Collaborating Angels

The challenge for Cmdr. Eric Rasmussen, a U.S. Navy physician, was to find technology that civilian and military organizations could use to manage the flow of information regarding disaster relief efforts in less-than-ideal environments.

To find the right solution, Rasmussen put several products through their paces at Strong Angel II, a series of exercises designed to improve civilian-military collaboration during postconflict humanitarian operations.

Strong Angel II, held last summer in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, with participants from 20 military and civilian agencies, was intended to demonstrate proposed technological remedies to the collaboration problems hindering disaster relief efforts. Organizations involved included the U.S. departments of Defense and Homeland Security, the U.S. Central Command, the American Red Cross, NATO and the Coalition Provisional Authority for Iraq, as well as universities and hospitals.

According to Rasmussen, the secretary of defense asked him to solve problems that had been identified by a number of individuals and organizations during and immediately after the war in Iraq.

Previously, decisions about the allocation of humanitarian aid were based on a four-page paper form containing 312 pieces of information, says Rasmussen. The data included information about deaths and injuries, physical damage, medical supply needs, water and sanitation conditions, and the needs of refugees.

After the form was completed, it had to be physically carried by military personnel to operations centres, where the information was then entered manually into a database, often by Rasmussen. Only then could it be used to prioritize and match the needs in the field with supplies, people and other resources, he says.

Rasmussen needed communication and collaboration technologies designed to transfer critical, sensitive data from the field to operations headquarters quickly and securely in any environment.

After considering several products, including Documentum Inc.’s eRoom and IBM Corp.’s Lotus Domino, he selected Groove Networks Inc.’s Virtual Office 3 for testing during Strong Angel II. A key reason for the choice was the software uses a decentralized architecture, so it resides on users’ PCs, not on a central server, says Rasmussen.

“Because Groove is a peer-to-peer application and has one server on which the data is hosted, it ends up being a kind of neutral ground — no one owns the data, no one owns the solution,” says Robert Kirkpatrick, solutions architect at Beverly, Mass.-based Groove.

The tool also had to provide encryption because Rasmussen wanted it to be usable on any network, even in, say, an Internet cafe in downtown Samarra, Iraq. Groove uses military-grade 192-bit encryption, so all the information stored on users’ PCs and sent across the Internet is secure, he says.

The software can send encrypted XML documents and messages between PCs via the Internet. If a user is behind a firewall, the software pushes the encrypted XML messages to a relay server, a store-and-forward router with a disk, where the XML packet is wrapped in HTTP and sent to the recipient’s PC by tunneling through the firewall port that’s open for Internet traffic.

If a user sends a message to someone who is off-line, the encrypted message is stored at the relay server and is then sent automatically when the person comes back online, Rasmussen says.

Because Groove is client software, not Web-based, all the tools and materials reside on the PC, so people can work off-line as well as online. When an off-line user reconnects to the Internet, the software automatically synchronizes, so everyone working in the shared space has up-to-date information, according to Rasmussen.

The tool also needed to have alerting queues so Rasmussen would know about anything that changed anywhere in the system. And, he says, the software had to be free because there was no way to distribute licenses.

“We needed to be able to say, ‘Go to this address on the Web, download it, and pick it up,’ because Groove offered a 30-day trial — although we had to continue beyond that trial period,” he says.

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