Open network helped Haiti relief efforts

Nonclassified communications system served critical need for coordination

Coordinating relief efforts in the aftermath of a major disaster, such as January’s massive earthquake in Haiti, is a massive undertaking. Throw together a mix of government, nongovernment, civilian and military organizations working together but unable to effectively communicate, and such situations can become chaotic and inefficient.

But the Haiti relief operation had an unusual level of cooperation among aid groups because of an unclassified U.S. government communications network. The All Partners Access Network, formally known as the Asia Pacific Area Network, was created to allow the U.S. military to communicate across borders, especially in regions without developed infrastructure, said Jerry Giles, chief of information services management at the Pacific Command’s APAN Branch in Hawaii.

At the time of the earthquake, the Southern Command was evaluating APAN. Southcom is responsible for operations in the Caribbean and Central and South America. In the wake of the earthquake, the command chose the network as its primary unclassified information sharing capability in the Partnership for America Coordination Center, which oversaw relief efforts.

APAN is accessible via the Internet and hosts forums and Web pages for exchanging information. During the Haiti disaster, Southcom made the network open to anyone interested in joining and sharing information. Giles said participants ran the gamut from military services, government agencies, nongovernment organizations, universities, and commercial firms that provided equipment and expertise.

The network’s openness is one of its great advantages during disaster relief, Giles said. Giles said he has participated in several relief efforts in the Asia Pacific region, and civilian and nongovernment organizations were unable to work online in a single space with the government and military in any of those operations. “I don’t remember anybody sharing information like they did in the Haiti event,” he said.

When people posted requests for assistance on the APAN forums, others responded by sending aid and equipment to various affected areas of the country. The ad hoc activity and immediate response to requests inspired others to contribute and share information on APAN.

Giles cited the example of the Sacre Coeur hospital in Milo, Haiti, which was undamaged in the earthquake. It had a 73-bed capacity and was fully staffed and waiting for patients. But only six people were admitted in the first few days after the earthquake. The hospital posted information on APAN indicating that is was waiting for patients. The Haiti joint task force promptly sent more than 250 patients there and began flying in emergency cases by helicopter.

Several lessons were learned from the Haiti disaster. The first was the need to improve the software for mobile device communications. Giles explained that text messages from the field were the major collaboration platform during the disaster. Incoming texts were pushed into the APAN forum. Because many people conduct business by e-mail messages, he said, there are plans to push texts directly to users’ e-mail accounts. Text messages also save bandwidth, which allows information to be distributed as quickly as possible in areas with damaged and overburdened communications infrastructures.

Anther lesson was the importance of user profiles. At the beginning of the Haiti event, APAN used profiles provided by the Telligent software, which supports the network’s Web capabilities. The profiles identified who users were and their expertise. At first, users were not required for fill out their profiles. But several days into the event, the profiles proved to be very important because they allowed APAN to track the location of experts such as doctors or water quality specialists. “We had to start forcing people to fill out their profiles when they first came on [to the network] so we knew who they are, their expertise and what languages they speak,” he said.

Since the earthquake, APAN has become an active feature on Southcom’s network. Giles said the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will soon begin operating APAN as the Defense Department’s unclassified enterprise information sharing system. APAN representatives are working with DISA to manage how it is stood up, he said.

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