Technology at Sea

Software can speed relief in disasters

Citizen Staff Writer

A hurricane slams into Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, raking the seaside resort town with 120-mph winds.

Within minutes of the storm's landfall, plans for the relief effort are under way in a civil-military operations center aboard a U.S. Navy ship 20 miles off the Baja coast.

It's only a drill. But software developed by University of Arizona researchers help rescue workers prepare for the real thing.

In the drill, nine U.S. Navy personnel representing the Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mexican and U.S. state departments, and Mexican emergency relief agencies sit at computers in the lower deck of the USS Coronado, part of the 3rd Fleet's Sea-Based Battle Lab Initiative.

The question - how best to use the 500 Marines at the scene of the disaster - appears simultaneously on all nine screens.

Nine responses are typed in and begin to pop up on screens across the room.

Next, emergency relief experts based in mainland Mexico and the United States join the computer conference via satellite to determine what supplies will be most needed to help area families.

Minutes later, computers tally their responses and compile a list of supplies, organized by priority and location.

Within two hours, the group has collaborated on a strategy to provide emergency relief to the communities hit hardest by the hurricane, and the relief planning comes to a close.

The decision-making software used in the mock disaster is a GroupSystems program developed by the UA College of Business and Public Administration's Center for Management of Information.

It's designed to help military personnel make decisions during emergencies and battles.

Navy Commander Jack Papp said the software will prove useful in disasters.

"The most useful way we see it being used is in crisis or contingency planning involving both on- and off-shore sources," Papp said.

GroupSystems software supports group decision-making by providing users a method to collect and organize information, then vote on a plan.

It does so by allowing simultaneous conversations and by providing a systematic way to prioritize and categorize information.

People of differing expertise participate through a format similar to a highly organized Internet chat room while a facilitator, usually the commander, decides the process for organizing the information that best fits a given situation.

"The software creates human-generated results, based on a lot of human interaction with very little general computer interaction," said Professor Mark Adkins, associate director of the Center for Management of Information.

In a military emergency, the program would be used to develop different courses of action based on the ship commander's guidance and information provided by experts both on and off ship, he said.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States reduced the number of its foreign military bases to 27 from 172, Adkins said.

To maintain the ability to respond to a foreign crisis, the Navy developed offshore command ships, he said.

Adkins returned last month from two months aboard the Coronado testing the GroupSystems software during simulated emergencies.

"The main goal of the project was to better understand the process the military uses in a manual form and augment it with software programs and technology," he said.

One advantage the software offers is anonymity, Papp said.

People can speak candidly' across ranks and are often more open to suggestions, he said.

The software also has cut the length of meetings in half, he said.

The Navy project is funded by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has provided a $350,000 grant for each year of the project, now in its third year.

UA researchers started developing collaborative software in 1984 with a $1 million grant from IBM to create a program that could make corporate meetings more productive.

GroupSystems software is developed by teams of UA researchers and graduate students.

The software is then refined to commercial quality and marketed by Ventana Corp., opened in 1989 by UA as a spinoff corporation.