By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, July 24, 2014 – The Defense Department is using geospatial, or mapping, technology in a tool that will soon be available to assist countries and organizations dealing with the deadly consequences of hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters and humanitarian crises, experts from DoD and U.S. Southern Command said in a recent DoD News interview.
The open-source software is called GeoSHAPE, which stands for geospatial tool for security, humanitarian assistance and partnership engagement, Elmer L. Roman said.
Roman is oversight executive for efforts that include building partnerships and serves in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, or AT&L.
"This tool is basically used to build capacity to help support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situations, as well as enabling organizations and governments to enhance the security of their people and citizens," he explained. "That's what 'SHAPE' in the name GeoSHAPE stands for."
When it's ready for use worldwide, the GeoSHAPE software will be accessible in two ways: through an Internet portal using an application called DisasterAWARE hosted by the Pacific Disaster Center, or PDC, in Hawaii, and downloadable software openly available on the Internet.
The PDC has been managed since 2006 by the University of Hawaii under a cooperative agreement with the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. The center's program office provides humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations and defense support to civil authorities.
GeoSHAPE integrates data from multiple sources and displays it in a dynamic Internet-based map to provide situational awareness and help decision-making.
GeoSHAPE software shows, for instance, the location and availability of hospitals, helicopter landing zones, food, water and medical supplies, the condition of roads and bridges, the deployment of rescue personnel to affected areas, and other key elements that are plotted in a map that authorized users can see from anywhere in the world.
The mobile application Arbiter, part of the GeoSHAPE capability, lets users capture data and photos in the field.
Organizations can use these tools to collaboratively create a dynamic picture of available resources and the extent of damage. This can be available in near real time when connectivity is present or synchronized as soon as a connection is established.
"GeoSHAPE is really about improving our mapping capabilities [with] maps of situations,” said Juan Hurtado, Southcom science advisor. “You're not only going to have a location, you're going to have a time that's uniquely associated with it."
A paper map is static, he noted. “But if you have a disaster you can say, ‘At 3 o’clock in this location, this is the situation.’ At 5 o’clock, you update the map based on the situation as it changes. That's what this map is -- so you can improve the response to a disaster."
The need for GeoSHAPE technology and the capability became apparent during the multi-organizational response to the magnitude 7.0 earthquake and tsunami surges in the Port-au-Prince, Haiti, region in January 2010.
Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations personnel reported gaps in ways to create and share geographic data on critical aspects of emergency response. At the time, government and nongovernmental organizations had no common, unclassified geospatial information exchange tool for coordinating relief efforts.
To fill the technology gap, DoD led a geospatial effort called the Rapid Open Geospatial User-Driven Enterprise, or ROGUE, joint capability technology demonstration, approved in 2012. JCTDs are DoD programs that quickly and cost effectively introduce new or modified technologies to address critical military needs.
"In 2012, OSD AT&L, in coordination with U.S. Southern Command and the U.S. Army Geospatial Center, started the effort to enable these multiple organizations to be able to share unclassified information across the Internet, especially geospatial information," Roman said.
Other organizations involved in the program are the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, the State Department's Humanitarian Information Unit, the Pacific Disaster Center and LMN Solutions, an information technology company.
By June 2014, the GeoSHAPE open-architecture mapping software was ready to be demonstrated in Honduras by representatives of Southcom's Science, Technology and Experimentation Division, the Honduran Permanent Contingency Commission or COPECO, Joint Task Force-Bravo or JTF-B, the U.S. Embassy Honduras, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
From June 9 to June 13, the software was tested during a simulated response to a hurricane. According to a Southcom news release, Honduras provided a realistic setting for assessing the software's utility during a complex humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation.
In addition to GeoSHAPE, Hurtado said, over the two years of development the team had developed or assessed other technologies that could be used for disaster response.
"For this demonstration event in Honduras," he added, "under [Roman's] leadership, … we brought together other things to see if those independently developed systems for disaster response could be integrated with GeoSHAPE and see if they made a difference."
Hurtado said they tested how GeoSHAPE and the other technologies improved disaster response. Here are the technologies they tested:
-- A portable unmanned aerial system with an on-board camera that allows for overhead visual assessments of damage, sponsored by DoD's Rapid Reaction Technology Office;
-- A wireless mesh network to provide Internet access to remote or disconnected areas;
-- A medical application developed in conjunction with U.S. Army Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, or TATRC, for speech translation system that allows doctors and patients to better communicate when language is a barrier;
-- The All Partners Access Network, or APAN, collaboration portal that provides a place for organizations to coordinate events across geographic barriers, among other technology tools.
In the testing, Hurtado said, "it came out that you can make decisions a lot faster, because the information comes so quickly that the analysts at the emergency operations center would quickly see how the situation was developing on the ground."
There was a point at which the analysts had so much data it was almost as though the situation was really happening and not a simulation, he added.
"With GeoSHAPE, Hurtado added, they can see immediately and can make decisions right there on the ground," he said.
For the past 12 or more years, Roman said, "we -- particularly Southcom, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Pacific Command and other geographic commands -- have been engaged with our partners to deal with crises around the world."
One of the challenges that always arises, he said, is being able to fill gaps that occur when it comes to sharing information in a consistent and timely manner among multiple organizations that seek to help in disasters.
"In the past when we've started talking about joint interoperability, it was only within the Department of Defense,” Roman said. “But now imagine trying to do the same, having interoperability not only in the U.S. government interagency but also among international relief organizations and partner nations."
It was clear that a tool was needed to allow the sharing of geographic data on critical aspects of an emergency response across government and nongovernmental organizations, he added.
"Basically, we configured this tool so everybody can use it to collaborate and share information through a capability that is available at no cost, with no license fees to users, and readily available to other nations and governments,” Roman said.