In the eye of the storm

Videoconferencing via the Web aids Hawaii disaster response

It was a storm of biblical proportions. For 45 consecutive days last spring, the islands of Hawaii were deluged with rain. Roads flooded, beaches washed away and seven citizens died when a dam burst on the island of Kauai.

For Ray Lovell, public information officer for the state's department of civil defense, the word busy doesn't begin to describe that period. Besides keeping the public and the media fed with constant updates on the storm, Lovell had to coordinate with civil defense agencies in each of Hawaii's four counties, as well as the state departments of health, transportation and power. And he had to do it across seven inhabited islands in the middle of the Pacific.

At the time, Lovell had a new tool in his communications arsenal: e/pop, a Web-based videoconferencing and document-sharing product developed by WiredRed Software of San Diego.

'In the past, the only way to get all the PIOs together to work with emergency management was to put them on planes and fly them someplace,' said Lovell. 'When a disaster is unfolding, you just don't have the time.'

With e/pop, other PIOs can see who's logged on and set up an instant teleconference. Using inexpensive Web cams, they're able to see each other, engage in conversation and collaborate on press releases, talking points for agency officials, PowerPoint presentations and other documents.

'One of the major advantages in being able to contact other PIOs and share information quickly is rumor control,' Lovell said. 'We used e/pop several times during the flood disaster and were able to get solid information out to the media much more quickly. We know that in the absence of solid information, the media can go to alternate sources that may not be accurate.'

Getting their feet wet

Lovell said his agency began experimenting with WiredRed's e/pop solution about a year ago, but the recent spate of storms was its first real-world test. The office went with e/pop based on a recommendation by Billy Gomban, a part-time telecom consultant to the state and former Verizon Communications Inc. engineer.

Gomban said he leaned toward e/pop because it was an IP-based system with built-in redundancy, allowed multiple users to work on the same documents at the same time, and carried voice and video over the same pipe. It was also simple enough that nontechnical users could get up and running quickly. An added plus: E/pop offered more control over bandwidth-intensive elements such as video.

The e/pop client automatically analyzes each computer's processing power and bandwidth, then optimizes performance for each user, giving priority to voice traffic, said WiredRed's CEO Steven Peltier.

'Audio is more sensitive to changes in continuity,' he said. 'With video, the mind fills in the blanks much better than the ears do.'

Gomban said he also wanted the state to be able to control where the system resided. Though WiredRed offers a hosted version of the service, all of its government clients, which include state agencies in California, Oregon and Utah as well as the Federal Aviation Administration, Interior Department, National Guard and Army, run e/pop on a dedicated server behind a firewall.

'To meet the security requirements of government agencies, the software has to be on its own server in the DMZ behind the [organization's] own firewall,' Peltier said.

But the clincher was cost. The state licensed 10 concurrent seats from Wired-Red for just under $5,000 a year'far less than a traditional videoconferencing system would cost. A dedicated server for e/pop and webcams for each PC added less than $2,000 to the total bill.

Lovell said so far they've run into only a few minor glitches. 'One of the limiting factors is that only one person can talk at a time,' he said. 'We're still looking for the right 'push to talk' key on the keyboard that won't affect the documents we're editing.' He adds that Gomban worked with developers at WiredRed to simplify the e/pop interface and make it easier to use.

Working together ... apart

As a way to increase face time with colleagues without incurring travel costs, e/pop has proved indispensable, Lovell said. In fact, he hopes to expand its use beyond emergencies to more day-to-day functions. Right now, the state is looking at doubling the number of seat licenses and expanding the app to other agencies.

'There's a tendency in government for different agencies to become more isolated from each other,' Lovell said. 'If you don't practice working together, if you're not familiar with each other, toes end up being stepped on and mistrust develops. We want to eliminate that, and our Web conference solution has gone a long way toward that goal.'

Technology journalist Dan Tynan is author of Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005).

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