Cloud Shines Brightly as Future of Disaster Response IT

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The call for help began as a rumble.
Twenty miles beneath the ocean’s surface, a rupture in a massive tectonic plate ripped a 310 mile-long break in the sea floor, sending an army of seismic waves to the coast of Japan, a geologic event as unavoidable and uncontrollable as it was unpredictable. By the time the earth again stood still and the subsequent tsunami receded from Japanese shores, the enormity of the tragedy was left to see, even as so much of the landscape was wiped clean by the waves.

Responding in Haiti

Help From Above

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti brought out the best in the world’s desire to help, but also brought an avalanche of inter-operability issues. At the request of an Intelligence Agency and under the auspices of NCOIC, NJVC led a simulated response to the disaster, demonstrating the effectiveness of the cloud in disaster responses in 2013. Lessons learned from this event were presented on Thursday, Sept. 12, at the Gannett Building in McLean, VA. For more on the project, visit, and check back at
Even in as technologically advanced, disaster-prepared nation as Japan, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami were overwhelming, registering historic on the seismic meter of tragedy and loss.
In the disaster, however, were the beginnings of a promise for a more responsive future: implementation of cloud computing as a technology for relief—a call for help answered before the roar had stopped.
“The disaster proved the cloud’s ability, efficiency and advantages in emergency response on a national basis,” Ben Katsumi, chief researcher, Information-Technology Promotion Agency, Japan, concluded in a 2013 presentation at CloudScape V.

Humanitarian disasters are as ancient as humanity itself, but the connection revolution that created the global village has made distant lands nearby neighbors. From the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 to the earthquakes in Chile, Haiti and Japan, awareness of disasters reaches around the globe in time measured in milliseconds. Local disasters, perhaps smaller in scale, are no less hurtful in relative terms and face similar challenges in disaster response.
Yet as global reach increases, so does global responsibility.

While awareness of disaster is near instantaneous, from tornados in Alabama to a tsunami in Banda Aceh, cloud computing is a technology that makes achievable the desire to help in a way inconceivable a decade earlier.
In the Japanese disaster, the outlines of cloud computing as a response tool were drawn from crowd sourced sites, like USHAHIDI and Google’s PeopleFinder to Microsoft’s deployment of its cloud applications and platform for development of disaster-specific apps.

In a demonstration by the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium (NCOIC), Sept. 12,  which will discuss learned from a recreation of the 2010 Haitian earthquake response, the outline of cloud computing as a disaster response tool will be further filled in. When disaster strikes, the desire to help is universal. In the near future, cloud computing can be the technology that makes global reach a reality.

The Challenge of Disaster Response IT

Disaster response IT comprises the same building blocks as traditional IT—servers, networks, applications and the like—but its deployment is as unpredictable as the disasters themselves. Moreover, in the best-case scenario, money invested in response technology will never be used in practice. For disaster responders, this unique challenge creates an intricate calculus of benefit against cost, in which, unlike traditional IT, what sits in the balance is human life and well-being, rather than simply productivity and efficiency. With lives on the line, pennies can’t easily be pinched, leading to solutions which may address an unlikely scale of disaster. Alternately, over engineering for the worst case may result in wasted dollars in already tight federal, state and local IT budgets.

Additionally, implementation is unlike anything else in IT. Instead of immaculately maintained, temperature-regulated server rooms, systems are often deployed in the world’s rawest conditions, where performance must be reliable despite imperfect surroundings.
The solution, said Kevin L. Jackson, NJVC Vice President and General Manager, Cloud Services, is cloud computing, whose strengths neatly fill in the gaps of existing disaster IT.

“For emergency responders, cloud computing and cloud services brokerage are not just game changers, they’re a whole new ballgame,” Jackson said. “This is do-more-with-less in enterprise technology. By only paying for the services you consume, you’re providing first responders access to better technology at a much lower price without many of the traditional obstacles of deploying warehouses of IT equipment. By moving infrastructure out of the disaster are, you’re greatly reducing risk.” Jackson believes the same benefits that private business have realized through cloud computing can be utilized by emergency responders, whose actions don’t simply save dollars, but lives.

Avoiding Sunk Cost—Pay for Use

When disaster IT is in use, it’s vital. When it isn’t, it’s simply an expense.
Unlike an office e-mail server, most disaster response IT isn’t in constant use,
 but the lifecycle cost is, eating away at already tight budgets.

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Kevin L. Jackson, NJVC Vice President and General Manager, Cloud Services is a leading voice in federal and commercial cloud strategy. Kevin is the author of the Cloud Musings blog and two books on federal cloud computing. Read More
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Cloud computing, and particularly provisioning through a cloud services brokerage (CSB) platform, allows disaster responders to create comprehensive response systems that fully meet extreme requirements without sacrificing the budget it would take to support those solutions if they were locally owned, hosted and maintained.

“Cloud computing is a technology that is ideal for disaster response,” Jackson said. “Instead of leveraging IT budgets to maintain and upgrade hardware and software, cloud allows responders to devote more IT dollars to the mission of response. Disaster response should be about people helping people, not managing technology.”

Migrations to cloud-based disaster response are already underway. Following the 2011 earthquake, Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture, developed an emergency management system in the cloud, which goes live when disaster warnings are issued.

Supporting Interoperable Standards

It is a testament to the best in humanity and the worst in IT that the problem in disaster response is the how-to, not the want-to. According to lessons learned from many disaster responses, both global and local, the headquarters of disaster response is a high-tech Tower of Babel. Between language barriers, software integration problems and wildly differing circumstances locally, the inability of responders to communicate routinely appears as the single biggest problem.

