Lessons Learned from the RELIEF 12-3 Event

What do data standards, cellphone cameras, and Twitter have to do with saving lives during a large-scale catastrophe? They can make all the difference. These were among a few of the topics discussed at the Research & Experimentation for Local & International Emergency First-Responders (RELIEF) event at National Defense University last week, which I had the pleasure of attending.

RELIEF, a program jointly run by the Naval Postgraduate School and the Center for Technology & National Security Policy, brings together representatives from dozens of organizations and government agencies to collaborate on cutting-edge research. Prior RELIEF events have come away with such outcomes as a method to capture and disseminate text messages over a broad area, tools to convert military satellite imagery into formats useable by civilian software, and a strategy for open-source mapping that went on to be used during elections in Afghanistan.

This quarter’s event focused on the growing trend of crisismapping – the technical merging of interactive online maps with social media and mobile technology, to create a living “picture” of a crisis zone – and the difficulties involved in its implementation. The participants included representatives from myriad government entities, including Department of State, Department of Defense (DoD), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), humanitarian mapping groups, industry, think tanks, and academia, which brought their diverse viewpoints to the table. As expected, the event covered a lot of ground in each session, but there were a number of key takeaway points that I will try to highlight.

Civil Air Patrol

Civil Air Patrol (CAP), a volunteer auxiliary arm of the US Air Force comprised of civilian pilots, has long been used in emergency management to identify survivors and take aerial reconnaissance photos for crisis command. Event participants discussed CAP’s ability to contribute to crisismapping by being able to provide photos of affected areas that land crews cannot access, ultimately giving crisis command a clearer picture of the situation and information about where to deploy emergency response teams. The discussion was coupled with a scenario analysis of a simultaneous earthquake, fire, and chemical gas release in an urban area—a realistic situation that demonstrates both immediate and developing hazards, each with unique conditions to worry about—as a test case for CAP’s utility.

The discussion found that including CAP in the crisismapping effort gives crisis command more data points to work with over time and, moreover, includes local volunteers and expertise rather than complete reliance on the federal government—this is what FEMA calls its “Whole Community” approach. The event identified a number of capabilities and limitations to utilizing CAP.

Capabilities:

CAP has access to personnel and assets nationwide, and can rapidly respond to a crisis. Many CAP pilots are able to take aerial photographs of a crisis area, either with plane-mounted equipment or handheld digital cameras. By providing crisis command with the ongoing aerial observation, CAP can:

  • Support situational analysis of a particular hazard, as directed by command
  • Provide reconnaissance photos of affected areas to aid command’s awareness
  • Identify developing hazards and assess threats before they come to fruition

 Limitations:

  • CAP photography equipment can tag photos with the global positioning system coordinates from which they were shot, but cannot provide the more complicated georeference data (such as altitude and direction of the camera) necessary for mapping, making it difficult to incorporate their image into a crisis map.
  • CAP pilots cannot fly over hazard zones, such as gas clouds or fires, though unmanned aerial vehicles can be used in these cases.

Data Federation

Intra-governmental communication has always been an issue in crisis mapping, as various government agencies have different preferred different formats for data and record-keeping standards. Federating this data—that is, combining it into a uniform format using a universal, non-proprietary standard—is therefore vital for facilitating intra-government collaboration during a crisis.

Non-proprietary standards, such as OpenSearch, are freely available, but there are a number of challenges involved in implementing them. First, standardizing data collection and management between agencies is a challenge due to the disparate nature of the work each agency does. Second, even if it is possible to federate agency-specific data to an open standard, scaling this up to the vast quantities of data received during a crisis situation can cause a bottleneck during a vital time. Finally, and most importantly, building institutional trust of the federated data standard and ensuring that practitioners actually use it is a long-term process that will need to be addressed early and often.

Sharing Unclassified Information

Unclassified data plays a heavy role in crisismapping – from providing population figures of an affected area to weather patterns. Organizations such as Data.gov, Crisis Commons, United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Aid, World Health Organization, and others have made baseline datasets for crisis analysis freely available, and have begun to show promise in improving emergency management efforts. In addition, the DoD has been taking steps towards collaboration with its partners by testing a web-based software platform called SIMON (developed by SRI), which may one day enable the State Department, USAID, and regional military commanders to share data rapidly during a disaster.

Yet, the sharing of unclassified information among the military, government agencies, the NGO community, and affected peoples is still difficult and wrought with problems. For instance, partnering with the military and federal agencies during a crisis provides many benefits, including world-class logistics, airlift capability, and additional resources benefiting the health sector. However, disseminating information from the military and other federal agencies is difficult due to their tendency to designate unclassified information as For Official Use Only, making it inaccessible for distribution outside of the government. While the event participants recognized that this was a major issue, they did not reach any consensus on a solution, other than to work with government agencies in advance of crises to not classify information vital to a crisis.

About the author

Jason Kumar is a Masters of Public Policy candidate at Georgetown University. Currently an intern at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Science & Technology Innovation Program, he previously worked in supply-chain consulting and has a background in industrial engineering. He is interested in the effects of new technologies and tactics on national security policy.

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