Managing Disasters with Ken Zita and Network Dynamics Associates

In the communications profession we find two categories of people.  Those who are well known, show up at the best conferences, events, and parties – and those who spend their careers behind the scenes doing the heavy lifting of planning, construction, installation, and operations.

Ken Zita falls into the latter category.  Starting his career as a journalist, then moving on to telecoms and international communications infrastructure, he has taken the “road less traveled” for most of his professional life.  A road that has taken him to more than 50 countries, most with names the average American cannot identify, spell, or locate on a map.

Ken spent a few minutes with Pacific Tier on January 19th to talk about disaster management and operations continuity.

AUDIO FILES:  You can listen to the entire interview with Ken Zita HERE online at Pacific Tier Communications

Pacific Tier: Ken, tell us a little about yourself and Network Dynamics

Ken Zita - Network DynamicsKen Zita:  Well, we came out of the telecom industry, and still work in it – well, I don’t really know what telecom is anymore…  but its something about information management and networks.

We design strategies, policies, and investment plans for all kinds of clients in nearly 50 countries around the world.  Lately we’ve been doing a lot of public sector, which means that we’re advising governments on national transformation strategies related to ICT.

Pacific Tier::  Well that’s exciting.  This morning we’d like to focus and concentrate on the topic of disaster management, and possibly a little bit about cloud computing since that’s a high interest item.

Tell me, how did you get started with disaster management, and what is Network Dynamic s doing with disaster management?

Ken Zita:  We got involved right after the Asian Tsunami.  Essentially what happened is the United States government allocated, the United States Congress allocated, $16 million for technical assistance for ICT systems and services to help the countries that were hardest hit to develop risk mitigation and disaster management strategies.

And the long and short of it is that we helped stand up the National Crisis Management Center in Sri Lanka, the Tsunami Warning Center in Thailand, and the National Disaster Management Planning Agency in Indonesia.

So I got very deeply involved in understanding the government politics, and different kinds of systems.  We actually saw something real get built, which are Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) and downstream warning networks in those countries.

it was very satisfying, but that goes back a few years already, and since that time we’ve advised a number of countries on things like flood management systems, and we’ve also looked at municipal level incident management systems, or crisis management systems.

And if I might, I’ll tell you about two things I’m working on right now.

One is actually in China, where we’re looking at three large scale projects in the emergency management sector.  One of those is related to emergency medical services, meaning how do you design a framework for emergency response in the medical vertical.

The second is looking at dam and reservoir safety.  Because I think we can understand there are a lot of dams in China, and a lot of them are quite old.  And this leaves populations vulnerable if anything should happen to them.  So how do you manage those, and how does it effect the flood waters and rivers, and so on.

The third area, I think is really a growth topic, is a provincial wide environmental management system.  That is to say an emergency management system for environmental crisis.  So how do you manage and keep track of pollutants in the air, and heavy metals in the air,water tables and so on, so you can be prepared and ready as incidents may happen.

And they will (incidents), as we know with the environment in highly industrialized areas such as China.

So those are the China projects, and I’ll elaborate in a second.

Now the China projects – to some degree, and the early warning systems, are really more a systemic management of crisis situations.  There is a whole other realm of disaster management related to first response.  Because time has shown the most loss of life happens within the first 36 hours after a major event.  Like a tsunami, like an earthquake, or flash flood.

And, getting people out, or dispatched quickly is what its all about for the emergency responder subsector of disaster management..

So, in Asia-Pacific, which incidentally is where well over 90% of the fatalities in disasters happen world wide.  So when you think about the whole world with all the earthquakes and all the floods, and all the fires, and everything else, the most loss of life and loss of property happens in the Asia-Pacific region.

We are currently advising the United States Pacific Command, that’s to say the military out of Honolulu, and 22 other militaries throughout Asia-Pacific, a 22 country effort, for something called the Multi-National Communications Interoperability Program.  While this is a big long military name, it is commonly known as Pacific Endeavor.

What Pacific Endeavor is, is a way to use information technology of all sorts to improve interoperability among military forces for natural disasters.  So this is not about military stuff, it is not defensive exercises or strategic – its really how the can coordinate better with one another using ICT frameworks.

