DoD helps rethink disaster relief

Monday - 10/18/2010, 6:53am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

A public-private partnership that leverages the power of technology to help people and nations in time of need is reconsidering how it can provide that help in the future.

Harnessing first the power of e-mail and the Web, STAR-TIDES has been quietly working since 2007 to pull together some of the best minds in the world to help people and nations in trouble, according to Linton Wells, director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University in Washington.

"STAR-TIDES is about sustainable support to nations under stress, post-war, post-disaster, impoverished," he said in a recent interview. "This is a knowledge-sharing research project, sponsored by the Defense Department at the National Defense University."

STAR-TIDES held its annual fall demonstration program on the NDU campus at Fort McNair in Washington where it brought together different technologies to improve disaster relief.

STAR-TIDES included tools such as portable electric power generators that have both small windmills to harness the wind, and solar panels to convert sunlight. There also were small portable water filtration units and emergency shelters made out of construction insulation and duct-tape.

But Wells said the centerpiece of STAR-TIDES is the world-wide network of experts linked by the Internet.

"From Northern Europe to Australasia, there are more than 2,000 entities involved in the network," he said. "Last year, we put in less than $5,000 of government money and we got back $1.7 million in outside engagement," from a combination of private companies, non-governmental organizations, and finally, American and foreign government agencies.

Wells said he's just one very visible participant and a leader in the STAR-TIDES network, but he's not the boss. Just as the Pentagon is only a participant and is not the lead agency in the public-private partnership.

Wells said an example of how the STAR-TIDES network operates can be seen in Haiti, which earlier this year was hit by devastating earthquakes.

He explained that a smaller STAR-TIDES social network called "Crisis Mappers" came into play in a big way. He said it was originally organized to refine geospatial mapping techniques using satellite data to support the Afghan election last year. When the quake in Haiti struck, Crisis Mappers sprung into action.

"Ten days after the earthquake, the Coast Guard was launching medical evacuation helicopters off of information compiled by graduate students at the Fletcher School in Boston, using information developed from a situational awareness tool developed for election fraud monitoring in Africa, based on information drawn from the slums of Port au Prince through SMS texting and SKYPE, translated from the Creole through the Haitian Diaspora, overlaid by images processed by San Diego State University coordinated with an open street map," he said. "That was more accurate than any information they were getting from official sources at that point."

In the process, though, Wells said STAR-TIDES learned a valuable lesson about the very real limits of such collaboration, which he described as "cloud, bridge, filter, channel and transaction."

He explained that with all the technological prowess found in the partnership, the bottom line is that it's all for naught if they are unable to go the final mile to help real people in real trouble.

"A couple of NGOs tackled me a few weeks ago, and said unless you pull people out of the rubble, or deliver the medical supplies, the first four parts are information for information's sake," Wells said.

Wells said it was even worse in Pakistan, hit hard by flooding earlier this year. He said there, the network had very few working relationships with the government, and was unable to implement many of the ideas generated by the STAR TIDES network.

"The piece STAR TIDES can contribute to is, before the disasters happen, to help get the social networks developed, the trust built, and understand the procedures needed to implement the policies," Wells said.

Finally, Wells said STAR-TIDES is trying to work through a newly discovered limit to the phrase public-private partnership, one with implications for the Pentagon's involvement in the network.

"We recently went through the quadrennial defense review, and found the word 'partner, partnering, partnership' is mentioned over 200 times," he said. "When STAR-TIDES this past summer was invited to partner with a commercial entity on a project, it turns out legally, we can't do that."

Wells said he didn't have any details about the proposed STAR-TIDES partnership that didn't work legally with current Pentagon rules, but he's hopeful that a resolution can be found in the next year.

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