Crowdsourcing and Collaborative Tools in Virtual Online Disaster Relief Scenarios

By Dr. Linton Wells II and Khalil Ali

TIDES is a Department of Defense knowledge-sharing research project at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, located at the National Defense University (NDU). TIDES focuses on low-cost, innovative solutions to provide sustainable support to populations under stress; post-disaster, post-war, impoverished, domestic and foreign. The TIDES project leverages a global network of distributed talent in order to find integrated solutions, sustained through the private sector.

X24 Europe Logo

X24 Europe Logo

Last month, TIDES (Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support) participated in Exercise 24 Europe (X24EUR), a virtual online disaster relief scenario that leveraged social media, crowdsourcing, and collaborative tools in an innovative cloud computing environment. The event took place from March 29th-March 31st and was co-lead by San Diego State University’s Immersive Visualization Center and the United States European Command, and supported by an array of public/private organizations.

X24EUR was based on a hypothetical earthquake in the Balkans followed by a tsunami in the Adriatic Sea that produced significant damage to infrastructure on shore. The purpose of X24EUR was to demonstrate the use of cost effective web tools to gather and share information, establish relationships between European partner nations, and address the activities of international organizations during the first 180 days after a natural disaster.

The X24 series of robust, virtual, online experiments builds on an outstanding lineage. It draws from the exceptional success of the GOLDEN PHOENIX collaborative events held in the San Diego area through 2008. They showed the power not only of collaboration, both real and virtual, but also of broad inclusion. During the last GOLDEN PHOENIX over 140 separate organizations participated–public-private, whole-of-government, trans-national.

X-24 “Southern California” in 2009 involved over 12,500 participants from 79 countries and 90 USG, non-USG, public and private entities. This was not just a technical or academic exercise. Humanitarian Assistance/ Disaster Relief (at home and abroad), Stabilization and Reconstruction, and Building Security Capacity are becoming increasingly important as missions for DoD and, indeed for “whole of government,” and even “whole of nation.” Moreover, the powerful role of social media and “outside the wire” comms is being demonstrated daily, from Haiti to the Gulf Coast to Afghanistan to the Maghreb.

A Simple Framework to Take Advantage of Open Source Information: The figure above shows a framework by which decision-makers can take advantage of open source information, in a variety of security environments

A Simple Framework to Take Advantage of Open Source Information: The figure above shows a framework by which decision-makers can take advantage of open source information, in a variety of security environments (From Haiti to Helmand)

X24EUR provided the opportunity to build additional relationships through open, collaborative operations. Real world experiences have shown the value of having a “neutral space,” like the “Taj Mahal” guest house near Jalalabad, or a university, where people from different backgrounds can engage with each other. TIDES, with its focus on using crowdsourced information, innovative web tools, and low-cost technologies, welcomed the chance to participate in X24EUR. This exercise was an opportunity for TIDES to examine the Crowd, Bridge, Transaction, Feedback model. Organizations must build “bridges” to the enormous amounts of open source and crowdsourced information that is available in the “crowd”. This is an organizational design problem that will differ for each organization, and hopefully participation in X24EUR encouraged organizations to think through the design of their “bridges.”

However, just sharing situational awareness and making good decisions is not enough. They must be converted into effective action on the ground. Until transactions are completed — supplies delivered, people pulled from rubble, contracts fulfilled — the “exchange of electrons” hasn’t really made much of a difference. It is important to consider the logistical aspects of the scenario and how to link transactions to the “crowd’s” information and the “bridge’s” decisions. Finally, feedback is needed. This is not just to make better transactions, but also to inform the international community about what’s working and what isn’t.

Dr. Linton Wells II is the Director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at NDU. He  has served in the Department of Defense for 47 years. During 26 years as a naval officer he served in a variety of surface ships, including command of a destroyer squadron and guided missile destroyer. Before NDU, he spent 16 years in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, serving last as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Networks and Information Integration). He has thrice been awarded the Department of Defense medal for Distinguished Public Service.

Khalil Ali is an intern at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at NDU. He is a graduate student in the School of International Service at American University.

Sign up for Armed with Science email alerts!