By M. Karen Walker, contractor, Office of Corporate Communications, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (www.nga.mil), Bethesda, Md.
The U.S. response toHaiti’s January 2010 earthquake in demonstrated the life-saving power of governmental, private-sector and nongovernmental organizations working together during disaster response. Thanks to an emerging group of organizations loosely called Volunteer Technical Communities (VTCs)—such as the International Network of Crisis Mappers, OpenStreetMap, the Global Earth Observation Catastrophe Assessment Network, Google Map Maker, Ushahidi and CrisisCommons, among others—relief workers and international aid coordinators had access to a wealth of geospatial information to help them manage the response.
The VTCs’ Haiti response expanded efforts by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to provide situational awareness and complemented the agency’s holistic approach to disaster response. The VTCs produced geospatial information products immediately useful to relief workers,
allowing NGA’s team to focus on deeper and more specialized analyses for environmental and critical infrastructure assessments and forecasting population movements.
John Crowley, a researcher with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and National Defense University’s Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support program, helped marshal resources following the Haiti earthquake and credits the Haiti response with a “complete transformation in how we use geospatial information for crisis response.”
Applying Lessons Learned
The Haiti earthquake response offers several positive lessons for government officials seeking to build trust and teaming relationships with nontraditional partners. Crowley emphasized four elements in particular—building momentum for a broad-based and strategic public-private partnership independent of a crisis response, solidifying collegial relationships before a crisis response, creating a neutral space in which to test the mechanisms for collaboration, and defining roles to provide consistency and a common frame of reference to guide future endeavors.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored a project called Strong Angel, one of the early catalysts for connecting global communications technologies, geospatial information and disaster response. Originally developed to train Marines for humanitarian operations like they do for combat, Strong Angel experiments in 2000, 2004 and 2006 used real-world scenarios and DARPA-like challenges to drive rapid innovation of information-sharing technologies, with a special focus on the interoperability of geospatial tools.
In late 2009, the International Conference of Crisis Mappers convened a public-private dialogue under the auspices of Harvard and Tufts universities to delve more deeply into geospatial information technologies. According to Crowley, the overarching purpose was to understand and harness the potential of crowd sourcing, text messaging, human geography, remote sensing and other tools to provide the best possible geospatial data for disaster planning and crisis response.
When the earthquake struck Haiti, VTCs like Crisis Mappers knew exactly how they could help. Volunteer experts in remote sensing exchanged the latest aerial and satellite imagery and committed thousands of hours of labor to process more than 9 terabytes of raw imagery. Cartographers and Web technologists used the imagery to build an OpenStreetMap workflow that generated vector data, sending the results to the MapAction team in the U.N.’s On-Site Operations Coordination Centre.
In addition to these new maps, Ushahidi and other text messaging-based platforms placed the locations of more than 30,000 reports from the affected population into a Haitian text messaging shortcode. Volunteers at Stanford University worked with 1,200 members of the Haitian diaspora to translate these reports (usually received via text message or Twitter) into English.
Creating a Neutral Space
Using the Strong Angel model, Crowley encouraged the VTCs and NGA to collaborate during a series of quarterly field experiments at Camp Roberts, Calif., in 2011 known as RELIEF (Research and Experimentation for Local and International Emergency First Responders). RELIEF provided the neutral space needed to look at the broad range of legal, policy and operational issues associated with interaction among the VTCs and a growing group of U.S. government agencies involved in disaster response.
Defining Roles for Consistency, Common Reference
The RELIEF experiments produced a conceptual workflow for geospatial information, with the Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) in the role of facilitator. HIU is developing a procedure to manage and prioritize VTC requests for baseline data.
Sustaining Momentum for Future Events
NGA’s Katie Baucom and her colleagues at HIU look forward to stewarding the relationship with the VTCs in parallel with NGA’s Integrated Work Group for Readiness, Response and Recovery (IWG-R3), which provides content, processing and application services to NGA’s emergency preparedness, response and recovery mission partners.
The constructs and relationships developed with the VTCs give the IWG-R3 a jump start toward mission success, with more rapid, dynamic and effective ways of accessing NGA’s unclassified information. In turn, the increasing availability of high-quality open geospatial information means that during a crisis response, NGA analysts can dedicate more time to performing deeper and more predictive analyses for its mission partners.