Our role specifically is to create a bridge between the military world and the non-military world.  Meaning the United Nations, large non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and industry.  So, all the big technology companies which are coming up with social network platforms, cloud computing platforms, multi-protocol radios, and so on.

We’re actually coordinating a lot of that. for Pacific Endeavor.

So a couple different thoughts.  The emergency response, disaster management, and how ICTs are being used to address these problems.

Pacific Tier::  Excellent.  Actually I have several different questions now related to government disaster planning in general, regional disaster management between governments, but one thing I am going to ask right off the top, when you talk about communications, recently – particularly in California where I live, social networking media has become a very important part of the disaster response and disaster management process.

Specifically things like Twitter when you have wild fires, as Twitter actually get to people faster than other notification method.  How do you feel about social media and the future of social media in disaster management and disaster response?

Ken Zita:  Well its hugely powerful, and its where our world is right now, where we’re shifting to this more real-time environment.  In general, we are moving toward real-time information flows among people.  And the challenge I think is knowing how social media affects each aspect of the response.So for people who have got to get out of their houses, having a Twitter feed, that’s really terrific.

But there is almost a parallel universe of the emergency responders themselves.  The police, fire, the National Guard, who don’t necessarily talk to each other either.  But they have these legacy systems, and they have legacy incident command systems.

The question is how to you put together, or match up the structured data of a hierarchical command and control system..  A traditional C4I* type of system, with the unstructured information flows that come through Twitter feeds or social media and other things (such as SMS, video email, etc).  It is possible to put together really interesting situational awareness, such as with a neighbor who has a cell phone camera for broadcasting.  That’s really, really powerful.

But the question is whether the incident commander has the bandwidth, both literal and figurative, to be able to look at all those kinds of feeds that might be sent to some source, in addition to do what they need to do to coordinate their own response.

I think there is a certain inflection point where I think, certainly in the US, where the response authorities know that this information is hugely valuable that shows a real pulse, on real life, and there is great situational awareness that can be obtained.  But then how do you design a framework for all that information flow to be manageable?

Including some of the stuff that may not necessarily be public.

Pacific Tier::  How do you feel the governments are doing in general?  Are they meeting the needs of the people, are they meetings the needs of a disaster management process? Or are there serious shortfalls that we both technically and organizationally need to overcome?

Ken Zita:  Well I think that a lot of people have the best intentions, and people try hard.  But its no secret that George W. Bush’s presidency collapsed not on the lunacy of the Iraq war, or the mis-management of Afghanistan, its more over the mis-management of Katrina.

it was a very important lesson, I think for other countries.  As I travel around, I think others have seen what happens when you sit back on your heels and don’t act.  So for example in China, which has its own internal political dynamic, after the Wenchuan earthquake, the president was there almost immediately.  He was there with a retinue of cameras, he was there with the Army, and looked very much in control of the situation.

So there is a perception if you don’t do something, following what happened during Katrina, you can really lose your job.

So I think the political awareness has gone way up.  Part of that can actually be attributed to something that the UN has formed.  it is call the UN International Strategy on Disaster Reduction (ISDR).  They have a permanent secretary in Geneva.

Basically they are trying to get governments around the world to agree to a platform for disaster reduction and disaster management.  And there are lots and lots of measure that they’re doing.  But suffice to say that there are governments all over the world that have signed on to this, saying “we think it is important,” increasingly having the prima minister and the president’s office saying “OK, this really matters.”

So that’s at the political level.

The you have to come down to the real-life level.  We all know from 9/11 the police and the fire were not talking.  We know about the debacle in the United States at the 700Mhz auction that was just a total boondoggle – poorly conceived and poorly executed.

I can point to examples all around to why it is not working.  Part of it is just because people don’t understand that its not just about technology.  You have to put together an organizational and leadership process to prepare people for what it takes to have an effective response.

So its kind of a blend.  The world is waking up to it.  But there is a lot of work to be done for consultants!

Pacific Tier::  Let me move on to a slightly different topic.  You had mentioned Indonesia, the tsunami, and the pain that caused.  Having worked in Indonesia extensively myself, one of the topics that  comes up frequently is the loss of data.  Particularly land management data and things like that in the Banda Acai area.

