The Disaster Mesh

By Tom Limongello, Guest Contributor , written on May 5, 2014

From The News Desk

Editor’s note: This is a guest contribution by Tom Limongello, VP of Product Marketing at Crisp Media. 

Usually when I meet someone who has just won a hackathon I’m intrigued more by their extra credit hack than I am by their day job. That was not the case when I ran into Christopher Guess just after he won the best Spotify hack at the recent Mobile Week in NYC. When he's not reimagining music listening, Guess is focused on using technology to save lives.

It's a journey that began for Guess back in 2012 when he walked into his first disaster relief hub for Hurricane Sandy and realized just how devoid of tech that operation was. The result was an unfortunately common  frustration that comes from knowing that the future is not evenly distributed, but being powerless change things quickly enough. 

After Sandy hit, Guess had seen a post from NYCResistor on behalf Desiree Matel-Anderson, "Chief Wrangler" of the FEMA Innovation Team (now renamed the Field Innovation Team, or FIT) for a VOIP specialist to help with communications needs. Guess inquired about the position but ended up not working with Matel-Anderson in that instance. He did, however, start a relationship that would eventually make him an advisor to FIT and get him an audience with then Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to report on the state of technology for disaster relief. 

Guess continued to see if he could volunteer for the Sandy relief efforts, but he never got a call back from the Red Cross. Instead, he joined Occupy Sandy which was based in a church off Atlantic Ave in Crown Heights. The church, which mysteriously burned down later in the year, was referred to as ‘The Warehouse.’ Occupy Sandy relief efforts were less rigidly structured than the Red Cross,’ making them a perfect environment for attracting the most technically talented volunteers and adopting innovative new solutions to help victims.

Still, it was clear to Guess that as of 2012, even The Warehouse didn’t have the tools to bring speedy service to victims. As he explains:

Any information we were collecting was with scraps of paper, sharpies and crayola. There was no inventory management system, so baby food was in this pew, adult womens' jackets in that pew, and things would get confused. Also, victims were asked to fax in their information to get relief, but people didn't have homes, let alone faxes. It was ridiculous. Even in 2014 they are still collecting data from the survivors.
What’s worse, it had been standard practice in government agencies to keep innovation out of crisis areas as any deviation from approved process was seen as too dangerous to try in a real time. That policy is changing in part because of people like Guess, Matel-Anderson, and the FIT think tanks in each of the nation's FEMA regions, who are looking for new ways to leverage technology.

Now, when a disaster strikes, the goal is to establish multiple hubs like The Warehouse on opposite ends of the effected areas, allowing relief agents move supplies more precisely to where they are needed. However, since most disasters disrupt phone and Internet connectivity for extended periods, there is still a lag in communications between hubs. With inventory typically managed either by sending faxes around or emailing excel sheets between hubs, a lack of connectivity means no communication except what can be driven around on paper.

Although, there was an awareness after Hurricane Katrina that inventory management was a problem, there still wasn’t a reasonable solution in place. To that point, the primary recommendation in a White House's 2006 report, “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina Lessons Learned," was to just stockpile more commodities.

The highly bureaucratic supply processes of the Federal government were not sufficiently flexible and efficient, and failed to leverage the private sector and 21st Century advances in supply chain management...FEMA must be able to supplement and, in catastrophic incidents, supplant State and local systems with a fully modern approach to commodity management.
When FEMA came to NYC for Sandy, the mindset had changed, but technological solutions for helping disaster victims had yet to materialize. For example, today both FEMA and the Red Cross have in iPhone and Android apps, but those are just brochure-ware, and they do not have a feedback loop for victims.

To be fair, not even consumer Web companies have come up with an answer to directly helping survivors during the time of communications outages. Without connectivity, the consumer Web is of little use in disaster relief. As a result, data about relief requirements from the victims and supply status at various hubs is often missing. Today, the most practical use for Web platform in a crisis is to show those people who are nowhere near the affected area via maps and request for them to donate money and supplies.

After the recent hurricane relief efforts ended, Guess had the inkling of an idea. He knew that even without Internet connectivity you can still have WiFi, and thus sought out to create mesh networks based on connecting a set of devices and base stations. His vision was that in order to help those people who are directly effected in real time, there could be no tolerance for connecting back to the Internet while collecting and syncing data. He began working on such a product in October 2013, naming it LDLN – pronounced 'landline', and standing for Locally Distributed Logistics Network.

