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Haiti earthquake response teams use STAR-TIDES model to facilitate coordination and relief operations
By Dr. Linton Wells II and Lou Elin Dwyer - July-September 2010
In the days immediately after the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, the Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support (TIDES) research project team was on the ground and ready to help catalyze knowledge sharing for relief efforts between U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) and a global community of civilian technologists dedicated to the use of geographic information systems (GIS) tools in crisis response.

TIDES is a research project at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP) at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C. It conducts research, provides analysis, and is dedicated to open source knowledge sharing to promote sustainable support to populations under severe stress.

TIDES is part of a broader research effort called STAR (Sharing To Accelerate Research). The global STAR-TIDES network ( promotes distributed collaboration among public-private, whole-of-government and transnational participants. The project is headed by Dr. Lin Wells, the director of CTNSP.

Within hours after the earthquake, TIDES reached out to members of the STAR-TIDES network, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), commercial firms, the Defense Department, and the International Network of Crisis Mappers (CM*Net)/GIS community, to help align the many efforts that were underway to gather and share data for Haiti relief.

A few days after the earthquake, Dr. Wells met with USSOUTHCOM representatives in Miami, Fla., to discuss an open source engagement strategy.

"It was clear that the open source technology community would have a lot to offer, but it was critical to find ways to bridge these capabilities to USSOUTHCOM," Wells said.

The command leaned very far forward and designated points of contact for unclassified information sharing through the "Open Source Team." USSOUTHCOM also set up a Haiti humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) group on the All Partners Access Network (APAN) platform to facilitate collaboration with nontraditional civilian participants "outside the wire." APAN lets users customize experiences, join collaboration groups, connect with people, and easily share information.

Shortly after the earthquake, individuals and teams from open source civilian technology communities, as well as large and small businesses, began leveraging a wide array of distributed expertise through a global network of volunteers. Using a variety of open source tools and social media-enabled approaches took advantage of the collective wisdom of large disparate groups. This approach, also known as crowdsourcing, was used to a greater extent than in any other previous disaster to accelerate insight into what happened where, who needed help, and who could provide it.

There were several circumstances in Haiti that facilitated direct private sector engagement because of the absence of many of the usual government coordination channels. These may or may not be available in future crises, but enough examples emerged to suggest new tools for public-private and transnational cooperation (also termed C2G — citizen to government) to enhance situational awareness and target responses in many cases.

Several examples from Haiti highlight the value of civilian knowledge sharing. Many organizations, public and private, commercial and nonprofit, collaborated to set up the short message system (SMS) 4636 code to provide information to disaster relief centers and bring help quickly to the Haitians. The service allowed survivors to report their needs and location by simply texting on their cell phones. The 4636 code (see Figure 1) was also used to push vital news and information back to the survivors and provide translations.

After the earthquake, relief workers were overwhelmed by messages in Kreyòl (Creole) which exceeded their translation skills. By using Skype, text messaging and other tools, colleagues reached out to Kreyòl speakers around the world for translation support.

To interpret messages like, "People trapped in building by school next to fountain," a distributed network with local knowledge of Port-au-Prince converted such information into street addresses, which were then converted to GPS coordinates, which were passed to search and rescue teams. "One of the people thus rescued came by an NGO center later to thank them for saving him. Such things made it all worthwhile," Wells said.

Graduate students from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, monitored an operations center around the clock to keep data current and to link to imagery processed at the San Diego State University (SDSU) Visualization Laboratory (Viz Lab).

The U.S. Coast Guard launched medical evacuation (medevac) helicopters based on data compiled by Fletcher students, using the open source situational awareness tool Ushahidi. Developed in Kenya, Ushahidi allows anyone to gather data via SMS, e-mail or the Web, and visualize it on a map or timeline. The data from Ushahidi were superimposed on imagery processed at the Viz Lab, and overlaid with an open source collaboration tool called OpenStreetMap (OSM).

Imagery from satellite and aircraft was rapidly distributed, updated with on-the-ground mapping capabilities and fed back to the responders to help target high-need areas. Another very important resource in Haiti was the rapid availability of free imagery — and the willingness to share it.

