Applying System Engineering Amid Chaos

Ten IEEE members work to rebuild Haiti

7 July 2010

What began for IEEE Senior Member Marc Zissman, an assistant division head at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, as an estimated five-day job helping the U.S. Southern Command turned into a seven-week commitment helping the military assess its humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti. The assignment grew to include 10 IEEE members as well as about a dozen other people on a team Zissman assembled to assist with data collection and analysis.

SOUTHCOM is one of 10 unified Combatant Commands, which are composed of forces from two or more services, in the U.S. Department of Defense. Based in Miami, it is responsible for providing contingency planning, operations, and security cooperation for Central and South America, the Caribbean (except U.S. commonwealths, territories, and possessions), and Cuba, as well as for the protection of U.S. military resources at these locations. SOUTHCOM is also responsible for ensuring the defense of the Panama Canal and canal area.

Zissman’s project is leaving a legacy of information useful to organizations pursuing long-term humanitarian and rebuilding work in Haiti, including an assessment framework that could provide a template for future large-scale relief efforts anywhere disaster strikes. It also showed how a systems approach, coupled with multidisciplinary teamwork, flexibility, and networking, can solve nonengineering problems.

Zissman’s task was to determine how effectively the U.S. military was helping survivors of the 12 January earthquake that leveled Haiti’s infrastructure. The project involved organizing a data-gathering approach that took into account diverse and daunting variables, such as where to collect data when more than one million people are homeless, how many and which displaced persons to survey at each camp, how to structure questions to avoid misunderstandings, and the best way to analyze and present the information.

Zissman’s journey began in January, when SOUTHCOM asked the U.S. Northern Command for assistance in assessing the effectiveness of the earthquake relief in Haiti. That request was relayed to MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, in Lexington, Mass. Zissman, assistant head of the Laboratory’s Communication Systems and Cyber Security Division, volunteered.

It may seem an unlikely request for the laboratory, a Department of Defense-funded incubator for national security technology, to help with this humanitarian effort. But Zissman and the team he pulled together served to link military, medical, and civilian efforts. “Everyone knows the MIT brand and there weren’t too many organizations that could bridge all those gaps,” he notes.

He realized he would need to go to Haiti to put together an assessment of the situation, but was told the military was reluctant to send a civilian. Four days later he was given the go-ahead.

“I had 14 hours to get my shots, and gather my personal stuff and gear from the supply unit,” says Zissman. At 4 a.m. on 25 January he was on a C130 transport plane with 20 other military personnel and civilians interspersed among relief supplies, landing in the capital of Port-au-Prince.

“It was completely chaotic when we got off the plane,” he recalls. “I had no idea where to go or what to do. I was with two members of the military who had served in Iraq, an Army officer and an Air Force officer, who were helping with the humanitarian project and nothing fazed them. They simply said, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll find us.’” And they did. They soon got a ride to the American Embassy.

Zissman worked for SOUTHCOM’s Joint Task Force (JTF)–Haiti out of an embassy conference room. At first he feared his task was insurmountable. He thought he’d just be collecting data on, for example, how many water bottles were moving, and sending those reports back to Miami. But Colonel Charles Heatherly, civil affairs officer for JTF-Haiti, told him that’s not what he wanted. “If we’re moving water bottles and the wells are still working, we’re not contributing to the relief effort,” he said.

Everyone was focusing on the supply side and not many were looking at the demand side so Heatherly’s orders were simple, “Figure out the right thing to do.”

“My background is in human language technology, wideband tactical networking, and cyber security,” Zissman says. “This was way outside what I knew how to do, and the consequence of getting this wrong was huge—the increased financial costs to the military if we stayed too long, the chaos if we left too soon. I started calling everyone I could think of who could help.”

Zissman pulled together a multidisciplinary team based in the United States and Haiti that included several IEEE members: Lincoln Laboratory’s Matt Kercher, Doug Jones, James E. Evans, Jeremy Mineweaser and non-member Amanda Schiff; Curt Boylls and Gregory Mack, of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore, Md.; Rich Byrne, of the MITRE Corp. in McLean, Va.; and MIT Ph.D. student Erica Gralla and Jarrod Goentzel, a lecturer at the university. Kercher, Jones, Schiff, Evans, Goentzel, and Gralla also traveled to Haiti.

Each had expertise to offer. For example, Kercher, a retired Navy captain, could help the researchers understand the military’s requirements and processes; Jones, whose research is in speech and language processing, helped create a questionnaire; Boylls and Mineweaser translated raw data collected from the camps such as the number of children and amount of water consumed into data easily accessible on the Internet; and Byrne, who’d advised senior level military in the past, served as a critical eye for the plan being developed.

Zissman also tapped assistance from Louise Ivers, Haiti Country Director for Partners In Health; Boston healthcare professional Mischa Shattuck; engineering consultant Al McLaughlin; retired U.S. Marine Corps General Keith Holcomb; Anjali Sastry, senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management; Pan-American Health Organization epidemiologist Ondrej Mach; and a group of eight students from MIT, Harvard, and Tufts.

The team also provided each other with much-needed emotional support because with the chaos in Haiti they feared their work would prove unsuccessful. It was weeks before they were able to run a pilot data collection. “We were planning and operating without much tangible progress to show for it,” Zissman says. “There were nights when I’d walk back to my tent and think, ‘My God, what have I gotten myself into? It was so helpful to get positive reinforcement from people whose judgment I trusted.”

"Marc jumped into this crisis unprepared, but determined to make a difference,” says Byrne of MITRE Corp. “He applied his systems engineering expertise to chaos and uncertainty, social networks to real-time team building, and passionately mobilized people. In a world of increasing specialists, Marc's confluence of systems thinking, social networking, and passionate advocacy serves as a great role model for our next generation engineers."

By the time Zissman left on 21 March, the data-collection and analysis system assessing the needs of displaced Haitians was roughly in place, to be fine-tuned over the following two months, and ultimately made available to all types of relief organizations. The data collected is being used to inform the government of Haiti, the United Nations, and the nongovernmental organizations about decisions related to water supply, food supplies, healthcare needs, and security and shelter services.

But the participants believe the project has broader implications, showing how a team can be put together from scratch, yet be adaptive enough to accomplish any task, no matter how foreign it might be to an individual’s skill sets.



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