Editor’s Note: We’ve invited U.S. Navy Captain Douglas Wied to share the story of how Google Apps is being used to improve coordination in disaster relief efforts. Captain Wied currently leads the Navy’s effort to develop and foster Non-Classified data sharing among the U.S. and its many international partners focused on improving regional maritime security.
The United States Navy’s Maritime Domain Awareness program focuses on improving maritime security around the world. As part of this initiative, the U.S. collaborates with international governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to increase maritime security capabilities in different regions in order to prevent threats like piracy and terrorism, as well as to respond to natural disasters.
Sharing information is critical to maritime security. And most of this information is public – or sensitive but unclassified, as the government calls it. In summer 2008, we began InRelief to improve our collaboration capabilities using Google Apps. InRelief supports the Navy’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission. We use email, chat, shared documents, calendars, sites, and other Google applications to support our information sharing needs.
Previously, on U.S. Navy ships, the unclassified network was a U.S. network only, so NGOs or foreign governments could not access it. We set up a Non-Classified Enclave (NCE) as a way to give our partners access. The NCE is a network of virtualized servers located in Miami, Florida that provide secure connectivity. InRelief is basically a cloud-based implementation of NCE.
Our team saw several advantages to building InRelief on Google Apps, including security, scalability, reliability, and other powerful features we didn’t have to build ourselves. As part of the military, gaining familiarity the security controls of Google Apps was of critical importance. Our security team met with Google’s team and went through in detail how Google implements security. We came away with the understanding that Google Apps is very secure. The fact we’re hosted on a FISMA-certified environment allows our team increased flexibility and assurance when collaborating and sharing unclassified but sensitive content and documents.
In the event of a major crisis when we would need a lot of accounts for a short period of time, Google Apps lets us scale easily to as many users as necessary. We can turn them off again when we no longer need them. That’s a tremendous asset. It would be really tough – and not cost-effective – to resource a system ourselves that could scale up and down like this.
As for reliability, with Google Apps data is replicated in multiple data centers, so we can be assured we’ll have access to our data. Having a single point of failure is a constant challenge with other systems. Particularly when dealing with disasters, knowing the system will be available is a big plus.
Some of the built-in features of Google Apps were critical to our needs. For example, real-time collaborative editing of documents, spreadsheets and presentations supports crisis response planning efforts using multiple personnel who are geographically dispersed. Also, real-time translation in chat can be extremely helpful when we’re trying to coordinate efforts with a coalition of people who speak multiple languages.
Another issue we are always concerned about is the training requirements new tools impose on our users. With InRelief, we can give an account to a foreign government representative or NGO and it doesn’t take much time for them to get started. Earlier this year, we put Google Apps to test in coordinating a response to the Haiti earthquake. When the Haiti effort kicked off, our team was dispersed. We used the Google collaboration tools – email, chat and shared documents – to get things moving. Even the remote team members could review and contribute to the team’s work. Half the people in the group hadn’t used Apps before our efforts got underway – they just did it, with no learning curve. Our team is currently using the same capabilities to support relief efforts for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.
Finally, the concern for developing cost-effective solutions that maximize the benefits of tax dollars spent, our overall costs were hundreds of thousands versus millions of dollars; a significant savings when compared to what we spend to host traditional stovepipe type systems requiring network connectivity, software, hardware, system administrators, information assurance testing, and certification & accreditation.
With InRelief.org, we have a collaborative environment easily accessible with a secure and reliable infrastructure that allows us to respond rapidly to crisis.
– Captain Douglas C. Wied, Assistant Program Manager
Non-Classified Enclave, U.S. Navy
Posted by Dan Israel, Google Enterprise team