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Distributed information system to improve crisis management

Terrorist attacks, natural catastrophes and industrial disasters have proven the need for efficient crisis management solutions, to share information and improve coordination between the various actors involved in managing large-scale emergencies. The team behind the IST project MEDSI set out to meet the requirements.

The MEDSI project, which ended in October 2005, resulted in the creation of a prototype crisis management system, which uses web services to automatically obtain and exchange information from numerous sources, to support decision-making at crisis management centres. The prototype system integrates both geographical and non-geographical data, putting quickly and efficiently all the information needed to mitigate the effects of a crisis into the hands of the crisis managers in the field. “Depending on the crisis scenario, data could be provided by meteorological centres, police, fire fighters, hospitals, civil defence, infrastructure operators, local authorities, the military… in fact, anyone who has information that could contribute to improving the response to an emergency,” explains project manager Manuel Escriche, of Telefónica Investigación y Desarrollo in Valladolid, Spain. It is the scalability of the MEDSI system that sets it apart from other crisis management platforms. It uses highly adaptable web services to make communication and information sharing between different actors simpler and more efficient, and also allows new actors to be incorporated into the crisis-management structure relatively quickly. In addition, the Java platform is built around the concept of having independent software cells implemented at different organisations that exchange data with the system. These cells, which consist of the system functionality and specific data sources covering certain geographical areas, act autonomously to communicate information between the different systems used by various crisis-management organisations. These functions allow the platform to interface easily with existing back-end and legacy software applications without modification, apart from changing the data sets and adapting them to the jurisdictions of different organisations. “The main users would be national, regional and local crisis management centres and the operators in charge of dealing with emergency situations. They would receive automatically updated real-time information integrated from all actors, which is then displayed on their screens in the form of dynamic geographic maps centred on the epicentre of the crisis,” Escriche says. “The map contains dynamic symbols, say an H for a hospital," he continues. "By clicking on the map, dynamic information is displayed, such as the number of hospital beds and surgeries available.” Using wireless devices such as notebook computers or PDAs, dynamic maps can be sent to emergency services and other actors in the field, allowing the police, for example, to quickly cordon off an area and monitor, in real time, events as they develop. However, Escriche notes, the real efficiency gains are in the crisis control room. “By giving crisis managers access to reliable, accurate information in a meaningful way, we dramatically shorten the time it takes them to make informed decisions about what to do. Coordination throughout the entire crisis management chain also improves and lives are saved,” he says. But although the MEDSI system really comes into its own in the event of a crisis, it also assists authorities in preparing for any eventuality, in turn helping citizens to feel safer. “For politicians, implementing a system such as this can be a significant step toward addressing citizens’ security concerns,” Escriche says. The need for such crisis-management systems has become a political issue in recent years. The MEDSI team defined the platform requirements in part from analysing the response to the devastating flooding in Central Europe during the summer of 2002. They also ran a pilot scenario in the city of Holon in Israel, in which local authorities and emergency services had to deal with a fire at a chemical plant. “The Israeli crisis coordinator in Holon really saw the benefits of the system after we installed it at the crisis management centre. He especially liked the dynamic symbols which made it easy to interpret information about different locations and people involved, and he saw how it can help the various distributed actors collaborate,” Escriche says. Escriche believes that crisis management systems using technologies and methods similar to those developed in MEDSI will be in widespread use within the next “three to four years.” The project team is currently looking for partners and investors to continue their research and turn this expectation into a reality. Contact: Manuel Escriche Telefónica Investigación y Desarrollo Parque Tecnológico de Boecillo 118-120 E-47151 Boecillo Valladolid Spain Phone: +34 913 129 972 Mobile: +34 620 837 618 Fax: +34 983 367 564 Email: mev@tid.es Source: Based on information from MEDSI

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