Technology to head off tomorrow's problems today

WASHINGTON — Military leaders are driving advanced technology to new limits so they can attack the increasingly frustrating problem of domestic security, yet advanced technology also is achieving far less dramatic results in heading off future problems.

Oct 1st, 2002

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON — Military leaders are driving advanced technology to new limits so they can attack the increasingly frustrating problem of domestic security, yet advanced technology also is achieving far less dramatic results in heading off future problems.

Tucked away within the sprawling defense establishment is a small group of information specialists who are funneling humanitarian assistance to developing countries via the Internet.

The group had its origins at the January 1994 NATO summit meeting that created the Partnership for Peace as a sort of common meeting ground for NATO members, the former Soviet republics (now known as "newly independent states"), and former members of the Warsaw Pact.

This office, the Project for Peace Information Management System, or PIMS, is based in Chantilly, Va., and operates the databases and communications networks necessary to keep everybody on the same page in such areas as civil and military emergency planning, peacekeeping, professional military education, and military medical services.

These are all traditional military functions. The only thing that has changed quantitatively is that these functions are now conducted on a broad global scope.

What has changed qualitatively, however, is the social nature of the office; military technologies are beginning to address quality of life issues, in effect attempting to create a more stable environment that will not be so prone to conflict.

Medical and other missionaries from the private sector have long performed these tasks in developing countries, but their access to enabling technologies has been limited, at best.

Now, with the muscle of the U.S. Department of Defense behind them, the PIMS team members are branching out to make their capabilities available to the private sector. In a strategic partnership concluded this summer with the non-profit organization Medical Missions for Children (MMC), the PIMS network will link children's hospitals in the United States to their counterparts overseas to help catastrophically ill children.

Rita Purcell-Robertson, the military medical project team leader at PIMS, describes her organization's role as developing medical information resources using low-bandwidth multimedia platforms assembled into collaborative toolsets. Another initiative involves developing electronic portals to facilitate regional cooperation, Purcell-Robertson adds. PIMS was looking for new ventures when MMC came along.

Frank Brady, a doctor at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Paterson, N.J, founded MMC in 1999. Under the new partnership MMC will use PIMS to supply interactive medical education and telemedical consultation.

The program uses commercial satellites leased by the Defense Department for communication with each targeted country. Late last year Polycom Inc. in Milpitas, Calif., got on board to provide the videoconferencing hardware and software to make the system work.

Company leaders were looking for new applications of their videoconferencing products, says Jennifer Sigmund, director of strategic marketing at Polycom; she estimates that the system should be up and running before the end of this year.

This is not a particularly bandwidth-demanding application, Sigmund adds, and most of the work can be done at 256 to 385 kilobits per second. However, the video traffic has to be compatible with the NTSC format used in the United States, as well as with PAL, which predominates in Europe and other areas.

Brady stresses the urgency of this effort. Citing World Health Organization (WHO) figures, he reports that of the 11 million children younger than five who die each year, more than 85 percent are from what he calls medically underserved nations.

Moreover, WHO also puts the pediatric death rate in those nations at 20-50 percent, compared to 2-4 percent in the United States.

Infant mortality rates like these are an accident waiting to happen. The underlying reason that life expectancy has been climbing upward throughout the world in recent years has been the dramatic decline in infant mortality made possible by greater availability of preventive medicine for children.

For example, an alarming indicator that the former Soviet Union was headed for a meltdown in the mid-1980s was its sudden drop in life expectancy driven by rising infant morality rates. It's not that those rates were higher in the Soviet Union than in the developing countries, but that they were going the wrong way. It is axiomatic that all societies, regardless of affluence, put their primary efforts into raising children.

Brady says that MMC launched a one-year pilot program in Panama and expanded the operations to Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Chile before hooking up with PIMS. Other participants include the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank.

Now, with access to Defense Department resources, MMC is expanding into Eastern Europe. A test bed has been established in Tbilisi in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Fourteen U.S. hospitals are participating in the program, and Brady says he's aiming for 50. About 10,000 children overseas are now being assisted each year, but of equal importance is the education function via telemedicine for the foreign doctors.

The U.S. doctors donate their time and expertise, and commercial suppliers such as Polycom donate their technical capabilities and the equipment.

This expertise, made available via the PIMS-protected intranet with secure ties to the Internet, can make a major difference, according to Brady. The children's diseases so common in the developing world, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and diabetes, are not unknown in the United States, he says, but there are resources available here to deal with them. Brady estimates that in developing countries, 35 percent of the doctors' diagnoses are incorrect.

All of this is hardly the stuff of front-page headlines at a time when many Americans turn on their television sets the first thing in the morning to see if there's been another tragedy — at least I do — but it is encouraging to see the same underlying communications technologies that are the heart of network-centric warfare being used to address tomorrow's problems today.

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