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Military Facilitates Help in Haiti

Tuesday, February 02, 2010
by Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Generosity has been pouring from every direction to the tiny Caribbean nation of Haiti since the earthquake hit on January 12. But problems arise when coordination falls short. In this instance, however, the communication pieces fell together as if planned, supporting a coordination of efforts in ways that most never imagined. An Internet-based network scheduled to be tested this summer—ironically in a Dominican Republic and Haiti scenario—was put to the test during the real-life crisis and has performed like a charm.

The Transnational Information Sharing Cooperation—the name of the newest version of the All Partners Access Network (APAN)—was developed by the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) as a simple way of communicating with Asia-Pacific countries that may be uncomfortable using the .mil network. During the Haitian crisis, APAN has been a tool for collaboration to get things done and get them done quickly.

Ty Wooldridge, chief of the simulation division, PACOM, explains that the U.S. Defense Department decided to expand the adoption of APAN in other combatant commands nine months after development when the Pentagon saw how useful it could be. As a result, the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) began employing it as a collaboration tool immediately after the quake hit, Wooldridge explains. Coincidentally, both Wooldridge and Jean Dumay, technology manager, DISA, were not at their usual posts at the timein Hawaii or Virginia respectivelybut instead were in Florida, Wooldridge at SOUTHCOM and Dumay in Miami.

Wooldridge explains that APAN takes Web 2.0 capabilities and puts them together in one place on the Internet. Military and other organizations can use them to discuss problems and solutions or simply share information. For assistance in Haiti, the Haiti Relief virtual group was set up and is doing a booming business helping relief groups communicate and assisting volunteers on the ground, he says. The group began with a few hundred members, but within two weeks, this number surpassed 2,000, Dumay shares.

To join the relief group, users first open an APAN account, then they can use it to access the areas of assistance that specifically apply to their organizations. When new information is posted, members are notified in real time. In addition to problem-solving collaboration, the network features situation reports as well as 2-D and 3-D maps of Haiti. A sophisticated search engine facilitates finding a specific interest group, Dumay notes.

The outpouring of support through APAN has not been from U.S. organizations alone, he shares. Organizations from Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia as well as other nations have jumped on the collaboration bandwagon; academia also is taking advantage of the site, including representatives from HarvardUniversity. One particularly interesting capability the network features is chat translation, which enables citizens of different nations to see conversations in their own languages. Although it is about as accurate as other translation software, Dumay says he has been amazed at the English-to-Creole translations, which have even caught some of the nuances of the languages’ phrases.

Offers of assistance are as diverse as the earthquake victims’ needs. One member of the APAN community wanted to donate a solar-powered generator but had no idea who to contact or how to get it there. Through the help of APAN participants, the generator was delivered to Haiti.

Although APAN runs on the Internet rather than a military network, information security is as good as the organizations participating in the group deem. An organization’s management is responsible for ensuring that its members who participate in the site have the right qualifications and can be trusted to communicate using the network, Wooldridge notes.

APAN is not the only military network assisting the earthquake victims. Col. Brian Hermann, USAF, product manager, Defense Connect Online (DCO), explains that like APAN, the DCO is facilitating collaboration by establishing an unclassified network for organizations interested in aiding in Haiti.

A Defense Department collaborative service provided by DISA, the DCO offers a number of capabilities, including Web conferencing and stand-alone chat. Because it runs on both the NIPRNet and the SIPRNet, it supports both classified and unclassified communications; SOUTHCOM has set up chat rooms specifically for Haiti humanitarian operations, Col. Hermann says. Less than two weeks after the earthquake occurred, the chat rooms were receiving 30 to 50 hits per second, he adds.

Although a Defense Department service, mission partners are allowed to participate in the DCO, including other government agencies and NGOs, the colonel adds.