(Because Charlie Simpson already took the title “If Kafka Designed IT Systems”)
I was reminded of some amusing anecdotes about military IT systems as I fired up my Army Knowledge Online (AKO) e-mail and realized, once again, that I despise the system. It's probably the worst e-mail system known to man. Despite the fact that I have a Google e-mail account with several gigabytes of storage, poor AKO only offers a mere 100 MB of storage. When I was in Iraq, I would write regular e-mails to the families of Soldiers back home, and I would almost always use my Gmail account instead of my military account, as I could actually send pictures and video with Gmail as opposed to AKO.
Indeed, in early 2008, AKO banned all Blackberry access, citing security concerns, while Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, Eudora, you name it, all offered instantaneous e-mail access through Blackberries and other mobile devices. As such, I’ve primarily used Gmail for nearly all correspondence—the only e-mails I get from AKO are spam (particularly from civilian headhunters), chain mails, and e-mails from disgruntled Soldiers as they leave the Army. (I really wish I were kidding about that last one, too. But that's a post for another time)
I think there’s quite a bit we can learn from the private sector when it comes to collecting, processing and sharing information. For example, in 2005, I flew to New Orleans to take part in the massive disaster relief effort following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Now, we aviators have specialized flight-planning software, often coupled with satellite imagery in order to help plan flight routes. Unfortunately, there was little satellite imagery in our database for New Orleans—all the terrain data I had was for Fort Bragg, Iraq and Afghanistan. We received semi-regular updates via monthly CD-ROMs, but they almost always covered obscure locales in Africa and the Russian interior—hardly useful for New Orleans.
All in all, I could only view imagery and print out one or two different types of maps. The first was a 1:250,000 scale map—hardly detailed enough for responding to requests for a rescue or emergency supplies at the intersection of two streets or a rooftop downtown. The other map was a 1:50,000 map which was last updated in the 1950s. Needless to say, when you take into consideration that we coordinated with rescue authorities who described locations in terms of road intersections or landmarks, instead of latitude and longitudes, as we deal with in the aviation community, simply navigating New Orleans was a nightmare at first. Fortunately, we decided to fly IFR—I Follow Roads, Railroads, Rivers…often flying low enough to read the street signs and making turns like cars did. (This was years before I realized that Reach 364 made our life much simpler and merged the DoD’s Portable Flight Planning Software system with Google Earth, making street navigation that much more simple)
Anyway, I loaded up the newly-released Google Earth, and was amazed to find that, a mere three days after the hurricane, it featured up-to-date imagery, which even showed the flood damage in the city. The imagery was in full-color, it depicted street names and city landmarks, and most importantly, it could portray the buildings in 3-d. Perfect for those tricky landing zones in the parking lot of the Louisiana Superdome!
Spencer Ackerman recently hit upon the use of commercial IT systems, but this article in the New York Times goes into even further detail on how valuable commercial software can be for military applications:
But while the biggest timesaver would be to automatically scan [video from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] for trucks and armed men, that software is not yet reliable. And the military has run into the same problem that the broadcast industry has in trying to pick out football players swarming on a tackle.
So Cmdr. Joseph A. Smith, a Navy officer assigned to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which sets standards for video intelligence, said he and other officials had climbed into broadcast trucks outside football stadiums to learn how the networks tagged and retrieved highlight film.
“There are these three guys who sit in the back of an ESPN or Fox Sports van, and every time Tom Brady comes on the screen, they tap a button so that Tom Brady is marked,” Commander Smith said, referring to the New England Patriots quarterback. Then, to call up the highlights later, he said, “they just type in: ‘Tom Brady, touchdown pass.’ ”
Lt. Col. Brendan M. Harris, who is in charge of an intelligence squadron here, said his analysts could do that. He said the Air Force had just installed telestrators on its latest hand-held video receiver, and harried officers in the field would soon be able to simply circle the images of trucks or individuals they wanted the drones to follow.
I’m speechless. Great initiative on the part of the US military, by the way.
Focus: What other commercial applications which have great military value?