New ideas for disaster relief

Strong Angel III demonstrates IT for humanitarian crises

RADIO DAYS: John Graham, right, of San Diego State University and Paul Saffo, center, of Stanford University, learn about specialized high-frequency radio e-mail from Gary Strong during Strong Angel III in San Diego, Aug. 24.

Cherie A. Thurlby

The list of disasters in recent years ' Hurricane Katrina, the devastating tsunami that struck Indonesia two years ago, earthquakes in Pakistan and Iran ' could make a person shudder. Or, if you're a Strong Angel participant, get you gearing up to help.

The Strong Angel series is a volunteer demonstration disaster response laboratory that brings together medical, humanitarian, military and technology experts from the public and private sectors, civilian and military agencies and domestic and international organizations.

Human and IT networks

The goal is to solve problems in global disaster response by field-testing and demonstrating technologies to facilitate humanitarian relief. It also could help develop enduring social networks that responders can call on in an emergency.

Led by Eric Rasmussen, an active-duty Navy commander, physician and adjunct professor at San Diego State University, Strong Angel held its first demonstration in June 2000 near Puu Pa'a on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Strong Angel II followed in 2004 on a remote lava bed near Waikaloa, Hawaii. This past summer, Strong Angel III took place for seven days in San Diego at the former Naval Training Center, where more than 800 people participated.

'We do Strong Angel because you get to sit around with the thoughts of some of the best species on the planet right now,' said Rasmussen. 'These people are educated, experienced and not shy. And, while we have the participation of a lot of for-profit organizations like Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Bell Canada and Google, we have an explicit mandate that they're not allowed to market their products. The point is collaboration, cooperation and developing interoperability, not to push or sell. How well can you blend, not how well can you shine.'

Several months after the event, leaders still are evaluating the software and systems that developed over the course of the demonstration, but several, they say, stand out.

Eric Frost, co-director of San Diego State University's Homeland Security masters program and Strong Angel III's regional coordinator, was impressed with a group called Drastic LLC of Charlotte, N.C., which installs and maintains broadband Internet connectivity for aid workers in post-disaster situations and in under-served cities, jungles and deserts in the developing world. Drastic was a responder in Louisiana and Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Frost was struck by the company's beach ball-like GATR (ground antenna transmit/receive) technology ' a light, inflatable satellite communications antenna that is easy to transport and, once popped up, provides Internet connectivity. It's made by GATR Technologies Inc. of Huntsville, Ala.

'They [the Drastic team] got a network going after the tsunami,' Frost explained. 'They were also an ISP [Internet service provider] to Afghanistan before, during and after the Taliban. They're a very unusual group of people and made a profound point during and after the event ' that there's huge expertise among people for Third World countries, as opposed to being U.S. - centric. That's rare. They're really developing stuff that could be deployed in the Third World.'

Videoconferencing on the go

Nigel Snoad, the demonstration director and lead capabilities researcher with Microsoft Humanitarian Systems, was wowed by lightweight videoconferencing by Vsee Lab of San Jose, Calif. Using low-bandwidth videoconferencing and collaboration software, VSee provides secure global communication between local and remote participants.

Another company, Tandberg of New York, also got attention for its videoconferencing systems, which utilize satellite and wireless EVDO (Evolution-Data Optimized), a radio broadband standard.

Interact and experiment

There also was a lot of interest in Simple Sharing Extensions, a specification that could make RSS data feeds two-way, and in Bell Canada's integrated messaging platform, which Snoad said could be used effectively to communicate with staff.

But as important as the technology was, Strong Angel III leaders said, the opportunity for participants to interact and experiment was just as compelling.
There was a focus on creating a common operational picture to enhance collaboration and sharing information, and, equally important, on meeting others just as passionate about humanitarian relief.

'A big aspect of this is that a fair number of participants will actually be responders,' said Frost. 'The social networking of people here is important so that if something happens, responders have people to call and can make fairly outrageous requests.'

'The point was to take people out of their cubicles and force them to interact with others in a very difficult environment for a very noble purpose,' Rasmussen said.
'Take off the corporate hat and figure out how you're going to help.'

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