Pentagon’s Social Network Becomes Hub for Haiti Relief
•By Noah Shachtman
•January 21, 2010 |
•7:54 am |
•Categories: Info War
After three years of development, the military was done developing a new crisis-response communication tool. All that was left to do was to test the new communications and collaboration system in its element—disaster scenarios. The test, scheduled for this summer, was a simulated hurricane in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Then, last Tuesday, real disaster struck, rocking Haiti and sending relief organizations, governments, and people all over the world into crisis mode. Money and people have poured into Haiti to help address the devastating circumstances.
But with much of Haiti offline, from airports to ports to basic phone lines, communication, internally and externally, has been extremely tough. Without the ability to communicate with air traffic control or relief workers, it’s been hard to gauge what’s really going on in Haiti, to communicate what is needed, or to make sure aid goes where the need is.
That’s the problem the military geeks at DISA (Defense Information Systems Agency) are supposed to untangle. DISA’s job is to make sure the military always has active communication and the ability to collaborate and share information, across borders and organizations. So they put their still-untested communication and collaboration tool, into active duty.
TISC (”the Transnational Information Sharing Cooperation”) is a new iteration of APAN, the All Partners Access Network, which was developed by the Defense Department a few years ago. Initially, the military was using APAN to communicate across borders, particularly in countries without sophisticated communication technology. Even in third-world countries, Internet connection seemed to be frequently accessible, so the APAN system was built to work over the Internet, to facilitate the sharing of classified files, as well as things like coordinating calendars.
The system is designed to be as simple as possible, and is as easy to use as a site like Facebook, says Ty Wooldridge of the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. It uses file-sharing applications, wikis, blogs, and calendaring tools, among other things, to coordinate information and action among people, no matter where they are. Though there are obvious military implications to that kind of network, its first battlefield test is ongoing, on the ground in Haiti.
Without another way of collaborating, the TISC platform has become one of the de facto standards for communication among the relief effort in Haiti.There are more than 1700 different users in Haiti, most of them relief organizations of various size and specialty looking for how to get involved, and to coordinate efforts to maximize results. It’s operating on a larger scale than DISA had originally planned, but it’s scaling well, says Jean Dumay, one of DISA’s leads on the TISC project. “The test came early, and it became very real, but we were ready for it.”
The simplicity of TISC is the reason for its explosion of adoption, and is a great strength of TISC and APAN, says Wooldridge. It’s also an intentional one: a few years ago, when he was in Thailand, teaching Thai officers how to use the military’s communications tools, he had them set up passwords including special characters. After hours of trying, one soldier admitted than none of the Thai officers knew what a special character was. “That was when we realized we needed a simpler solution.”
In addition to TISC, DISA is coordinating a number of other communications-related solutions in Haiti. When relief organizations come in to a country in droves, Anderson told me, their communication frequencies often overlap, creating a crisis even among those who brought their own means of communication. To stabilize the situation, as DISA is accustomed to doing for the military, DISA’s Defense Spectrum Office is now in Haiti, “trying to deconflict the electro-magnetic spectrum. These needs aren’t only for the U.S. military, but for all the NGOs to operate so that we can work together.” Super High Frequency communications are being provided to the military, in particular the US Navy ships that are arriving to provide medical care, security, and more.
TISC, one of a number of high-tech initiatives being used in the relief effort in Haiti is helping military and relief efforts alike, Dumay tells Danger Room. The applications allow for groups to communicate within Haiti—groups are using it to point out water shortages, direct gas trucks to where generators have run out, and more—as well as to report back to the US, reporting needs so more aid can be sent.
Haiti’s communication infrastructure, Anderson says, was essentially broken by the earthquake, and without a way to pass information reliably and easily, aid and relief come at a much slower pace. If it works, the TISC-type social network might become the disaster-communication means of the future, and make relief efforts that much more effective.
– David Pierce is a intern at WIRED magazine in New York. This is his first post for Danger Room.
Texts, Tweets Saving Haitians From the Rubble
•By Nathan Hodge
•January 21, 2010 |
•2:52 pm |
•Categories: Info War
Relief workers in Haiti received an emergency text message Tuesday about a collapsed school, with children still alive in the rubble. A search-and-rescue team on the scene, however, couldn’t find the right location.
Then a group of volunteers in Boston pinpointed the origin of the message, sent using the 4636 SMS shortcode. They rapidly relayed the information back to Erik Rasmussen, a former top naval medical officer working with rescue teams in Haiti.
A team was then dispatched to the correct grid location. The coordinates were accurate to five decimal places.
That small vignette, provided in e-mail update from Rassmussen, shows how volunteers are using social networking tools to aid relief efforts in Haiti. It’s not a fix-all, but it does suggest that something new and unprecedented is happening in humanitarian response.
One of the biggest challenges is getting SMS messages translated rapidly from French and Creole, and relayed to international rescuers. Rob Munro, a graduate fellow at Stanford who works with the nonprofit Energy for Opportunity, was pulled into the effort: He specializes in computer-aided methods for managing and processing medical SMS messages in multiple languages. He has been coordinating volunteers around the world who are translating the messages sent to 4636, categorizing the messages, and — where possible — plotting the exact coordinates.
“The average turnaround for us receiving a message and having a geo-coordinated and translated report to teams on the ground is about 10 minutes,” he told Danger Room by e-mail. “The total number of texts is in the thousands, and they arrive every five seconds in busy times, to every 10 minutes overnight.”
Some of the messages are urgent pleas for help. Others are requests to relay simple messages to loved ones. Rescuers shared a few examples of translated messages. [They asked that we redact all numbers and family names to protect privacy, and to prevent the relatives of victims from being deluged with calls.]
•“Please tell Mrs Maxime ____ of Boston that by the grace of God that everyone is okay. Her number is ____. It is Lubin ____ that sent the message.)
•“Someone please I have a brother in France can someone call and tell him that I am not dead only my house got destroyed the number is ___”
•“My name is Jean ____ my brother is working in Unicef and I live in C__ 11 A___ I have 2 people that is still alive under the building still ! Send Help!”
Organizations are sharing information in other ways. The Sahana Software Foundation has set up a Haiti 2010 disaster-relief portal that serves as a repository for over 500 organizations now on the ground in Haiti. It lists contact information, as well as activities by geographic area and sector.
In an e-mail, Sahana President and CEO Mark Prutsalis told Danger Room the foundation’s request-management system was being fed by two streams: one through text messages sent to 4636 and processed by Ushahidi, and the other through Twitter (they call it, “tweak the tweet”). Requests are categorized and searchable by aid agencies.
“Registered users can make pledges to fulfill requests and mark them as completed or alter their status,” Prutsalis said. “We are working on developing reporting and tracking and ticketing capabilities for this, as well as the ability to process and handle requests that come in by e-mail or those that are manually entered by aid agencies into the system.”
Sahana also has a mapping system, which provides an annotated map of what is going on the ground. Base layers include imagery drawn from OpenStreetMaps, Digital Globe high-resolution imagery, Ikonos satellite imagery and Google Maps. Sahana adds info from its registry and locations database, Ushahidi events, 4636 SMS messages and other information. They can also provide feeds in a variety of formats, so organizations can effectively use the data being collected on the scene and remotely.
Obviously, this is all still a work in progress, and it remains to be seen if it can be sustained over the long term. The Ushahidi situation room is already looking to train volunteers.
Photo: U.S. Department of Defense