how it can make the United States look good or achieve U.S. goals,” Rasmussen says.

Similarly, the military often considers nongovernmental organizations and even some of its civilian government counterparts as “lightweight, unprofessional and incapable of effectively working on a problem to achieve a short-term solution,” he says.

So Strong Angel provides military and civilian officials a chance to work together in a nonthreatening environment. Most participants are actively involved in national or international relief organizations, and so the working relationships they establish during the demonstrations will carry over when they work together again during actual disasters.

“The social connections are extremely important,” says Griffiths, who helped install critical IT systems for first responders and local governments in Hancock County, Miss., following Katrina. “You develop the social contacts before a disaster happens, and then you know who to call when you need something.”

Can We Play Well Together?

Although this year’s Strong Angel showcased upwards of $30 million in high-tech equipment, vendors were strongly discouraged from trying to make sales or tout their products. The problems at hand require cooperation and collaboration among traditional competitors, Rasmussen says. “Participants were judged not based on their widgets, but based on how well their widgets worked with others.”

This cooperation was most evident in a visualization system participants created to provide a common operating picture or situational awareness. Representatives from Google, Microsoft, ESRI, Intergraph, GeoFusion and other geospatial information systems companies worked together to create a “mash-up” system using visual mapping tools from all the companies. The mash-up let their different products, such as Google Earth and Microsoft’s Visual Earth, interoperate and manipulate the same data set. The multi­layered map combined public and private data that could, for example, provide information about population and roads, and where to ship food and other supplies. What this means for emergency relief personnel is that a capability exists to transmit and share data even if they are using different mapping tools.

“In Katrina, there were places where we knew people were congregating and food distribution centers were being set up, but we didn’t know how to get to them because the road signs were gone,” Griffiths says.

One of the tools that worked especially well with Google Earth was Microsoft’s Simple Sharing Extensions (SSE) specification. SSE essentially enables synchronized, bi-directional Really Simply Syndication (RSS) feeds, allowing users to share real-time data from multiple locations and sources. Programmers from Microsoft and Google worked together to ensure that information carried by SSE would transfer to Google Earth.

Although innovative technologies grab everyone’s attention, the social networking that occurs at events such as Strong Angel III is equally important. Snoad, who worked on numerous humanitarian projects for the United Nations before joining Microsoft, says Strong Angel “creates a community that wants to work together going forward.”

Frost agrees: “All the stuff we do with hardware and technology is secondary to the social network. If you can develop the social network, you know who to call, who to trust and who to stick your neck out for.”