Monday, September 27, 2010

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

STAR-TIDES Fall Demo in DC--Week of Oct 6

I haven’t written lately about what’s been happening with STAR-TIDES, but it’s been a time of exceptional activity. We’ve had demonstrations at conferences and exercises in the US, Central America and Europe, supported real world contingencies ranging from the Canadian Arctic to Myanmar, completed six months of exposure testing for some types of shelters and increased emphasis on analyses of different infrastructures, communications equipment and “sense-making” approaches. Most importantly, the STAR-TIDES network now has grown to over 400 members.

As a next step, STAR-TIDES will have its Fall field demonstration at the National Defense University (NDU) campus in Washington, DC from Monday, October 6 to Friday, October 10. This will be qualitatively different from last year’s demo and the static displays we’ve done in the past.

Reflecting the project’s increasing maturity, the focus will be on working demos of integrated infrastructures, vice stand-alone sections for shelter, water, power, etc. All activities will be independent of the power grid and terrestrial communications.

Preliminary planning is for four integrated infrastructure sets:

  • A family-sized solution set oriented towards hot, dry areas (solar cooking, AA batteries, water pasteurization bags, One Laptop Per Child computers, etc.)--think sub-Saharan Africa and Vinay Gupta’s construct of not separating the owners, operators and protectors of an infrastructure.
  • A camp-sized infrastructure for wet, tropical regions (water purification units for 500-1,000 people, wind and solar power, micro-hydro if possible, disaster management software, etc). This could be a prototype for what we'd use in Central America in 2009 in support of the international Crisis Management Experiment IV (CME IV), but also could draw on recent experiences in the Southern Philippines and Myanmar.
  • An Afghan-centric approach (with heavy emphasis on what’s being done now in Nangarhar Province, info sharing/sensemaking, links to San Diego State’s Visualization Laboratory and the Fab Lab that MIT has in place near Jalalabad, near-real-time delivery of imagery and useful products without caveats to NGOs, plus whatever shelter/water/power/etc is appropriate)
  • A domestic US module--probably based on an earthquake in Winter (DHS/ FEMS/ Northern Command links, use of the commercial supply chain, empowering citizens, Resilience Networks, etc.)

If anyone would like to demonstrate equipment during this event, or participate in other ways, please let Walker Hardy and me know (c/o this site) by September 1. Space will be limited, so earlier is better.

Also, anyone who would like to participate in, or learn about, particular subsets of STAR-TIDES activities (shelter, water, power, etc.), please let us know, and register on the site if you haven't done so already.


Lin Wells

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Friday, December 7, 2007

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tides Week One Summary from Lin Wells

Below is a summary of the first week of the TIDES project (Transportable Infrastructures for Development and Emergency Support). The summary is about a page and a half. The details, for those interested, run about 8 more. We appreciate the many contributions by so many volunteers.

Extracts will be posted to the website and appropedia. These are living documents, so comments, corrections, edits, and updates are encouraged.




The first week of the TIDES research project (Oct 5-12) was a spectacular success.

Low cost, portable, commercial generators were brought to a bare field, with no power, water or communications. The first satellite networks were up in less than two hours, operating "off the power grid," which is critical for stressed environments, both domestic and international. By the end of the first day, bridges across communications nets allowed phone calls to be made both from tent-to-tent and globally. Subject matter experts from domestic and international remote sites used video-teleconferencing to help solve emerging problems ("knowledge on demand for capacity building").

Inexperienced work crews erected seven shelters of four different types--none took more than three hours. The energy model of rapidly recharging AA batteries from both solar panels and generators worked well. The batteries powered low wattage personal cooling and lighting systems, and well as communications equipment. High efficiency stoves and a variety of solar systems provided integrated approaches to cooking and water purification. "Census-takers" experimented with low-impact biometrics.

Visitors included representatives from the American Red Cross, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Homeland Security Institute and the National Guard Bureau. Members of the Faculty of the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology discussed ways that TIDES activities could be incorporated into their curricula. General "Kip" Ward, commander of the new U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) spent more than an hour on site. Many other visitors taught the TIDES team much and took away ideas for future collaboration. Less than $20,000 in US government investment generated more the $700,000 in private sector engagement.

