Researching Communication Solutions for Disaster-Prone Communities-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Researching Communication Solutions for Disaster-Prone Communities

Disasters like Typhoon Haiyan prompt communities to consider how they're prepared for the next earthquake, hurricane or severe storm. What if typical communications channels were down? How would the residents mobilize to come to each other's aid?

Carnegie Mellon faculty and students are exploring technology solutions for emergency response. This semester, Rui Hu, Briana Johnson, Xinfeng Le and Yuki Nishida took part in a project called the Survivable Social Network (SSN), as a team of four students in the Information Networking Institute's (INI) Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program. The SSN project seeks to provide a communications solution connecting people in the event of a disaster when regular telecommunication or Internet services may become disabled.

CMU-SV Director Bob Iannucci is the faculty advisor on the SSN project, and he has sponsored a practicum during each of the last three consecutive semesters based on SSN. Students from both the MSIT program and the Master of Science in Software Engineering program have participated. Hu, Johnson, Le and Nishida joined the SSN effort in the fall of 2013.

The team explained that the SSN consists of three core elements: a social networking engine, voice-over-IP service and an underlying IP-based networking infrastructure. When combined with an ordinary laptop computer and a wireless router, these become a powerful, stand-alone communications system. Setup is no more difficult than setting up a home computer and router, making it broadly applicable to neighborhoods, schools, small companies and other organizations.

Once a local SSN node is up and running, people nearby can connect to it via their smartphones. The SSN node enables them to share information and to begin responding to the disaster.

Broad acceptance requires a user interface that is appealing and intuitive. And the ability to deploy it widely also required the team to design for and test on various computer types (for the node) and smartphones (for the users). Le explained: "We are targeting the general public, so we need to create a solution that can be used without significant training or specialized expertise."

"This project is interesting because of its many facets. We have to bring together networking technologies, web application design and smartphones.  But we also need to create a dialog with would-be users and our sponsors to understand and refine the requirements," said Nishida.

The SSN project is sponsored by the City of Palo Alto and the San Jose Water Company. As the project matures, it will be field tested in partnership with sponsors. Once proven, it will be made available widely in the hope that communities will adopt it and use it as part of their emergency preparedness plans.

In addition to the educational value of conducting work for a real-world client, the team was passionate about dedicating efforts to a project that could make a positive impact in a community.

To evaluate its readiness and to gather feedback, the team worked with the City of Palo Alto to press SSN into service at Quakeville, the City's annual emergency preparedness exercise. 

"Ongoing dialog with our sponsors helped us to arrange these test sessions that yielded guidance based on actual usage," explained Johnson.

"You feel what you've been doing could be helping many people in emergency situations," said Le.

Johnson agreed:  "SSN is not just a cool project to work on, but something of significance and worth that could potentially have a great influence and impact on the response in the event of an emergency or natural disaster."

Soon, the rest of campus may be talking about the work of these students and the project's high degree of relevance. The students were honored to be asked to present their work at the Campus-wide Celebration as part of the inaugural events for President Subra Suresh. Johnson, Le and Nishida will present at the University Center in Pittsburgh Thursday, November 14, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Originally published on the Information Networking Institute website