"Short" History of the NET Guard
In March of 2002, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and George Allen (R-Va.)introduced legislation called the Science and Technology Emergency Mobilization Act. This bill intended to create a national pool of science and technology experts to volunteer their expertise in the event of a disaster, natural or man-made. The department was to be called the National Emergency Technology (NET) Guard. The bill was made part of the legislation authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and was signed into law on November 25th of that year. And so the short history of the NET Guard comes to a quiet end, never to be heard of again.
There have been various reasons offered for the lack of any progress toward the creation of the NET Guard. Theories range from a complete lack of understanding of technology by the Bush administration, to a general disinterest in the program by the corporations who already have disaster recovery plans and fear losing critical IT staff, to a lack of funding to pursue the initiative as resources were moved toward fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever the reason may be, the much lauded NET Guard never materialized.
What is happening now?
In the wake of Katrina, IT people from across the country jumped into action. They knew that after the basic needs of food, water, shelter and clothing were provided for, people would need access to technology to send emails to loved ones, find missing family members, register for government services, and take steps toward rebuilding their shattered lives. The Red Cross has made a valiant effort to provide these services with the help of knowledgeable volunteers. Other people from across the country are scavenging equipment to be setup as kiosks or for use in relocation centers. These are all laudable efforts and should be commended and supported by the entire IT community.
What about next time?
Even the best efforts of uncoordinated volunteers tend to be somewhat haphazard and are not always spread evenly. This is not the best way to ensure that adequate technical resources are brought to bear upon the relief effort. What is needed is a specially trained and equipped organization specifically for these types of efforts, like the NET Guard. However since the NET Guard does not exist and likely never will, the IT community should turn its attention to the only organization that seems capable of organizing this type of effort, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The ICRC should have a technical auxiliary, akin to what was envisioned for the NET Guard program, targeted toward the real mission, helping ordinary people. This technical auxiliary should be a separately chartered worldwide organization and have three main tasks. First, prepare and stockpile equipment necessary for a first response type datacenter for people impacted by a disaster. Second, prepare and stockpile equipment to be used as donations to people and organizations that have been affected by a disaster. Finally to operate a datacenter to coordinate team efforts and to centralize disaster related IT efforts, such as loved ones database. This effort will likely require about 100 full time staff members engaged in development, administration, and hardware maintenance. In addition, it would require the assistance of specially trained volunteers in the event of a crisis to assist with system setup, training and technical support on the ground.
The first part is relatively easy to implement. A set of x terminals with the necessary server, firewall, and switches could be packed and ready to ship anywhere they would be required. Setup of the system should be easy as well. Simply plug everything into power and into the network. Start up the server, switch, and firewall. Start up the clients and quick as lightning a fully functional set of computers ready to go. The best part would be that since they are terminals they need not have any moving parts other than a fan and would be relatively rugged. The hard part will be gathering the necessary components and having them setup and ready to go on short notice.
The second part is a bit more difficult. Hundreds of companies and government agencies have surplus computers. The problem is many times it s not worth the work to refurbish the systems, especially given software costs and the age of the hardware. The other consideration is many local schools and non profits rely on this source of hardware for their own needs. In light of this, one role this new organization might be able to play is that of a national clearing house for surplus equipment. Also, this might provide a way to continually engage the volunteers in an ongoing project which would provide ongoing benefits. The other role this stockpile would play is to help replace lost or damaged personal computer in the event of a disaster. This becomes yet one more way to help get people back on their feet after such a crisis.
The final role is the most nebulous. It seems every organization with the necessary capacity set up lists for survivors of Katrina to note they were alive and fine. The end result of this is there were some 10 major lists people could choose from. This made it difficult on the volunteers who were helping with data entry because it required multiple entries to ensure adequate coverage. It was difficult for survivors who just wanted to make sure their loved ones could find them. And finally it made it difficult for people searching for a loved one because of the sheer number of lists. By having a central consolidated source to go to, it would have the overall effect of making these tasks much easier and would provide a place to disseminate other types of information and services.
This type of organization would provide exactly the type of expertise, that the Red Cross in its current form is not usually equipped to handle. The Red Cross does an excellent job of providing the basic necessities such as food, water, clothing and shelter. However an IT project of this scale should be placed in the hands of trained professionals, leaving the Red Cross free to concentrate on its core mission. And the Red Cross is the best group with which this new organization could align itself, because they are often the first ones on the ground in the event of a disaster.