Networks in a Crisis
K. MANI CHANDY
Lee Center member Mani Chandy is interested in crisis management, whether a financial crisis such as a sudden plunge in the stock market; a national crisis such as a terrorist attack; or a natural crisis such as an earthquake or sudden epidemic like the SARS virus.
Chandy, the Simon Ramo Professor and Professor of Computer Science at Caltech, defines a crisis as any “very rapidly unfolding situation where humans don’t have control.” Chandy has developed software programs that can “sense and respond” to a crisis by using a global communications network. Chandy’s software creates an instant information infrastructure for task forces that deal with such events.
In a crisis, Chandy says, the goal is to gather as much information as possible, filter out what’s irrelevant, and integrate the rest into an accurate picture of what is happening and how to respond. “In an earthquake, for example, you need to know where the worst shaking occurred; what roads or buildings have collapsed; what areas have fires, explosions, and the greatest number of injuries; and where your emergency personnel are located,” says Chandy. The technology already exists for each of us to carry a smart card that identifies us and, via a network, locates us, so that we can be found in a crisis.
Chandy spent two years on sabbatical from Caltech to begin a company in Oakland, California, called iSpheres, which is looking at such issues. It is already marketing a generic software platform that can be tailored to monitor a particular kind of crisis.
Chandy’s idea evolved partly out of observation of the natural world. “Look at the way animals behave,” says Chandy. “We get information from all our senses. If we paid attention to all of it, we would have sensory overload and probably a nervous breakdown.” Information processing in the nervous system identifies an incident as a threat, an opportunity, or something to be ignored.
Chandy and his research group use a series of algorithms that ask “if-then” questions--- if a certain situation exists, then some action should occur. For example, if a fire exists, then global positioning software can pinpoint the location.
Chandy anticipates several major challenges, include making the software affordable, processing huge volumes of information quickly, and developing software that is dynamic, flexible, and robust to change. When things are static, says Chandy, it’s easy to set up filters that block out irrelevant information. In a crisis, though, the relevant information changes. The challenge, he says, is to develop software that “can dynamically change in a given situation.” Still another challenge will be to make the software accessible and useful to non-programmers such as firefighters, seismologists, stockbrokers, and others.
One of Chandy’s current projects is software for airport security that integrates unrelated bits of information about a person from their passport, checked bags, or ticket. Individually, the bits of information might reveal nothing, but collectively they could provide a warning.