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Open Network Aids Haiti Response

July 1, 2010
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
E-mail About the Author

Government agencies and other organizations responding to the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January were able to coordinate efforts better thanks to the deployment of new information-sharing technology. The latest version of the All Partners Access Network (APAN), formerly known as the Asia-Pacific Area Network, made its operational debut during the crisis as a tool to help various nontraditional partners share information in a lateral way.

Previous versions of the APAN featured a structured, vertical information-passing approach. Developers working on the revamped version incorporated suggestions from the user community and created more of a social networking environment built on baseline software products from the company Telligent. Jerry Giles, chief of information services management, U.S. Pacific Command, APAN branch, explains that the former information-sharing method only enabled certain people to see certain pieces. With the most recent format, people can see all the information they needed whether through blogs, forums, SMS texting or other methods.

Users found the open technology especially useful early in the response when everyone was trying to establish what was happening and how best to act. Giles explains that after the initial chaos, some coordination moved back into a more structured framework to meet emerging needs. 

The availability of the technology for responders in the Caribbean was a fortuitous break. U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the U.S. geographic combatant command with responsibility for Latin American and the Caribbean, had been evaluating the software formally as part of a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration. When the call came to assist Haiti, the command was able to deploy the platform to establish communications links with others in the region.

People gain access to APAN simply by signing up for an account on the homepage. However, despite this open nature, security measures restrict universal visibility of all features. Various content owners screen who can access their information. To become part of the Haiti support community, users have to request access through SOUTHCOM Partnership for the Americas knowledge managers. "There are significant security measures built in," Giles says. Last week, the APAN shifted to all secure sockets layer (SSL) transmissions.

One lesson learned from the Haiti deployment was a need to increase the updating schedule. Instead of running APAN on its usual 30-day update increments, developers ran it on a 24-7 watch mode during the response. Project personnel did this to meet the operational need of the disaster responders. Developers also received feedback on other items from SOUTHCOM and additional personnel that they currently are incorporating into the software.

One of the nontechnical lessons learned involved identifying the cultural shift lateral information sharing requires. Giles says that younger users were comfortable passing data in a social network environment while military members over the age of 40 had a lot of concern about exchanging data in that form. Older generations view information as something to control, he explains, and this group preferred capabilities that they were familiar with, such as SharePoint libraries.

Strong-arm control over the collaboration proved a detriment to APAN. Giles shares an example of a group of 40 to 50 people using a certain chat room when an admiral joined in and complained about the chat being wide open. The senior leader wanted to push the various participants into groups. As a result, user numbers dropped to approximately 10 people. Even when APAN personnel opened it back up again to an at-large audience, the numbers never rebounded.