28 March 2010

Disaster Relief: Go Unclassified Early

Major Kelly Webster, the executive officer of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, recently returned from Haiti with some outstanding advice for anyone who might partake in future disaster relief missions. Once again, the military's information technology policies--often erring on the side of security--have proven to be an impediment to mission accomplishment, encouraging troops to bypass the DoD's software and rely on commercial applications. (An issue my friends and I have covered time and time and time again...)

Says Major Webster:
Go unclassified early - The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fought on classified information systems. While an operational necessity for these conflicts, most disaster relief partners, to include a majority of the US Embassy staff, can neither see nor access classified material. During the initial days of the relief operation, the ability to pass timely and accurate information...was arguably as important as the availability of food and water. In the initial weeks of Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE, Blackberry text messages became the primary means of communication, chiefly because they were the simplest and most reliable means of corresponding with the host of US Government agencies, United Nations offices, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) coordinating the relief efforts. Going “unclassified” required several unique hardware solutions; among which was purchasing unclassified hard drives for most of the BCT’s computer systems. While a costly investment, the decision allowed the BCT to share information with all government agencies and humanitarian organizations working in Port-au-Prince.
Later, Major Webster also notes:
The [Humanitarian Assistance Common Operational Picture] was a Microsoft Excel-based spreadsheet containing over 1500 data points on everything from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps to medical facilities to ration distribution sites. Utilizing this simple, near-universal format allowed the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to display the information on a Google Earth based website where anyone with internet access could access the information.
This is one reason why the USB drive ban is so detrimental to mission accomplishment. During disaster relief, the US military might need to share critical data with Non-Governmental Organizations, which often lack the military's robust communications infrastructure. This may very well mean opening up USB ports across the board.

It also means that the military has got to start taking advantage of Google Earth-style networks in order to share a common operating picture with NGOs. However, this might be easier said than done. We have enough difficulties simply sharing a common operating picture between aviation units (which use PFPS and Falcon View) and infantry units (which use Blue Force Tracker BFT and the Command Post of the Future CPOF systems).

Lastly, Major Webster also gives credit to Colonel Gary Anderson, the author of a brief two-page article on disaster relief which appeared in Small Wars Journal immediately following the Haitian earthquake. Major Webster mentions that he not only relied on this SWJ article, but that he also contacted Colonel Anderson directly for some additional pointers. SWJ FTW!

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