The first week has reinforced three key lessons:
  • Problems of stressed populations must be addressed through broad coalitions. Some situations will develop at home, some abroad. Some will have long term needs (the average stay in a refugee camp exceeds 7 years), some short term. Sometimes the military will be involved, sometimes not. Solutions often can be applied across scenarios, but no one agency, public or private, either has responsibility for all, or expertise in all. The US government, in particular, must be inclusive and do better at sharing information with public and private partners outside the boundaries of "official" environments.
  • Information and communications technologies (ICT) are not "tecchie" adjuncts to the major muscle movements of delivering food, water and shelter. They are the critical enablers of everything else that happens. Networks need to be formed early and be independent of the power grid.
  • Cross-infrastructure and "whole systems" thinking is essential. For example, cooking and water purification are entwined and both can be used to mitigate deforestation and smoke-related diseases.
The week also suggested many additional research topics, especially involving scalability, sustainability, and cultural issues like the acceptability of different approaches in different environments. Cross-disciplinary and cross-infrastructure skills will be particularly valuable.

TIDES will continue until October 19 on the campus of the National Defense University in Washington, DC.



TIDES is a research event, built around information sharing ("knowledge on demand for capacity building"). It has several different customer sets: domestic and foreign, short term (humanitarian assistance, disaster relief--HADR) and long term (refugees, etc.), military involved, or not. It is considering seven infrastructures: shelter, power, water, cooking, cooling/heating/lighting, sanitation and Information & Communications Technologies (ICT). These will not meet all the needs of any of the above customers--clearly protection needs to be factored into many equations, medical care is a crucial component, shelters that might be an increase in the standard of living for many refugees would be unacceptable for the long-term use of American disaster victims, cultural factors might negate solutions that seem perfectly reasonable to the uninformed. However, during the first week at the TIDES site a diverse set of visitors, and tele-visitors, found the event worthwhile. They also taught us much, and we look forward to learning more going forward.

Among the visitors were:
  • General "Kip" Ward, the new Commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) spent more than an hour on the site.
  • Faculty members from Thomas Jefferson High School of Science & Technology spent several hours discussing how TIDES ideas could be incorporated into their curricula in areas like energy, rapid prototyping and social networking. They followed up with requests for additional engagement, which we look forward to with great enthusiasm.
  • Members of the American Red Cross discussed ways to involve a wider range of NGOs and other participants.
  • Lieutenant General Fran Wilson, USMC, President of National Defense University (NDU) reviewed the site and discussed NDU issues.
  • MG Richard Rowe, Commander Joint Force Headquarters - National Capital Region discussed issues of concern to the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the Military District of Washington.
  • Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Homeland Security Institute (HSI), and the office of the Secretary of the Air Force reviewed innovative approaches to information sharing with civil-military partners outside the boundaries of Department of Defense (DoD) networks, both at home and overseas.
  • National Guard Bureau personnel came by to investigate ways to link TIDES more closely with Northern Command, state and local first responders, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)--both FEMA and DHS's Science and Technology Branch.
  • Some students from the Peace Operations program at George Mason University have come by on their own to see what's being done and are encouraging their faculty to participate in the discussions.
  • Members of NDU classes on "The Restoration of Failed States" and "DoD Science and Technology," plus other students and faculty on their own.
Information and Communications Technologies (ICT)

One of the key tenets of the TIDES project, developed from experience in tsunami, Katrina, and elsewhere, is that communications is not a "tecchie" adjunct to major muscle movements like the delivery of food, water and shelter, but THE CRITICAL ENABLER OF EVERYTHING ELSE THAT HAPPENS. As such, ICT needs to have "lift" to make it available early in a crisis, and not be dependent on local power, which may be unreliable.

At 7:00 AM on Tuesday morning (Oct 9) the TIDES site had no power, water, or comms. Two $300, 3.5 kVA commercial generators were unboxed and assembled. Within two hours of starting the first generator, two satellite were networks up, independent of the power grid. A third network was up by noon. In addition, a wi-fi cloud over the site had been established with both encrypted and open service to enable widespread internet connectivity and webcasting, plus interconnectivity between hand-held radios, satellite comms, laptop computers, telephones, etc. There were both internal four-digit phone lines (every tent got a phone) and global phone links via Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) to the satellite. One of the 3.5 kVA generators proved more than enough to handle all these loads, but a $1200 2 kVA generator with conditioned power waveforms gave better results with some sensitive electronics.

