The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Overcoming Fears of Unicorns and Rainbows

February 9, 2010

U.S. Southern Command (SOCOM) is using a new transnational information sharing system in the All Partners Access Network (APAN) to coordinate its efforts with hundreds of NGOs and dozens of IOs in Haiti. It is a one-stop coordination platform that allows real-time questions/requests on resources and Information Sharing. SOCOM has been sharing imagery of bridges, transportation networks, and even public disturbances to facilitate responses and coordinating communication among NGOs and other relief agencies.

Likewise, dozens of NGOs and other networking organizations like Crisis Mappers have been crowd sourcing a wide range of information requests on APAN. Last week, they crowd sourced exact locations of hospitals and other medical facilities throughout Haiti and the Dominican Republic to determine available beds for post-op care and recovery of those treated in mobile surgical units. The mapping platform Ushahidi, which was started by a couple of Kenyans in the aftermath to the political violence in Kenya in 2007, began compiling mapping information in Haiti via Twitter tweets and media reports less than 24 hours after the earthquake. SOCOM relied extensively on this mapping to determine areas of need and to prioritize which transportation routes to clear.

It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of this effort, but it seems that Information Sharing is coming of age. Just over a decade ago, when Sarah Sewall assumed the post of first DASD for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance there were very few mechanisms for coordinating US military and NGO efforts — and even fewer in real time. This was not simply because of limited technology, but because of deeply embedded organizational cultures the promoted distrust and disdain of one another. The military has often referred to the relief agencies and NGOs as the “unicorns and rainbows” community.

I guess the next step will be to watch and see if the Pentagon can take some of this information sharing and overall coordination experience in Haiti and integrate it into the stabilization and reconstruction efforts in the Balkans, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan — the levels of coordination each of these efforts have been severely lagging.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.