Following a meeting with Rasberry Pi engineering evangelist Rob Bishop, Guess finally had all the necessary pieces to create LDLN. His system uses Raspberry Pi base stations  to create local, ad-hoc WiFi networks. iOS devices can then connect to these networks and  then version and sync relief inventory data. This P2P relationship between the devices does not use the internet, it only uses WiFi protocols to pass data back and forth. (It's a process similar to how your router at home can pull up a web page as you try to troubleshoot why you are not online.)

For future disasters, LDLN intends to send volunteers into hubs with a Pelican case that contains a Raspberry Pi base station with a plug, battery, and a rollable solar panel which can establish a WiFi network in as little as four minutes. The case would also contain a stack of iPhones and iPads that come pre-loaded with mapping data and data entry forms. Armed with this equipment, volunteers could then go off to do essential tasks and as they enter changes to data into their iPhones, the data is updated at the base station occur when the user is within range or when they are in range of another user with changes in data.

Guess explains:

It’s not the content of the data, which could be weather, healthcare data, maps, or inventory, it’s the way that we sync the data that is important: automatically, lazily, and as often as you can. In that way, we eliminate the emailing excel attachments problem. No one can forget to bring the right file or lose something in the mix. And, we are not really draining the phone battery much since it can be in airplane mode all day. When you come back for lunch, LDLN would update the data via WiFi from the base station and the base station updates your phone, but the big deal is that different base stations get updated further, from main hub to distribution hub. By having a way to update the hubs, we can solve the inventory management problem by sanitizing and validating the data to make it searchable and ready to run reports.
This raises a number of questions. For one, why didn't LDLN choose the newest, buzzy technology, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) as opposed to WiFi for communicating between devices? According to Guess, WiFi is the key to the equation because it is better for transferring and syncing lots of data, and BLE is really only for pinging devices, also known as ‘waking them up.’ Bulk data transfer is more akin to what Bluetooth, not BLE, does.

Also, why only iPhones? LDLN chose to support only iOS devices at the start because they do not need a base station to create WiFi networks and can become nodes all on their own, improving the frequency of data transfer between devices and the LDLN database. Android only added this capability in 4.3 and as of now that’s only installed on roughly 14 percent of devices in the market. The decision to use the most expensive phones, rather than cheaper, single purpose 'internet of things' devices is also a head scratcher. But according to Guess, this is a nominal expense compared to the existing inventory management options which can cost from many thousands up to millions in licensing fees. Also, iPhones are easy for volunteers, meaning there’s no training required.

FIT is going to continue working with LDLN’s founders as they go from consultants to launching their new service. And as FIT’s mandate evolves, there will be more opportunities to innovate with new devices, so Raspberry Pis are just the beginning. LDLN’s algorithm and syncing architecture do not rely on iPhones to control the versioning of the data, the system handles versioning more along the lines of a block-chain ledger system, so any device could collect the needed data. For example, in particularly dangerous crisis areas, robots and drones would be just as good as phones for passing data to the LDLN base station. 

LDLN Co-founder Matt Grasser will introduce LDLN this Saturday at the NextDayBetter hackathon to show off what they’ve been working on since last October. The product isn’t ready for commercial rollout use just yet. The company has a lot more work to do for the FIT here in the US and is in discussions with the Philippine government on potential rollout out there as well. LDLN will not, however, become a non-profit, a process which Guess jokingly says "takes like 3 years.” Rather, it will be structured as an NGO incorporated as a Social Purpose Corporation. The company will be based in Washington State where Frank Sanborn’s FIT is based, and will continue to build and run the Hurricane Sandy-focused operations in Brooklyn.

As much as Facebook and Google are promising to blanket the world with WiFi, those days are still yet to come, and until loons fill the skies above the five boroughs of NYC, there will be a need for disaster meshes. Considering the weather we’ve been having of late, it may not be long before we need to turn on the disaster mesh. I hope I'm wrong.

Editor’s note: This is an unpaid guest contribution by Tom Limongello, VP of Product Marketing at Crisp Media. The post went through Pando’s usual editorial process.

[Photo credit: Vix Walker (Creative Commons)]