At one point during the week, five separate satellite networks were operating, including integrated vehicles designed for first responder support, and a back-pack based satellite terminal with solar and fuel cell power.


One of the origins of TIDES was a concern expressed by military logisticians that mass emergencies involving the Department of Defense (DoD) should be supported by something other than military tents, which are expensive, committed to DoD contingencies, and generally signed for on custody cards. They were looking for lower cost alternatives that could be provided quickly and then disposed of after the event.

In this context, several different kinds of shelters were examined. One of these was a "hexayurt" (think Mongolian yurt in the form of a hexagon). It is a public domain design developed by The Hexayurt Project, which has been an integral part of TIDES. One 8'-high hexayurt was built by four TIDES volunteers with no prior knowledge and only box cutters, twelve 4 x 8 insulated wallboards and tape. It cost about $200 at retail prices at Home Depot, and took about 2 hrs and 15 minutes to assemble. With a learning curve, that probably will come down to about 75 minutes a hexayurt. A 12'-high unit cost about $340, again, at retail. The hexayurts proved very useful and sturdy--the wind pulled the tie-down stakes of one out of the ground, but it was recaptured and tied down better without serious damage to the structure. Also, when the outside temperatures were above 90 degrees F, it was 10-20 degrees cooler inside the hexayurts than outside, as measured by thermometers inside the various shelters compared with those in the sun.

The hexayurt costs, while cheap in the US, need to be evaluated in international environments. Mr. Charles Setchell of USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has written a paper on pre-fab shelters, especially in overseas disaster response (attached below). He raises several points, including the direct costs of prefab shelters, as well as indirect costs and capital flight. Per the figures above, the hexayurts are not very expensive in the US, but it's not clear how the economic comparisons would fare internationally when the indirect and capital flight factors are included. Also, while the building materials might not be available in quantities overseas, they would be in the US (and probably in Europe/Asia in metric equivalents). This is one reason why some state emergency authorities have shown an interest in talking more with TIDES representatives.

In any case, it's worth noting that the hexayurt design came out of a 2002 review focused on rethinking encampments for refugee and displaced populations, and that session included members from UNHCR, UNDP, NGOs, State, DoD, etc. and began with a review both of the UNHCR and Sphere standards, so it wasn't disconnected from that environment. The report still may be good, or may have been overtaken by other thinking, but that's some of what we hope to learn from the TIDES conversations.

Another type of shelter onsite is the Uni-Fold, which is an accordion-like environmental shelter that has been used widely for storage and communal purposes like showers and decontamination stations. These uses are consistent with Mr. Setchell's suggestions for pre-fab buildings. Uni-Folds are the only "pre-fab" shelters at TIDES. They were assembled by untrained personnel in under 10 minutes, Uni-Folds also have non-pre-fab packages for on-site assembly, which were used along the Gulf Coast after Katrina. These run $2000-$2500 each in quantities of 100.

One shelter that's attracted a lot of attention is the ShelterBox being shipped out of a Rotary Club facility in Cornwall, England. Since 2001, over 50,000 ShelterBoxes have been provided via Rotary Channels. Since each supports up to 10 people and includes sleeping (a dome tent), cooking, eating utensils, 6 months worth of water purification tablets, educational materials, etc., that's potentially a half million people who are, or have been, supported by Shelter Boxes. They've been deployed to Tsunami, Katrina, the Pakistani earthquake, various African refugee camps, and most recently to Peru. Rotary sends a team of four people to teach folks on site how to set up the ShelterBox and use the equipment. The cost is $700 for the contents and another $300 for shipment anywhere in the world, so a $1000 donation allows individuals to participate in disaster relief.

About an hour after the comms were up on Oct 9, a representative from a Marine Corps base in California called up and asked about shelter alternatives that they will need for the summer of 2008. Within 2 hours a video-teleconference with a portable web camera allowed for a webcast tour of the TIDES site and a review of the options available. Follow-up is likely.


