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Networked disaster response and homeland security : cheaper, more flexible -- and inevitable

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Message W David Stephenson
The first anniversary of Katrina, as well as the recent revelation that several loosely-networked cells were involved in the thwarted UK plane bombings, should be a wake-up call to the U.S.: our disaster, pandemic terrorism response strategy is poorly matched to the realities of a rapidly-changing hurricane or pandemic or to a networked terrorist enemy.

A 1996 study for the Pentagon, The Advent of Netwar, showed terrorist groups are networked instead of hierarchical, so our military's anti-terror strategy now matches that threat. As the study said, "Logically, fighting a networked enemy requires the US to form networks to fight networks, and decentralizing operational decision-making authority."

However, Katrina showed DHS was inflexible, lacked redundancy, reacted slowly to changing conditions, and, when chain of command was interrupted, individual components couldn't adapt and become self-directed (with the noteworthy exception of the Coast Guard, whose operating principles include giving local commanders latitude to take initiative in a crisis). So why does the Department of Homeland Security still emphasize top-down, command-and-control strategy at home, especially if, as the Administration says, we face much the same type of terrorist enemy here (plus natural disasters exhibiting the same unpredictability and disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable)?

Convergence of 3 social and technological network trends:

* the aforementioned networked enemies, literal and figurative
* the new science of networked social behavior,
* widespread adoption of networked personal communication devices and applications

make a networked anti-terror and disaster strategy as or more relevant at home, particularly to productively involve the public beyond simply coping during the first 72 hours.

The science of networked behavior is the least understood of these trends. Studies of ant and bee behavior discovered more sophisticated synergistic behavior by a colony or hive "emerges" than is predictable from individual organisms' abilities. Now, Management consultants say we can and must foster the same phenomenon in business and government, stimulating flexibility, robustness, and self-organizing -- 3 qualities missing in Katrina and terrorism prevention planning.

Remember that on 9/11, the only effective response was the epitome of emergent behavior: total strangers spontaneously coalesced on Flight 93. Similarly, individuals came together via the Internet during Katrina, providing invaluable and reliable information and services to victims while government was impotent.

So emergent behavior empowering the public is possible even in a terrorist attack or a disaster. Does that warrant making encouraging it a formal part of homeland security planning, and, if so, how?

Rapid spread of increasingly networked (especially peer-to-peer) communications devices, such as "mesh" laptop networks linking automatically (even without an Internet connection), has already made the choice for us. Human nature dictates that individuals will instinctively turn to the increasing array of electronics they use daily -- and control -- to contact others for comfort and mutual assistance in a disaster, whether or not authorities want them to.

And why not? Those who knew to send text messages instead of voice could still communicate in Manhattan and New Orleans during the disasters because text uses little bandwidth and routing around obstacles. People spontaneously send cameraphone photos of crimes to police in time to apprehend suspects. Some new real-time traffic alert systems rely on digital reports from users' cars at an accident scene.

However, having many individuals with communication devices does not assure emergent behavior: the people must actually interact. Collaborative software programs, such as wikis, and social networking communication services foster interaction. Consider, which 20-somethings use to bring friends together via a single text message instantly relayed to all their contacts in a 10-block radius. In a crisis, could instead summon nearby friends and relatives to plan a cooperative response, or satisfy the need to notify relatives you're safe, through a single, instantly-broadcast text message instead of repeated, system-clogging voice calls (Pheeder allows a similar one-to-many messaging system for voice calls).

Networked homeland security is feasible today, cheaper and quicker to deploy using existing technology than dedicated government emergency communications systems. By facilitating those qualities needed in a crisis -- flexibility, robustness, and self-organizing -- it would transform the general public from victims, waiting for aid that may never come, into self-reliant components of the response.

Since networked communications and the science of emergent behavior mean government has already effectively lost control of information flow in a disaster, it can either capitalize on this phenomenon, finding innovative ways to treat the public as full partners in preparation and response, or we the people will simply take matters into our own hands.
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W. David Stephenson is principal, Stephenson Strategies, Medfield MA. He is a freelance homeland security strategist and consultant, specializing in innovative uses of personal, networked communication devices and applications to empower the public (more...)
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Networked disaster response and homeland security : cheaper, more flexible -- and inevitable

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