Thursday, September 22, 2005

Efficiency and Robustness

People (including Ian Welsh and Chandler Howell) have been worrying about the ability of a tightly coupled world to withstand shocks - including Hurricane Katrina and SARS. Here are some key quotes from their blogs.
  • Our society, as a whole, has no surge protection - no ability to take shocks. We have no excess beds, no excess equipment, no excess ability to produce vaccines or medicines, nothing. Everybody has worshipped at the altar of efficiency for so long that they don't understand that if you don't have extra capacity you have no ability to deal with unexpected events. (IW)
  • As we have now seen with Hurricane Katrina, even if the capacity were there, the United States’ ability to manage and allocate that capacity is essentially non-existent. (CH)
Welsh quotes some analysis from Sherry Cooper and Donald Coxe, comparing a possible SARS outbreak with the flu pandemic.
  • Because our society and economy is so much more integrated and so much more connected (for example the flu had to spread by ship back then), and so much more "just on time" that it isn't really a model you can use. We'll likely get hit harder, faster and because many locations have such limited inventories, relying on getting it as they need it, the supply disruptions are likely to be much worse.
Telecoms analyst Martin Geddes offers a potentially more upbeat perspective, at least in relation to Hurricane Katrina, asking us to distinguish between an emergency and a disaster.
  • In an emergency, a distributed piece of information calls for a central response. A disaster, the converse. Those best informed are in the field; those best equipped, in the field. The best disaster response system is the one in your hand when the disaster strikes.
But Geddes's optimism is tempered by his distrust of central committees, and his fear they will abuse their power.
  • But the changes needed to make things better are politically painful and resistent by incumbent powers. ... I suspect that central committees will determine we need more central response systems, and weaken the economy by taxing everyone hard to pay for it. The exact opposite of the medicine a “network edge” response would dictate.
There are some interesting (and sometimes shocking) details from the Hurricane Katrina experience, and several different levels of incapacity can be detected. From a systems-of-systems perspective, what I find particularly interesting are the interoperability failures.
  • Inability of FEMA to work with medical professionals unless they are part of the National Disaster Medical Team. Inability of FEMA to orchestrate external / autonomous agents. (Overlawyered Blog, via Ernie the Attorney)
  • Inability of FEMA to provide appropriate support for people with special needs. Inability of FEMA to collaborate with agencies with specialist knowledge and resources. (Conmergence Blog)
My colleagues and I are currently talking to some large organizations about some of the strategic aspects of interoperability, with particular reference to SOA, and I hope to be permitted to publish some of this material one day. In the meantime, I am keen to collect and analyse more public domain examples of interoperability failures. Please contact me, or link to this blog posting.

The FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina

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