Haiti helps Pentagon dissipate the fog of war

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The earthquake that put Haiti on the brink of collapse also propelled the U.S. military neck-deep into Web 2.0 and social networking to coordinate a tactical plan for aid. The military has now put its entire effort on the Internet in an unclassified environment for the first time in history.

“We had a pregnant woman about to give birth who needed to be evacuated,” recounted Brigadier General Michael Shields, director of the National Joint Operations Intelligence Center (NJOIC) from his subterranean headquarters at the Pentagon. “We had the Marines and the Navy coordinating their entire effort to get this woman onto the USS Carl Vinson via Jabber chat.” Shields was referring to a Web-based forum popular in the commercial sector. The fast-moving threats that emerged in the wake of the Internet boom and 9/11 forced the military to reevaluate some of the secrecy and bureaucratic obstacles that has been standard operating procedure during the slow-moving Cold War.

“The military is embracing a number of collaborative tools; chat, wikis, blogs, SharePoint and environments like APAN to get information out of channels and onto platforms,” said the NJOIC’s Chief Knowledge Engineer Scott Yaroschuk. “The goal is to increase collaboration, enhance access to data, reduce phone and email traffic, save man hours and ultimately speed decision cycles.” Yaroschuk pointed out that that all these small steps together herald a revolutionary cultural change from the military’s entrenched “need to know” mentality to one of “need to share.”

“Haiti has been a catalyst for us,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Tom Maine said. “It has shown us things we didn’t even know we were capable of.” In a single day, the helicopter pilot learned to develop a wiki and was able to share mission-critical information with hundreds of users thousands of miles away. “It’s amazing how easy to use it is.”

Currently, the Pentagon is taking its newest Web 2.0 efforts out for a battlefield test in Haiti. The dozens of international organizations providing aid there will act as a proving ground for a scalable network of new technologies whose next application could be helping victims of the next Katrina or California earthquake. The Pentagon already has tracked Somali pirates or Korean Taepodong missiles with similar technology, and in light of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair’s recent comments that he was “certain” that terrorists would attempt a large-scale attack on the U.S., all eyes are on Haiti to see how well the system works.

A non-governmental organization that wants to ship in earthmoving equipment for example, can post a request in a Web-based forum asking for the most efficient means of getting its equipment into the country. Within minutes anyone from the U.N. to the Navy to other NGOs may answer their request. Such conversations are saved and searchable, meaning the next time a charity in Miami wants to donate a CT scanner, they can easily figure out how to coordinate the transportation for the equipment.

The sheer numbers of Haitians in need — close to 3 million people have been displaced — combined with the dozens of countries and charities delivering humanitarian relief proves a nearly impossible task for any single organization trying to establish overarching situational awareness.

“The destruction in Haiti was so massive, it was quickly apparent that the best way to handle it would be to tap into the so-called ‘wisdom of crowds,’” said Shields, referring to the best-selling book by James Surowiecki.

Data that’s unreliable, especially in life-and-death situations, is often worse than no data at all. Content providers on the military’s social networking hub are subject to a rating system, and users can see if the data they’re looking at came from a reliable source, somewhat like Amazon reviewers. They key is getting all the agencies to speak the same language.

The Pentagon created the NJOIC in January 2009 after fighting broke out between Georgia and Russia in the summer of 2008. “We realized we needed an organization whose goal was to be faster and flatter than anything previously conceived — our mission is to provide information to the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mullen] with the speed and accuracy that he requires for global situational awareness,” explained the fast-talking Shields. NJOIC uses their bullhorn at Joint Chiefs’ office to act as digital sherpas and direct the military community and its partners to these portals.

Perhaps the most significant tool to emerge is a real-time 3D image of the devastated area on a Google Earth platform. The technology was in use at Miami-based Southern Command headquarters where high-tech government contractors partnered with Google to develop an interactive environment for agencies to collaborate on.

“At the onset of the crisis, past experience told us that a critical piece of the relief effort that would be missing was an interactive geospatial framework to coordinate all of the different groups, agencies and countries that were rushing to support,” said AJ Clark, the 30-year-old chief executive of Arlington-based Thermopylae Sciences. “The key ingredients of success stemmed from the visionary leadership of participants like Brigadier General Mike Shields and Michael Moore [Deputy Director for Knowledge Management at Southcom].” Top military officials pushed aside numerous bureaucratic obstacles to implement the capability on an unclassified network to ensure a quick, widespread adoption.

Relief workers on the ground with GPS-enabled smart phones can take pictures of blocked roads and directly upload them to the application, for example, making images and information instantly available to any of the several hundred users who are logged in at any given time. Layers of information – from locations of hospitals and fueling stations to water distribution points pop up on an easily manipulated map.  The tool can even track outbreaks of infectious diseases.

One month into the Haitian crisis the coordination effort seems to have hit full stride.

“Now that we’ve crossed the threshold of getting this game-changing technology into the hands of real users we see near limitless future applicability,” Clark said. “From analyzing how effective relief efforts have been to automatically connecting similar users from different agencies and countries by calculating the locations and concepts they focus on, we have a world of capabilities at our fingertips.”

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