Disaster Tech Pushes Ahead


So many things went wrong in the government's sucktastic response to Hurricane Katrina, it's hard to know where to begin to make fixes. One place might be the basics -- communicating, and getting a sense of the scene.saIII_up.jpgIn the days after the storm, while the feds and local officials floundered, ham radio operators and teams of guerrilla geeks took it upon themselves to keep Katrina survivors informed. Drone-makers sent unmanned spotters into the skies above New Orleans, to get a look at the devastation.The efforts -- and so many others like them -- were beyond inspirational. But the impact of these self-starters was muted, because they couldn't share information or resources all that well. The infrastructure (both hardware and soft) just wasn't in place.That's the problem a disaster response drill, conducted last week in San Diego, aimed to correct. Everyone from IBM to Sprint to Google to U.S. Joint Forces Command participated in the test, called Strong Angel III. And everything from inflatable antennas to high-speed wireless networks to text-message news feeds to games for humanitarian aid was tried out.It didn't all work perfectly, as the New York Times notes.

Last Monday, the group began to assemble a makeshift command center at an abandoned building near the San Diego airport. But a state-of-the-art wireless network, intended to route video images, satellite map coordinates and other data from an impressive array of mobile computers, software analysis tools and command programs failed to come to life."Finally I said, 'Lights out! Everyone turn everything off and lets start over,'" said Brian D. Steckler, a computer scientist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who was in charge of more than a dozen interlocking networks at the heart of the command center.Hundreds of computers and even cellphones were shut down, and then the network was slowly turned back on, segment by segment. Too many high-bandwidth applications had clogged the network, including a powerful video camera and "rogue" transmitters set up by participants intent on creating their own mini-networks.
But Strong Angel did meet its #1 goal -- to "mapping and developing" relationships for disaster response. Programmers from Microsoft and Google, for example, teamed up "to allow sharing [of] a single set of digital satellite maps seamlessly and to overlay event data relayed from emergency workers throughout the San Diego area," the Times said.Most observers, like Defense Tech pal John Scott, agreed if these projects take the main lessons of the drill to the heart -- by keeping collaboration tools simple, low-bandwidth, and platform-agnostic -- they should be "hugely helpful for the next disaster."
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