A combination of solar power and specialized portable battery chargers allows for AA or AAA batteries to be recharged in 15 minutes (although AA batteries have significantly better energy density per unit cost than AAA). When there is no sun, the portable generators can be used for the charging. Thus, families can be provided with rechargeable batteries to run lighting, cooling and cooking fans, or other applications of their choice. The TIDES site typically have been getting 12-13V DC from a single panel with more than enough current to handle the charging loads, but more research is needed to see how these would scale to larger populations.

One 3.5 kVA commercial, gasoline powered generator was more than adequate to handle all the on-site electrical loads during the first week. Inventories of power needs revealed that the communications systems took surprisingly little power--usually under 300 W for a satellite terminal.

A wind turbine would have been a useful addition, as the breeze picked up significantly on October 11th and 12th. Other sustainable approaches, such as biomass generators, would be welcome during the 2nd week.

Cooking and Water

Integrated approaches to cooking and water purification have generated some of the most interest among visitors. The first set of demonstrations involved a series of high efficiency stoves, ranging from wood gasification to rocket stoves. We also will try to get in touch with with Christina Galitsky, recently cited for her work in Darfur with energy-efficient cookstoves. In addition, solar cookers and water pasteurization systems have proved very effective onsite, as well as being a major "draw" for visitors. The delicious solar-cooked meals (roasted chicken, chocolate cake, various breads) have been greatly appreciated.

Some have raised questions as to why solar cooking hasn't caught on more widely (cookware being stolen, training needs, local "hexes," etc.) but there also are many cases where it has worked well, and the solar water pasteurization is very valuable, especially with the kind of automatic temperature indicators now available. Deforestation around camps is a critical problem, and solar is one way to address it. Moreover, integrated approaches that combine both high efficiency combustion with solar allow services to be provided even when there's minimal sun.


Sanitation has turned out to be the weakest area of TIDES. Originally the project looked into composting toilets and similar approaches, but these have proved too expensive. The most effective sanitation approach now on site is the trenching tool included with the ShelterBox for digging latrines. More work needs to be done in this area.


TIDES is experimenting with various types of lightweight credentialing (earlier called "identification") processes that might be suitable for stressed populations. One system involves photographs and 2-D barcodes that could be used for in-camp identification without requiring, or revealing, a lot of personal data. This could help with post-disaster census, family re-unification, food distribution, etc. Other approaches may be tried.

Information Sharing

Beyond the importance of independent "comms, lift and power," one of the most important objectives of TIDES is to facilitate the sharing of UNCLASSIFIED information with civil-military partners outside the boundaries of the U.S. government. From a narrow DoD perspective, if the Department can't engage effectively with State, the AID community, NGOs, indigenous governments and security services, corporate partners and private citizens, the nation CANNOT achieve the social, political and economic goals for which the military was committed in the first place. Thus, this is not a nice-to-have adjunct to the kinetic phases of warfare. It needs to be a core part of any national strategy. DoD MUST do better at partnering with State and these other players, and it is hoped that the TIDES effort can contribute to that dialogue. Many see value in strengthening the diplomatic and foreign assistance aspects of our government to increase the likelihood of avoiding conflict in the first place, and thus reduce the chances that military people will have to be put in harm's way.

Metadata tagging

Even if nothing else comes of TIDES, the extraordinary progress in metadata tagging that was made in the couple weeks before TIDES started will, in itself, have been worth the venture. Metadata is "data about data" (basically "what, where, when, who contributed the information," etc.). All TIDES data are being tagged in ways compatible both with the Dublin Core international metadata standards and the Defense Discovery Metadata Standards (DDMS). The goal is to make information on TIDES-related activities discoverable, accessible and understandable to users anywhere on both US government networks and the internet. This means that DoD, the intelligence community, most of NATO, much of DHS, and part of the Department of Justice now have available compatible metadata standards for HADR/SSTR and Building Partnership Capacity (BPC) environments. Google started indexing these data about a week ago.