"The individuals, government organizations, volunteer groups and companies who brought this together deserve great credit, and the use and integration of such technology should be expanded in future disasters, both in the U.S. and abroad. Haiti can serve as a baseline to understand what could be possible and build infrastructure capabilities," Wells said.

The collaborations that took place in Haiti were made easier because many of the individuals providing assistance already knew each other. For example, many of the individuals had built ties through the 2000 to 2006 series of Strong Angel demonstrations and the many activities of the Synergy Strike Force.

Strong Angel is a series of civil-military demonstrations focusing on disaster response. The Synergy Strike Force is a volunteer team that supports humanitarian relief and stabilization efforts in post conflict environments such as those in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The SSF is comprised of individuals with various technical skills and access to a wide range of social networks.

Quarterly experimentation, conducted under the auspices of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), TIDES and others, also helped to promote interactions among the CM*Net and government participants in the months prior to the Haiti earthquake.

For example, in August 2009, a team of geographers, NGO field staff members, government employees and software developers participated in field experiments at Camp Roberts in California. The experiment called RELIEF, or Research and Experimentation for Local and International Emergency and First Responders, included a mix of thought leaders from the open source software community, industry, the military and NGOs that typically provide humanitarian information technologies such as: OpenStreetMap; Walking Papers; Google; InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters); Development Seed; Sahana; GeoCommons/FortiusOne; TerraPan Labs; NPS's Hastily Formed Networks Lab; and SDSU's Viz Lab, as well as observers from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), NDU and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Many of the lessons learned in Haiti can be applied toward enhancing the resilience and ability of the United States to cope with a disaster.

There are multiple international disaster relief strategies making it hard for governments, NGOs, private voluntary organizations, and others to respond in a coordinated way to a crisis. TIDES is working with a number of diverse players to apply many of the lessons learned in Haiti to other stressed environments, such as natural and manmade disasters in other regions, for Afghanistan stabilization and reconstruction, and within the United States. For instance, many of the same groups that worked together in Haiti also cooperated in relief efforts in response to the Chilean earthquake in February.

Senior government officials are beginning to frame a "Grand Challenge" related to the development of an information platform that would enhance America's disaster preparedness and response capacity by increasing the nation's resilience by extending better information sharing capabilities to the American people before, during and immediately after a disaster. A wiki has been set up to help frame the challenge at:

TIDES researchers view the collaboration that emerged out of Haiti as an exceptional global effort, but there is still a lot of work to be done in coordinating HA/DR operations among disparate multiple organizations.

STAR-TIDES has three goals:
  • Enhance the ability of civilian coalitions (business, government and civil society) to operate in stressed environments;
  • Extend the military's ability to work with civil-military mission partners in these circumstances; and
  • Economize by identifying low-cost logistical solutions and improved sources of supply.
Desired Capabilities
  • Fast. Delivery, set-up, using local materials wherever possible;
  • Agile. Multi-use, Reconfigurable; and
  • Effective. Sustainable, secure, low-cost.

For information regarding the development of the SMS 4636 code for Haiti relief go to:

For an example of applying the lessons learned in Haiti to other stressed environments, see “From Haiti to Helmand” at:

Linton Wells II has served in the Department of Defense for 47 years. During 26 years as a naval officer he served on a variety of surface ships. Before coming to 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). After focusing on the STAR-TIDES project he became director of CTNSP in April 2010.

Lou Elin Dwyer is a program specialist with National Defense University.

The Ushahidi Haiti Project, at Tufts University, field representatives. Sabina Carlson, in the background, is showing a community group in Haiti how to use a GPS device.
Figure 1. Ushahidi Haiti Project: the short message system (SMS) 4636 code.
The Ushahidi Haiti Project. Graduate students from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, monitored an operations center around the clock to keep data current and to link to imagery processed at San Diego State University’s Visualization Laboratory (Viz Lab). Above, Fletcher students in Ushahidi Lab’s situation room where students worked from February through May on the project.
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