Mary Topic is a research intern at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University. She works primarily on the Tranformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support (TIDES) project. Currently, she is studying at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.
Situated near Paso Robles in central California, Camp Roberts fits the description of a desert to a tee. The climate that is hot and dry, and the land is mostly devoid of anything but scrub vegetation. It’s also isolated, with the nearest town being a half hour’s drive away. Even network communication can be difficult due to intermittent internet connectivity. Its desolate appearance, however, belies its utility. The setting is precisely the right environment for testing emergency relief and development technologies.
Because of its similarity to many austere environments, Camp Roberts is well suited for hosting a project called Research & Experimentation for Local & International Emergency & First-Responders (RELIEF). RELIEF had its beginning as experiments involving technologies such as portable water purification units that were carried out by the Naval Postgraduate School. Early in 2009 the Tranformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support (TIDES) and members of the geospatial community joined to conduct these quarterly experiments. Currently, one of the main functions of RELIEF is bringing together people within the “tech” community, such as software developers and engineers, and government agencies. RELIEF now exists as a partnership between the Naval Postgraduate School and the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University
Beyond simply getting these people in the same place, RELIEF is able to facilitate demonstrations, experiments, and communication between these communities. In the past, everything from shelters to a low-cost flyaway kit has been tested at RELIEF. On the more technological side, in 2009, when the geospatial community first came to RELIEF, efforts were combined to test an open source mapping strategy that was later used to support the 2009 Afghan elections. More recently, in May of 2011, a natural language algorithm was tested at RELIEF. The program was developed as a way of prioritizing different messages that might be sent to aid workers following a disaster (such as in Haiti, where crowsourced information was sent to volunteers via text messages). Tests in the context of RELIEF, showed that this algorithm can prioritize message ten times more quickly than simply doing it manually. These are just two tangible examples of the kinds of results that can be achieved within just a few days of collaboration between the government and the experts from the technology community.
RELIEF will be next convening from August 3-5, 2011. The focus will be on developing an iterative process for ongoing cross sectoral research and development within the development and disaster relief communities. In plain English, this means looking at solutions to the kinds of communication problems that arise in disaster situations, such as systems that are able to work together and alternative power sources. We are greatly looking forward to see what results from bringing all of these people together under this common purpose.