Time for a High-Tech Version of the National Guard
(Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on November 28, 2012)
When a disaster strikes, access to communications and high-tech infrastructure is critical for saving lives and mobilizing relief efforts.
But as we saw a few weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy rendered inoperable the phone lines and computer networks that people needed to call for help and reach loved ones. In the storm’s aftermath many remained unable to access local and federal aid or even find out where they could get gasoline.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as the National Guard can be called upon to provide emergency relief, there are thousands of technology professionals ready, willing and able to volunteer their skills to rebuild crucial technology infrastructure in times exactly like these.
These men and women could help build emergency cellphone towers and set up mesh Wi-Fi networks. They could assist government agencies to build and maintain the information systems that are needed to locate, manage and deploy food and water, tents and electric generators, and to help health workers keep track of drugs and other critical medical supplies.
They also can help small businesses, schools and nonprofit organizations get their own information networks back online and functioning quickly.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan, information technology professionals from Intel, Oregon’s largest private employer, joined their counterparts from New York’s “Silicon Alley” who were assisting people trying to get their companies, schools and organizations back online. They were welcomed by private businesses.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies resisted the assistance that was offered by outsiders who didn’t have credentials and hadn’t been vetted or trained to work with them.
This experience led us to work with then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia to propose legislation for a National Emergency Technology Guard, or NET Guard.
This legislation authorized the establishment of a citizen corps of professional technologists, similar to the National Guard. The men and women who joined up would be organized, trained, and could be activated and deployed whenever disaster strikes.
Although this bill passed the Senate 97-0 and was incorporated into the Homeland Security Act of 2002, sadly neither the Bush nor Obama administrations has used the authority in the statute to organize this potentially life- and property-saving resource.
There is no question that technologists are willing and able to come together to provide effective emergency solutions after a disaster strikes. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, technologists working remotely around the world merged several different missing-person databases into one to help families locate each other. Other technology volunteers went to New Orleans to string up Wi-Fi networks that allowed for critical communications and voice calls—including calls between then-Mayor Ray Nagin and President Bush even after all telephone and cellphone towers were knocked out.
“Crowdsourced” mapping tools built by software engineers have been used after earthquakes (as in Haiti in 2010), tsunamis (as in Japan in 2011), and forest fires to help identify the location of makeshift hospitals, food, clean water and shelter or simply to warn against areas of danger. Such maps have even been used to find the location of parking spaces in Washington, D.C., New York City, and other cities after massive snowstorms.
These private volunteers could be more effective if they were allowed to work directly with government agencies. That is our vision of NET Guard. Technology companies with thousands of employees—such as Intel, Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle —would allow them to periodically receive training from the government on disaster response, on coordinating their efforts with government agencies, and other skills. Then, after a disaster, the president could activate these NET Guard volunteers and deploy them wherever they are needed. Because they are members of NET Guard, their jobs would be held for them, as is done for members of the National Guard.
NET Guard teams could also work with federal, state and local officials on emergency-communication plans that could be put into motion even before a major storm hit, or immediately after an unexpected disaster like an earthquake or terrorist attack.
No one questions the need to keep the phone systems running—and it is equally critical that the nation has a means for getting Internet-based communications systems up and running when they go down after a disaster. Information technology is not just about cool smartphones, tablets and computers. Today it is also about providing and delivering crucial information that can save lives, save property, and help rebuild faster when it matters most.
The Obama administration now has dramatic evidence of the need to set up a NET Guard to help victims of future disasters recover and reconstruct their lives.
(Andrew Rasiej is a Business, Political, and Social Entrepreneur, Founder of Personal Democracy Media, Senior Advisor to the Sunlight Foundation, and the Chairman of NY TechMeetup. Follow him @Rasiej)