In addition, the Air Force is working with TIDES, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), FEMA and the Homeland Security Institute to use the Air Force's Cursor on Target (CoT) and OSD's Universal Core for HADR/SSTR and BPC. Efforts also are underway to make this an international standard. It would be a fabulous win-win if these tagging standards could be embraced by the international AID and Disaster Response communities as well. TIDES is working with a number of NGOs on this and would welcome suggestions for other partners.

Nearly everyone who came to the TIDES site, either physically or virtually, said they'd learned something and would either refer the project to others or come back themselves. We hope to learn more from them.

TIDES does not claim to have all the answers to any part of the problems it is addressing. Dialogue or collaboration with any interested partners, domestic or international, is welcome.



Charles A. Setchell, AICP
Urban Planning and Urban Disaster Mitigation Specialist

Direct Cost. Pre-fabricated ("pre-fab"), or modular, shelter units are typically quite expensive, both in absolute and relative terms (i.e., versus tents or locally-developed designs). As a consequence, it is difficult to purchase in volume as part of a disaster response.

Indirect Costs. "Pre-fab" purchase costs typically do not include transport, customs, site and service preparation, and set-up costs. These indirect costs can easily double the overall cost of a pre-fab unit. Customs fees collection and processing, for example, are often quite time-consuming, costly, and highly variable. If "time is money," the cost of delay and uncertainty associated with customs and transport must also be factored into decisions on the use of pre-fab housing.

Capital Flight. Pre-fabs are often imported into a disaster area from another country -- and the money needed to pay for the pre-fabs goes in the opposite direction. Rather than benefiting from the investment, the local/regional economy affected by a disaster is robbed of important capital that could circulate within that economy, thereby aiding in the overall resurgence of that economy.

Economic/Employment Impacts. Related to the above, the homebuilding industry generates more employment per dollar invested than just about any other economic activity. This is true only if local materials and local labor are used intensively as part of the homebuilding process. Pre-fabs only require minimal inputs of local labor and materials, so the potential to generate local employment -- and local incomes -- is not achieved when compared to locally produced shelter. Quite the contrary: In many cases, specialized labor has to be imported to set up the pre-fab units. If this is the case, most of the income that specialized laborers earn is sent out of the country, again undermining efforts to revitalize the disaster-affected economy.

Cultural/Social Appropriateness. Use of pre-fab units negates an extremely important function of shelter: the need for family, community, social, and cultural expression. This is not insignificant. If pre-fabs do no meet these needs, they often are poorly maintained and abandoned at far higher rates than locally-based shelter solutions. This can result in higher management and maintenance costs, and additional costs for replacement shelter.

Functional Appropriateness. Given the high per-unit costs, pre-fabs cannot typically be introduced into a disaster area in large numbers. As such, they become a scare resource relative to other shelter solutions, and one that is often perceived as "modern" and superior to more familiar shelter solutions. Scarcity, particularly in a disaster area, can often generate community-level friction/acrimony between those who receive (pre-fabs) and those who don't. This can often result in a range of complex and time-consuming political and social problems, and ultimately delay shelter provision.

If decisions are made to introduce pre-fabs, and where the potential for a "have-have not" situation is great, pre-fabs should ONLY be used for communal purposes (eg. as health clinics, classrooms, daycare centers, showers/bathrooms, warming facilities, laundry facilities, eating halls, police posts, government offices, etc.), so that ALL community residents have access to a relatively scarce resource. A recent example of applying this view occurred in Macedonia during the Spring, when the humanitarian community adopted my views as policy when pre-fab units were debated for camp use in the country.

Standardization of Output. Related to the point above is the negative effect that pre-fabs have on standardization. By design, pre-fabs are fundamentally different from several other forms of emergency shelter. In addition, for reasons noted above, they are not typically the standard form of shelter response. When they are introduced into a disaster area, pre-fabs have the effect of undermining the shelter sector standard of output, which can lead to significant and time-consuming discussions among donors and NGOs even before the "have-have not" effects of differential output reach the community level. This can undermine attempts to coordinate donor and NGO strategy, areas of responsibility, and other activities that require organizational coordination, and lead to further delays in shelter provision.

Thursday, October 11, 2007