Interoperability, connectivity and cooperation agreements
I write this posting with the unfolding disaster of the January, 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince, Haiti firmly in mind, and the developing effort to try to respond to that crisis. I also write this with two other issues in mind that cannot be forgotten:
• Developing better response systems for future disasters so we can move more rapidly and effectively, and during the immediate post-event acute phase. This is when we would have the most opportunity to limit damage and mortality, and to affect the most rapid overall recovery possible for that event.
• Responding to this Haitian crisis long term and after it and its immediate jolting impact are off the front page of our news coverage, that the people of Haiti and their needs not be forgotten.
But right now we are still in the midst of this crisis, even if we have lost any acute phase response opportunities that were potentially available that we were not ready for. So we have to respond with as effective and rapid a chronic phase response as possible, and here with information and communications technology (ICT) options and resources.
I have been exchanging emails and phone calls with the Vice President of the United Nations Association Haiti today on both of these bullet pointed issues, and I have been in active contact with a variety of other people as well on the issues of what to do now. And that brings me to a basic issue that I want to address here – the need to connect together the pieces of the technology puzzle brought to bear in the recovery effort, and that definitely includes getting functionally overlapping pieces of the puzzle working together.
Several organizations are moving to bring in satellite uplink and related capabilities with hardware and personnel to manage it. That is really important and it is tremendously important news. Just bringing in systems that way can only, however, be a part of any viable solution. We need all of the various components and contributions brought in to effectively work together too, and without creation of duplicative, gap-creating alternative, parallel communications options.
• Part of this is addressed by interoperability and connectivity that is inherit to having common technology standards – with strong shared standards for the Internet and a lesser but still significant degree of interconnectivity in wireless telecommunications systems. There, the barrier is largely, as I understand it, in having different connectivity protocols in the last mile from the cell tower to the cell phone with proprietarily locked cell phones that only work with specific carrier systems. We need to make sure that systems coming in from diverse sources are unlocked in this and any other pertinent sense so they can work together.
• Part of this is in legal barriers and the need for effective cooperation agreements. Effectively responding to a major crisis can mean coordinating support from businesses that might under less stressful conditions primarily be rivals in the marketplace. Here we have what looks to be two or even three sources coming online for rebuilding wireless-based and satellite based telecommunications capabilities. We definitely do not need to or want to build three disconnected rival systems that cannot communicate and work together effectively and that cannot come together to create a larger, consistent, finer grained coverage area. Effective coordination of these systems cannot fall into place without addressing both technology and legal barriers to coordination and cooperation.
I just sent out an email outlining some of the issues related to this later point, with a request for vetted cooperation agreement templates that have been tested in other emergency responses. The idea there is to lower the due diligence threshold to acceptance and implementation by starting with a core agreement whose terms have been shown to work in the field. And this all comes back to timing and getting systems and relief solutions in place and as quickly as possible.
I will add one other crucial element to this note and it is one that informs all of the rest of this posting. We need to have a centralized organization and a clear, actively involved leadership to make this happen. I see UN-GAID and its leadership as an obvious choice here, and this means setting aside ongoing and less urgent priorities to place this need for response on the top of the list.
I am a member of the UN-GAID Champions Network and am participating in this effort as such. At the same time I am a member of a large, geographically and experientially diverse group of subject matter experts, many of whom are looking for opportunities to contribute now – and as a growing collection of separate, disconnected initiatives coming from them and the businesses and other organizations they work with if necessary. The key words there are organized, as in what we can do collectively if there is a central organizing voice, or separate and ad hoc if we merely set out on our own to try and identify needs, gaps and opportunities to address them.
I have shared some thoughts as to what we will need going forward in preparing to respond to crises more rapidly and effectively in:
And in fact I addressed some of these issues in an earlier open letter from before the earthquake on January 6, 2010:
I add that while I did not mention it in that open letter for brevity, I had what was essentially the same conversation that day with the UN representative from Haiti that I cite with regards to the Dominican Republic, those two conversations taking place quite independently of each other. Both countries, sharing Eastern and Western sides to the same island, had been hammered by the same major hurricanes and if anything it is Haiti that had suffered the more direct damage as their deforestation problems meant there was nothing to stop the massive floods of water and erosion. Representatives from both expressed the exact same frustrations and concerns, and with valid reason. No, I am not suggesting here that earthquakes are influenced by global warming as hurricanes are, but I do note that many of the world’s hot spots for earthquake activity are also in regions with countries that as less and even least able to cope with their consequences.
So we need interoperability, connectivity and cooperation agreements to make any viable solutions to our problems work and we need organization too, that helps us work together in solving them. And these problems can impact directly on any of us as Haiti’s problems and the shock of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and so many other past and recent disasters have show.
Information processing and effective communications have to be at the core of any emergency and disaster relief approach, whether is responding to a current disaster in progress or in preparing to respond more effectively to future events. And it is precisely in situations where infrastructure already in place goes down, as in Haiti now that ubiquitous computing and communications with its wireless backbone comes into play as a key potential ICT response. The trick is in putting systems in place and very quickly, that work together and that meet very genuine and fluid needs and priorities. That is the challenge we are facing now, in finding ways to do that.