Disaster Recovery 2.0

With social networks, ad hoc wireless networks and Google and Microsoft cooperating on combining real-time emergency data with satellite maps, Strong Angel experiments with leaderless technology.

Strong Angel III - held last week in San Diego - is less of a formal military exercise and more of an experiment in using ad hoc social networks to perform critical disaster relief and military functions in a leadership vacuum, reports The New York Times.

My view is that the value of Strong Angel is 70 percent in the social networks that will be created,” said the organizer, Eric Rasmussen, a Navy surgeon and veteran of relief efforts on several continents. “What we do is try to bring people with disparate backgrounds together and ensure that they are forced to enter into a conversation.”

The five-day simulation involved teams from the Pentagon, NGOs and dozens of technology companies. Apparently, the ad hoc networks didn't always work seamlessly.

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 let’s 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.

Hastily formed networks? Some were calling them fragilely formed networks. On the other hand, there was a shared system of digital satellite maps overlayed with event data from emergency workers.

The new software capability relies on a Microsoft-designed system called Simple Sharing Extensions. It has been built on industry standards, like the Web protocol known as Really Simple Syndication, or R.S.S., which was designed to enable one-way data streams. Such tools are valuable for disaster-response coordinators who require real-time data feeds from a variety of locations. The Microsoft extensions will make it possible for the feeds to display constantly changing or even conflicting data streams from multiple sources.

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