Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan quake data delivery is an ongoing challenge

GeoEye post-quake imagery prepared by Google Crisis Response Team
We're part of a great distributed team doing map support for the search and rescue task forces in Japan.  One of the big challenges we've all been working on is how to get updated data to the field. In the early phases of a response you don't know the situation, so you try everything and stick with what works.  In that spirit, here's a story of some of the comm approaches we've worked on.

  • Hand off hard drive before departure. This was the first thing we did and so far the one that worked best.  We managed to wire 3 GB of map data to JPL in Pasadena, which was on the way from CA-TF2's staging area to their departure point at March Air Reserve Base. That let our guys at JPL do a physical handoff of a hard drive.  Since then we've heard from the team in the field that they made good use of the data during their flight to pre-plan their operations, so thanks again to everyone who helped make that happen!
  • Courier data from Google Tokyo. We figured out on Sunday that there was a solid link between Google's offices in Mountain View, California and Tokyo, sufficient to send ~ 30 GB of data in a few hours.  The plan was to courier the data by hard drive from Tokyo to the operational area at Ofunato, a small town about 100 km north of Sendai. Unfortunately, things stalled there. We've been advised that road conditions are very poor with some bridges out, emergency vehicles and aircraft are all in use, and some roads may be closed to civilian vehicles. As of now we're continuing to stage data to Tokyo and hoping conditions will improve.
  • Send data via satellite internet. The team in the field has a satellite dish that uses the BGAN Inmarsat service to give them a direct low-bandwidth internet connection. For now this is our only working data link and we're trying to generate really tightly focused lightweight maps that cover the high priority areas. I don't have the specs on their particular BGAN device but we've been advised that 50 MB is the upper bound file size for practical transfers under good conditions, and unfortunately conditions are poor. That's probably because the satellites are overloaded, just like cell phone networks get overloaded after a disaster.
  • Courier data from Misawa Air Base.  Misawa is located at the northern end of the main Japanese island of Honshu and it's where the teams originally arrived and started their drive down to Ofunato. We've established a data link to Misawa and are waiting to hear more about the bandwidth. It may be easier to courier data from Misawa rather than Tokyo, especially because we may be able to piggyback a hard drive in the delivery when they resupply the Air Force security team that's accompanying the search and rescue task force. But so far we don't know when a resupply trip will happen.
  • Get help from Cisco. The Cisco Tactical Operations team is investigating a couple of options. One is to deliver data through Cisco's Japan offices and local staff that are providing comms to the Japanese government. Another is to get a higher-bandwidth satellite dish to the field team. We just got in touch with them Monday night.
One really important point about data transfer: the rapid growth of storage media sizes and satellite imagery resolution is an ongoing tech trend and wireless comm bandwidth isn't keeping up. So the trade-off between physical media delivery vs. wireless transfer will probably favor physical delivery more and more as time goes on, and we need to pre-plan how to make that happen for future deployments.

So, hope that is food for thought and I'm sure improving the connectivity will be a fun conversation during debrief.

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