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How we’re building an information infrastructure for Typhoon Haiyan response operations

Typhoon Haiyan has claimed the lives of thousands and displaced millions more. Along with other aid organizations from around the world, our disaster response partners Team Rubicon and Direct Relief have mobilized to provide relief to those affected by the storm, and we’ve been working closely with them to support their efforts.

On Veterans Day Team Rubicon launched Operation: Seabird, which sent a specialized team of veteran volunteers to Tacloban. Equipped with kits supplied by Direct Relief, they’ve been conducting search and rescue, patient extraction, and medical relief operations. Second and third teams have deployed more recently to expand operations and prepare for the arrival of even more Team Rubicon volunteers in the days ahead.

Direct Relief has sent several emergency airlifts of medical supplies and medications to affected areas, and have now made their entire $65 million medical inventory available for the relief effort. They will soon be deploying personnel of their own to assess local health needs directly.

We’ve been hacking away furiously all week to support these efforts. Here’s an update of what we’re already doing and what we have planned.

The Raven interface with data from Tacloban

Raven with live data from Tacloban.

Putting data (and our engineers) to work

We quickly stood up a Palantir instance and are actively integrating and structuring OCHA reports, MapAction updates, various open source data sets relevant to the area of operations (OpenStreetMap, local government info, supply centers, shelters, markets, etc.), SITREPs from various relief organizations, assessment reports generated in the field, and more. By providing access to many different kinds of data, the most recent data, and helpful ways of interacting with that data, we hope to help Team Rubicon and Direct Relief better coordinate their actions with other NGOs and provide more relief to more people, faster.

On the UX front, we were especially excited to deploy Raven, our new high-performance, web-based geospatial analysis application. We’ve loaded it with a range of static and dynamic map layers, and we’ll be using it for all things geospatial—from GPS tracking of volunteers (see more below) to operational planning, visualizing the distribution of resources, and more. Thanks to DigitalGlobe, Raven has access to near real-time satellite imagery and crowd-sourced damage reports. The Raven dev team has been working day and night all week to build out new features specifically for this mission.

The instance is being manned by a team of Palantir engineers as well as Direct Relief and Team Rubicon users. Stateside, we will be providing various kinds of reachback support—integrating data, responding to RFIs, cleaning up and enriching new data as it comes in, and generally making sure the right people know what they need to know when they need to know it. Our users in the Philippines will depend on the instance to plan and execute their day-to-day operations.

Building a tech package for disconnected environments

We recently confirmed that Team Rubicon can connect to the main instance from Tacloban, but we expect there will be areas where we can’t get that kind of connectivity, so we’ve prepared a technical package that will allow the team to operate in a completely disconnected environment.

Moving Palantir Forward, forward

Several years ago we developed a standalone version of Palantir that could run on a laptop in disconnected environments such as conflict zones. We called it Palantir Forward. It allows users to take a cut of data out to a remote location, perform analysis and add new data while disconnected, and then sync that data with other Palantir instances when connectivity is restored. We sent nine Palantir Forward laptops to the Philippines. Now the same technology that was built for active duty soldiers will be used to help veterans provide disaster relief.

Deploying Palantir Mobile, and introducing Mimosa

Palantir Mobile was one of the most effective capabilities we deployed after Hurricane Sandy. It enabled Team Rubicon volunteers to submit damage assessment reports from the field back to the FOB in an instant, and it allowed planners at the FOB to track the location and movement of their volunteers. This removed the latency associated with hand-delivering reports, removed the overhead and risk associated with managing paper-based reports, and streamlined comms across the strategic and tactical levels of the operation. (You can watch a short video about how Team Rubicon used Palantir Mobile after Sandy here). We think a similar capability could be beneficial to Haiyan relief efforts.

Team Rubicon brought Palantir Mobile handsets with them to Tacloban, but these devices depend on cellular connectivity. We may not be able to depend on cellular network infrastructure in some of the most damaged and remote areas. So we spent the last week coming up with a purely satellite-based version of Palantir Mobile. We’re provisionally calling the result the MIni MObile SAtellite, or Mimosa. (Admittedly, not a great name. I blame the sleep deprivation.)

A successful test of Mimosa in Raven

A successful test of Mimosa.

Thanks to a days-old partnership with Delorme (and their great APIs, engineers, and client service people), we have prototyped and successfully tested a capability that works with inReach two-way satellite communicator devices. Direct Relief purchased 130 inReach devices, which are equipped for GPS tracking anywhere in the world and can send and receive 160-character, Tweet-like messages over satellite comms. Our Raven dev team built a plugin that will allow us to use the GPS data for real-time Blue Force Tracking of volunteers in the field. Message data will also show up on the map, so users at base stations will be able to communicate directly with forward teams from within the Raven interface. We’ve written some data integration scripts against the inReach API to generate data objects based on situation or assessment reports sent from these devices. To accommodate the character limit, we hacked together a shorthand system so the data can be easily sorted and analyzed in Palantir. Here’s an example of how it works. If someone were to send the following message:

SAR–60–0–20-Water-/-

it would be interpreted by Palantir as:

Zone Search-and-Rescue Report: 60 percent of homes habitable, utilities not intact, estimate 20 deaths, water needed, no other details.

Once volunteers start submitting reports from the field, whether via Palantir Mobile or Mimosa, we will quickly get a better picture of where resources need to be directed to deliver relief to those who are most at risk.

Deploying engineers to the Philippines

Over the weekend a small team of Palantir engineers from our California, Virginia, and Australia offices arrived in the Philippines to support relief efforts on the ground. The team includes engineers who have previously deployed to conflict zones, a Tagalog speaker, and a Palantir Mobile specialist. They’re geared up for harsh conditions, unpredictable technical challenges, and the chance to work with our amazing partners to make a real difference.

How you can learn more

We will continue to publish updates as we get more information. To stay up to date on developments, follow the whole team on Twitter @PalantirTech, @TeamRubicon, and @DirectRelief, and check out the latest news on the Team Rubicon and Direct Relief blogs.

How you can help

Support the response efforts by making donations to Direct Refief and Team Rubicon. Arm volunteers on the ground with better data by participating in DigitalGlobe’s crowdsourcing campaign to tag damage in satellite imagery.

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