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Disaster Readiness Puts Tech Tools To The Test

Can thumb drives, mash-ups, and RSS improve our ability to react in emergencies? The organizers of two disaster simulations hope to find out.
"With Strong Angel III, we're looking for a set of tools and techniques that can improve community resilience in any area of the world," Rasmussen says. Among the technologies to be demonstrated:

>> A 4-Gbyte Kingston Technology key chain storage drive, which will be used to install about 50 programs on computers used in relief efforts, even if those computers can't access outside networks. One program would let responders send SMS messages to any cell phone. "What's unique is the way the software was compressed to fit on the drive," Rasmussen says.

>> A disaster scene mash-up based on the open source Sahana disaster management software, created by Sri Lankan programmer Chamindra de Silva. Sahana can be used to establish missing person registries, coordinate relief efforts among groups, request support, and keep track of victims in shelters. The combination of Google Earth with Sahana will create a detailed visual image of a disaster area. Google plans to work with Microsoft to ensure that the modified Sahana works with Microsoft's Virtual Earth service.

>> RSS Simple Sharing Extensions, developed by Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie. While RSS feeds are used to publish and subscribe to information, SSE allows systems to be cross-subscribed with one another, creating bidirectional RSS. "One of the major themes of Strong Angel III is sharing data across boundaries," says Robert Kirkpatrick, lead solutions architect for Microsoft Humanitarian Systems. A mesh network will be used to issue emergency requests for help. With SSE, the requests can be accessed by anyone else on the network, broadening a responder's pool of resources.

>> VSee ultralow-bandwidth, high-quality videoconferencing software, created by Milton Chen, founder of VSee Lab. It will be used for videoconferencing links among locations, including U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., and a hospital in Afghanistan. VSee also will be part of a telemedicine demonstration.

Strong Angel III comes on the heels of a disaster-preparedness conference, called Synthetic Portland, held Aug. 18 at Portland State University and hosted by the Regional Alliances for Infrastructure and Network Security, or Rains, in Portland, Ore. Local officials, academics, and business leaders discussed a model for data sharing during an emergency. "We're in an era of unprecedented disasters, and we'd better damn well get better at responding to them," says Charles Jennings, founder of Rains and CEO of Swan Island Networks, a provider of data-sharing products and services. One idea discussed at the event was to combine mapping and communications technology in such a way that emergency management personnel could remotely link to intelligent devices in a facility and, for example, shut down a ventilation system if toxic gas were present.

Progress has been "uneven" since 9/11 when it comes to interoperability of systems used by different emergency responders, Portland CTO Matt Lampe says. "I'm not surprised," he says, "because the things we're talking about are complex and cost significant money." Replacement of communications equipment in Portland would cost as much as $100 million.

Events such as Strong Angel III and Synthetic Portland could lead to improvements in emergency preparedness. As recent events remind us, nothing's more important.