'Wetware' and Other Technologies Supported Obama Inauguration

Prior to each U.S. Presidential Inauguration, the United States Secret Service and its legion of supporting local, state, and federal first-responder and emergency-management agencies up the ante in the technology used both to ensure the safety of the new president and to coordinate the sometimes overlapping activities of the responding agencies.  During the 20 January inauguration of President Barack Obama, scores of participating organizations – ranging from local transit agencies to the American Red Cross – were connected to one another through interoperable computer, radio, and geospatially aware technologies that provided coordinators with unprecedented situational awareness of the National Mall and surrounding areas within several miles of the U.S. capitol, the White House, and the inaugural parade route.  

In addition, a number of emergency managers – collocated in several large centers across the region – used various big-screen technological tools displaying everything from live camera feeds to traffic sensors as well as high-detail time-lapse satellite imagery and “street view” pictography.  But despite the successful creation, deployment, and wide availability of these new tools, the real story of the 2009 presidential inaugural was the “human glue” that integrated an unprecedented mass of information across various data sources into meaningful operational data.  

Key personnel were able to effectively discern, distill, and disseminate a huge volume of information regarding the status of a score of inaugural events and activities both large and small and, through the use of myriad technologies, to share that human-value-added information across a broad spectrum of professional disciplines and political jurisdictions.  In many cases, the technology of choice was a landline, cell phone, or radio – not necessarily the latest high-tech solution, perhaps, but more than adequate for the specific tasks involved.

In the National Capital Region (NCR) surrounding Washington, D.C., an emergency cache of interoperable handheld devices had been purchased (at considerable expense) to support jurisdictions with communications and information sharing during major events impacting the region.  Prior to the inauguration, considerable effort was expended to pre-plan and then deploy large numbers of these radios in coordination with other radio systems througout the NCR.  During the event, these systems were heavily used – a testimony to good planning.  However, most radio communications were on “secure” channels and “clear” (open) channels were used significantly less.  Had there been a significant event affecting the region, these open channels would have been more widely used.  Those participants who were not connected to the secure communications may have felt that not enough information was being disseminated through these channels, when in fact its lack of use was intentional (and quite fortunate).

The real story of the presidential inaugural was the “human glue” that integrated an unprecedented mass of information into meaningful operational data

Other feedback provided during post-inauguration discussions included comments from several jurisdictions that expressed frustration with the “lack” of information being shared.  Those complaints, though, were about a problem not of technology but, rather, of role clarity and the setting of appropriate expectations, prior to the event itself, regarding “what” should be communicated, “by whom,” and “when.”

To be sure, the Washington, D.C., area was fortunate that no serious incidents took place during the events leading up to and following the inauguration.  The weather was cold, but not cold enough to result in large-scale health issues.  Traffic was well managed, and public transportation provided unprecedented levels of service with minimal interruption.  Overall, there were very few incidents that arguably might have necessitated cross-regional coordination.  

But a larger question remains: Could the communications and other tools used, both high- and low-tech (and including some systems highly ified), have been used more effectively?  For those who expected to receive more information than they ultimately did, the answer is “yes.”  In this case, though, a more important lesson that could be learned from the inauguration might be that more time should be spent detailing roles and responsibilities and less time installing the latest technological systems.  Human “wetware,” it seems, remains the best technology the nation has available to achieve effective coordination.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.



No tags to display


Translate »