Often, multiple groups of responders also mean huge amounts of geospatial data of differing quality multiple applications and a lack of information sharing, which can impact mission success. A 2009 report by the Red Cross listed “leadership and coordination” first among its lessons learned following the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It is a theme often repeated.

“Many of the biggest problems in humanitarian disasters are that response groups, all well-intentioned, simply don’t speak the same language on many levels,” Jackson said. “They are working on different systems in different languages, blunting the full capability of disaster response and negatively impacting their combined mission.”
At the request of an Intelligence Community agency and under the auspices of NCOIC, NJVC led a group to reenact the 2010 Haiti earthquake response using cloud technology to create playbook for multi-national response. NJVC provided its Cloudcuity Brokerage and Management Portal to bring together responder applications and services and foster interoperable standards.  “One of the most important elements in response is that everyone works from the same high-quality information,” Jackson said. “Cloud-based interoperable standards are a most important tool to keeping multiple responding organizations on the same page.”
In a lessons learned report on the Haiti earthquake, Dennis King, Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, wrote that technology utilizing interoperable standards is the most beneficial in disaster response. “Tools and technologies that are interoperable, non-proprietary no/low-cost, self-contained, easy to access and easy to use are the most effective,” King explained in an October 2010 issue of Humanitarian Exchange Magazine. Use of cloud, particularly CSB, best supports sharing of information and applications across the response team.

Risk Reduction

“The 2010 earthquake demonstrated that development will never be successful if we don’t build risk reduction into our core,” concluded Theirry Mayard-Paul, Haiti Chief of Staff and Minister of Interior, Territorial Collectives and National Defense, in a 2012 presentation to the Consultative Group Meeting of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. Cloud computing is, by its nature, a risk-reduction vehicle. Failover clouds create redundancy. Servers located far from the disaster mitigate the risk to further damage. Infrastructure hosted in non-damaged areas reduces the risk of further complications following a disaster—such as earthquake aftershocks or civil unrest—impeding disaster response.
The scale of response may be unknown until well after the disaster, as with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
By contrast, the current model of disaster response IT begins by rebuilding
infrastructure locally, burning valuable response time and putting any rebuilt infrastructure at risk in an unstable environment. Resources dedicated to logistics represent savings leakage as servers are shipped to warehouses then deployed, requiring increased coordination and monitoring. Unstable conditions on the ground may prevent immediate deployment; further wasting valuable time. The technical challenges of setting up networks and services in damaged areas may be a barrier to completion altogether. Cloud computing reduces risk to onsite interruptions due to further unrest—manmade or natural.
With cloud computing, remaining infrastructure and failover infrastructure can be supported before boots hit the ground. Networks can be reestablished, and local emergency sites brought live quickly. Further, removing much of the infrastructure from the supply chain eases the logistics of monitoring and maintaining hardware in an unpredictable environment, reducing further risk in a way current models don’t.

Ensure Mission Continuity

While businesses, government agencies and NGOs have long been diligent about backing up data, they haven’t been as exacting in its restoration. Backup data may be stored nearby, and failover servers may not exist for public facing emergency response sites. Cloud computing allows for quick restoration of services and networks, with data stored far away from the site. As much of the cyber infrastructure of cloud computing itself isn’t located in the disaster zone, threats to existing expensive infrastructure are greatly mitigated, ensuring that events—natural or manmade—won’t wreck the infrastructure, which required great effort to rebuild.

Improved Time to Live and Scalability

Because cloud computing can be provisioned on an as-needed basis, solutions can be built in advance and turned on when necessary, either triggered by disaster alerts or manually brought live far from the scene of the disaster. CSB, either as self-provisioning platform or through full-service brokerage with (vendor management and integration included) marks the next step in creating solutions that are expansive, yet low-cost.
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A self-provisioned, internal CSB or full-service CSB can be a revolutionary tool in disaster response, Jackson said. “Cloud services brokerage will allow responding organizations to design their services, from platform to applications, in advance, and then nimbly switch the services live as needed. Responders can then deploy with apps and servers live before any boots hits the ground.”
Pre-brokered solutions could be activated in concert with alert warnings or incident reports, ensuring the tools needed are available immediately and public-facing civil sites remain active—even as local infrastructure may be damaged.
Because cloud services can be provisioned on a pay-as-you-go service, a wide range of applications can be launched for responders to use as needed, without the concern of paying for licenses that won’t be used. Technology can then be scaled relative to the size of response without the traditional difficulty of physically adding additional servers or acquiring licenses.

Crowdsourcing—Letting Survivors Help

The ubiquity of smart phones and other connected devices can allow survivors to participate in their own relief if connectivity remains, or when it is restored, allowing for two-way communication between responders and survivors. In 2010, Google’s Person Finder service helped survivors of the Chile earthquake find missing friends and family members, and has been used successfully several times since—most recently in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack.
Ushahidi, an open-source interactive mapping platform whose name is Swahili for “witness,” was used to establish a crowd-sourced site within hours of the earthquake in Japan, allowing survivors to connect to each other and access information. One year earlier in Haiti, Ushahidi reported 80,000 text messages received, 3,000 of which were used during the response
With 3.5 billion short message service users worldwide, cloud-based aggregation tools allow responders a deep examination of affected areas, anywhere in the world.

Moving at the Speed of Need

The call for help never comes with neat milestones, tucked into a fiscal year calendar. Disasters don’t adhere to workday schedules or occur in only accessible areas.
“Disasters are a part of life,” Jackson said. “We can’t change that fact. But cloud computing is part of the response solution. We can’t stop disasters, but we can absolutely make our response more effective.”
When the call for help comes again, the answer may be waiting in the cloud.

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