I’ve been in San Diego this week at something called Strong Angel III, a project/demonstration/exercise designed to improve responses to emergencies and catastrophes, both those which are natural and caused by humans. Several hundred smart folks looking at technology and its applications in this kind of situation, and as with the last Strong Angel exercise (which took place two years ago on a lava bed in Hawaii), this one is proving immensely educational.
Also, as in Hawaii, frustrating: Despite seriously hard work by the networking people, the wireless network here has been a thorough mess. For the first two days there was barely any connectivity, and even now it’s slow (at least to my computer). For a scenario that absolutely depends, in part, on data connectivity, that’s a major problem.
The participants run the gamut from military to NGOs to corporate types to individual experimenters. The experiments include (many) tests of mapping systems, ways to move data around quickly and seamlessly, security fixes and much more. The entire thing is open, that is, not classified, so the techniques and tools are available to the public, a good thing.
This place is loaded with smart people, seriously smart. They’re finding ways to collaborate in a variety of areas that surround a scenario — a pandemic in a major urban area — that is all too possible. But the idea is less specific: We’re thinking about better responses to terrible trouble in any nation, in fact most likely not this one.
In my line of sight from my table are experiments/demonstrations with Web video conferencing; Google Earth’s folks pulling massive data sets into coherent maps; a Microsoft team helping transfer data seamlessly among sites and software applications (a fairly un-Microsoft-like process based on not so distant history), military contractors working on various projects; NGOs wondering how they can work more efficiently with other responders; and much, much more.
In the field today (Wednesday) are a teams from the Red Cross and other organizations, collecting and transmitting all kinds of real-time data that the people here are examining and, if possible, using to make better decisions. Scenarios shift rapidly; on the bank of screens in front of me the images flash by.
Mapping is a huge part of this project. Understanding conditions on the ground is an essential part of any humanitarian response to a crisis, and we’re seeing some spectacular examples of how data can come to life via maps.
My role is in the experimental/testing category. I’m working with several other people who deal with media and information issues in disaster situations. We’ve convinced the organizers to start group blogs for participants — we’re not getting great traction on getting them to blog, I have to note — and I’m playing with some bottom-up, citizen-based journalism ideas stemming from the notion that we are all able to tell each other stuff.
For example, I’m asking participants to send SMS text messages on their mobile phones to a gateway site that will create a database of messages. If they make the first part of the message the street address where they’re transmitting from, then we have a time-stamped, location-based message about a current event. Next, we’ll import all this into a map, and see it visually in new ways.
When GPS equipped phones are widely in use, and when sufficient numbers of people are willing to do something like this, we will be able to create a time-stamped, location-based view of what is happening through the eyes of regular citizens, not just those who observe in organized ways. (There are, needless to say, some creepy elements to this. I’m thinking in this context solely about how we could save lives in an emergency.)
I still need the Web to make all this work. But as with everyone else here, I’ve been frustrated by internal networking problems that have put a crimp in the processes. It’s been a classic example of what folks call a “tragedy of the commons” — a situation in which all these smart people find a working connection and then hammer it so hard that they bring it down. We were being individually selfish, and the result was a mess for 36 hours and beyond. (The network is still slow, even now, despite vast potential bandwidth.)
(Photos by Sanjana Hattotowa)