A conversation with Ted Okada about the work of Microsoft Humanitarian Systems

The same audio glitch that ruined my interview with Joel Selanikio also affected another interview on the same day. That interview, for my Microsoft Conversations series, was with Ted Okada, who is the director of a small group called Microsoft Humanitarian Systems. So again I’ll have to settle for reporting highlights from the interview along with some quotes I was able to salvage.

Ted came to Microsoft by way of Groove, where he’d been hired to spearhead Groove’s use in the humanitarian sector which had increasingly come to value the product for several interesting properties — technical resilience in the face of intermittent connectivity, and political resilience in the sense that it creates neutral infrastructure owned by no single agency. When I caught up with Ted, as he was packing for a trip to Afghanistan, he gave this example of the latter:

We’ve been working with an NGO that was using Groove to negotiate between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka. The two parties wouldn’t sit in the same room, but they did agree to use Groove to arbitrate the conflict.

In this appearance on Channel 10, Ted talks about how Groove is uniquely well equipped to support collaboration in disaster relief situations, and he demonstrates a Groove-based solution that enabled five different relief organizations responding to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake to synchronize on the same operational picture.

Ted has also been one of Microsoft’s representatives at Strong Angel, an exercise to simulate disaster response that’s been held three times — in 2000, 2004, and most recently 2006. Strong Angel was the brainchild of U.S. Navy Medical Corps commander Dr. Eric Rasmussen. I asked Ted what it’s like to participate, and he replied:

It’s an odd mixture of the early Interop conferences — where people were trying to get routers from different manufacturers to work together — plus a little bit of Burning Man, a little bit of Foo Camp, and a little bit of the military channel. Officially it’s a demonstration, but it involves all those elements and addresses all kinds of questions. How do you cross the civil/military boundary, particularly when trust is low and the need for collective action is high? How do you make sure all the gear works together? Of course it’s also a venue for some interesting gear, like solar reflective yurts that you might find at Burning Man — and in fact actually were taken to Burning Man.

As John Markoff reported, there were some notable interoperability failures at Strong Angel 3 but also some notable successes. One of the latter involved the use of Simple Sharing Extensions (SSE), an extension of RSS, to synchronize location data between Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth.

I wondered what broader role SSE might play, given that it extends a Groove-like data synchronization capability to a diverse set of applications. It turns out that Ted will be testing a prototype SSE adapter for Microsoft Access on a trip to Kabul next week:

From my perspective as a relief and development person for 20 years, you can’t overestimate the value of simple tools like good old Access. What if Access could relay messages and synchronize via SSE, so that you’ve got persistent statefulness and failover on highly intermittent and jittery networks? Suddenly Access becomes a much more lively player in the edge-based mesh. So now in Afghanistan we’ll actually be using this wonderful everyman’s tool, Access, enlivened with SSE adapters, to help out an NGO partner who’s told us that would really help them share data with the other stakeholders in the reconstruction project they’re working on.

Ted has an interesting take on what Microsoft might learn by collaborating with these kinds of partners:

If you make the developer part of an environment that is itself stressed, and build for the extreme case, maybe you can titrate lessons faster and close the loop quicker on accelerated learning. It’s hard to work in a place like Afghanistan. It’s an austere environment and you’re at the mercy of that environment. Very few people know who Microsoft is — or care who we are — and there aren’t many places in the world where that’s true. In some ways, perhaps, immersion in that environment could turn out to be the ultimate sort of extreme programming.

Those were the highlights. It’s painful to have bungled those audio recordings. When I told Phil Windley he said, “I live in fear of that.” Well, the silver lining — for folks who don’t listen to podcasts, at least — is that it forced me to write more about the interviews than I normally do. Tomorrow I’ll record what will be the third in a series of conversations about humanitarian uses of technology, and you can bet I’ll double-check to make sure I’m recording what I think I’m recording!

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12 thoughts on “A conversation with Ted Okada about the work of Microsoft Humanitarian Systems

  1. Any more details/feedback/lessons-learned/audio-glitch-avoidance-tips for the masses with regard to the two instances of the ‘glitch’ you encountered? Free the experiential knowledge! (arguable preaching to the choir leader himself)

  2. “Any more details/feedback/lessons-learned?”

    In this case the lesson appears to be: If you haven’t rebooted in a really long time, and have been doing a lot of audio work, it’s probably a good idea to reboot.

    This was on XP, for what it’s worth, but I’ve seen audio drivers get weird on Vista and OS X as well so the advice might qualify as a best practice. In general I so rarely have to reboot any of these systems nowadays that I forget that in certain cases it’s probably a good idea.

  3. It’s great to see the interest in the work that Ted and the MHS team are doing. I’ve been working with them for a few months now and I’m just amazed at what they are able to accomplish in some very challenging environments.

    One note about the Simple Sharing Extensions–you’ve linked to an older version of the spec. The latest version can be found at http://msdn.microsoft.com/xml/rss/sse.

  4. I had the privilege of working with Ted (albeit briefly) using Groove & SharePoint. Glad to see that he has moved on to more projects at MHS.


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