Darpa's Crisis Code

The Pentagon's way-out research arm is nothing if not forward-thinking. Back in the 90's, Darpa kicked off a pair of software projects that seem almost perfectly suited to coping with a crisis like Katrina. Too bad they're not in wider use now.encompass_screen.jpgCognitive Agent Architecture (COUGAAR) is the descendent of Darpa research's into building semi-autonomous, adaptive bits of software that could quickly put together detailed logistical plans in "harsh, chaotic conditions." 1000 software agents on 100 machines were supposed to be able to plot out the logistics for a 180-day military deployment, with 45% of the infrastructure blown to hell."Originally designed to survive a bombing, it should handle a flood similarly," says a former COUGAAR programmer. "Hopefully something useful can come out of the quarter billion spent on it."Darpa stopped funding the effort last year. But COUGAAR lives on, as an open source, "Java-based architecture for the construction of large-scale distributed agent-based applications."The Enhanced Consequence Management Planning and Support System (ENCOMPASS) was even more directly relevant to Katrina-like situations. It was a suite of computer programs designed to manage the response to catastrophes and to track the victims. The focus was on a biological attack. But the tools were adaptable to all sorts of disasters, David Siegrist, a former consultant on the project, says.An ENCOMPASS "playbook" pulled together the standard procedures for coping with different tragic events -- a fire and a building collapse, say -- into a single set of guidelines. Related software promised to handle "the management, visualization, and documentation of... incident response" as well as provide "the ability to know the location of all... responders, equipment and supplies that are necessary in controlling the event," according to an ENCOMPASS presentation. A third program would track casualties, from on-scene triage to the hospital bed.Components of ENCOMPASS have been used to cope with 9/11 and were put through a trial run at the 2001 inaugural. The Navy and U.S. Joint Forces Command have also worked with parts of the package. But for ENCOMPASS as a whole -- "I don't recall there being a lot of interest," Siegrist says.

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