Due to the fact it wasn’t digitized, and wasn’t in a location where it could be backed up or put in a file in some other part of the country.  How do you feel about disaster management of data and the communication systems, and if I can make a transition and throw cloud computing as a current buzz word in there.. How do you feel about the digitization of data in countries and how that impacts the ability to  maintain continuity of a government in the event of a major disaster?

Ken Zita:  Well we don’t even have to limit it to disasters.  I’m a big proponent of the cloud-type metaphor, but you know there is a little bit of hype associated with cloud computing (as you well know…).

Vintage EarthquakeThe biggest challenge now for most low and middle-income countries is making the transition from paper to electronic storage of information.  There are lots of other problems, but basically they are being thrust from this traditional system where land records are done on a piece of paper and just jotted down, right?

Then into the world of what we can do.  Imaging, GIS, and other cloud-based applications and so forth.

So the questions is, “is this another leap frogging opportunity,” where its possible to help governments make this transition basically layering a whole scale solutions to digitization, rather than just doing vertical solutions.  A lot of times you have someone who does eGovernment solutions for land management, to use your example, someone else will do passports, or a healthcare system.  And its just taking forever, because you are really just shipping computers in (to the country).

And if you think in terms of continuity and resilience, as a product set, or product area for government .  Public sector continuity there is a huge, huge opportunity across the emerging markets. So I’m all for it.  It works like in an enterprise backup center, you just have to have the hot backup and shared facilities.

Pacific Tier:  One more question, and a very open-ended question.  how do you feel about the future of disaster management, government continuity, or even enterprise continuity?  Where do we go to from here?

Ken Zita: I’ll address that on a level I’ve been working most, kind of between the UN, industry, and the NGOs.  And I should add, the militaries.  So, kind of the institution of it.

There’s a lot of cool stuff that’s happening on the edge of the network, like the “crisis commons,” and the “boot camp.” The developer activity where you have a bunch of programmers who are trying to hack some new and exciting tools for social media, and for mobile phones, and for people.  That’s all very great.

There’s more of that to come .  But at the same time what I’m seeing is that there are the beginnings of some helpful collaboration, and some new tools that are being designed at the institutional level, and what I’m talking about is UN OCHA, which is the refugee organization of the UN, there is the World Food Program, the United Nations Development Program – they are actually starting to design architectures, web-based architectures, device architectures for mobile…

They are going to make things a whole lot easier between constituencies.  Because traditionally you have, each organization has its own data silos, its own hierarchy, and its own reporting structure.  And if we’re going to get to a point where the institutional players and the social media – where user data is really interchangeable, really interoperable, we’re going to have to develop kind of a next generation of portals for information sharing.

So collaboration right now is going from voice to voice, you have to get mobile radios to work with each other, into some very small degree of information sharing , we’ll get into more situational awareness and we’ll be getting into video.

And all that’s going to happen at a portal level so there will be an easier flow – and a richer exchange at the disaster site, and of course for the reconstruction process.

It’s kind of nuts, how its been done lately, where you’ve got all these different organizations with their own VSAT terminals, their own databases, their own reporting structure, so nobody is seeing what each other are doing.  That’s not healthy.

So, at the institutional level it is actually being worked out a bit.  And I think that when some of the bigger building blocks are in place that it will create a framework for the creativity  and innovation at the edge.  Meaning, the crisis camp type developers.

Its still a pretty murky area.  There’s not a lot of money committed to it.  There are a lo of people who want to do well by helping,  But its still, you know its one of these things like shouldn’t we have figured this out a long time ago – but at least the technology is here, and there is a lot of activity and energy (available) to try ands make something better.

Pacific Tier:  Those are great insights, and I certainly appreciate you taking the time this morning to talk with us about it, and hopefully sometime around the end of this year we’ll be able to follow up and see how you feel what progress we’ve made as an industry and institution.

Again, thank you very much for taking the time!

KEN ZITA, President of Network Dynamics Associates (www.ndaventures.com), specializes in opportunity definition, strategic marketing and policy formation at the highest levels of the technology, financial and government worlds.  He is widely regarded as a visionary on the strategic impacts of technology on national development; has deep, comprehensive and eclectic knowledge of the telecom and information services sectors; and has worked in nearly 50 countries worldwide.

*C4I stands for command, control, communications, computers, and (military) intelligence

AUDIO FILES:  You can listen to the entire interview with Ken Zita HERE online at Pacific Tier Communications

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