Sunday, January 17, 2010

Obama, Haiti, Oracle

On the eve of what is shaping up to be a disastrous loss in the Massachusetts Senate race, and in the wake of the still patchy relief effort in disastrous Haiti, and in celebration of pretty near exactly a year of the Obama presidency, my mind wanders to that central question in modern life, the database. That is what I mean by Oracle in the title, though there are more ways to parse data than Oracle, as we know.

Every major disaster seems to follow the same script, and five days in there is a lot of confusion on the ground, those in need are not getting relief, and the international effort is bogged down. Chaos among the afflicted begins to mount as the initial shock recedes. I know I am in danger of appearing callous, and given that my only experience of disaster was the 89 earthquake here in San Francisco, I do not want to make light of the challenges faced by those who bravely go where no one wants to be.

But in this instance, as in so many, it seems to me that we are not making effective use of the new tools at our disposal. No doubt that failure is conditioned by the inertia that marks most politics at most times. But there are times in human history where entropy gives way to revolution, and this ought to be one such time, the more so given the revolutionary impact that electronic life has had on everything else.

Because what we have here is a database problem. There are evidently initial response and rescue teams scattered around the globe. They rapidly converge, but not rapidly enough, and once they are on the round, the means to move them to the actual hot spots are sadly lacking. Roads are always impassable after disasters; the afflicted always get in the way; there is always a fog surrounding information and communication. SO what those rescuers need are helicopters. In the case of Haiti, it is simply shocking that we did not have a hundred, two hundred helicopters in situ within 24 hours. That should always be the goal. And the instrument to deliver that goal should be the US Navy and Air Force.

We know people will need water and food. The world community should be stockpiling emergency supplies not where disasters happen, but where there are large concentrations of airplanes and runways. In other words, every major international airport should have a supply of water that can be rapidly airlifted to the nearest landing strip to the disaster from where those helicopters previously mentioned should move it to the site of the disaster. That coordination is all about a modern system database.

I work every day with a system database that runs one of the world's most remarkable major research universities. From my central seat, I can tell you that the database is like a teenager ... beautiful, powerful, unruly, prone to bad decisions, needs a lot of sleep (bug fixes), and always promising to be more tomorrow. But regardless of the madness that surrounds administering such a Borg, it actually works remarkably well given the immense human complexity that it endeavors to manage.

Another example of a database is the Obama campaign. The press talks about his Internet outreach and fundraising, but behind all of that was a database operation that tracked people, kept statistics, managed communication, updated and ran a web site, and evidently did a pretty good job of security also. My problem is this: notwithstanding Obama's promise to run his Presidency as he ran his campaign, why did he abandon success and repair to the tried and true? Where was that database when it was time to mobilize mass events in favor of health care reform? Where was that database when it came time to retain Edward Kennedy's Senate seat?

When I first arrived at MRU (that is the name that I give to the major research university where I hand-count bits and bytes in exchange for a few shekels delivered twice monthly), I tended to share the attitude that the database was the enemy, the great impersonal beast that wanted only to devour our individuality and reduce all variation to flat form. But I was professionally required to sell the database to the reluctant, and in doing so I came to understand that human variosity always survives the systems that are designed to contain it ... those systems strive to keep up. But persnickety abstinence is no strategy to deal with technological change, notwithstanding the Andy-Rooney common sense that is so au courant among my dear friends who like to mock social media. I have seen every excuse to resist the database. The issue is not to resist it, but to harness it to our oldest and most persistent problems.

Like disaster. And social change.

The greatest idiocy of the self-styled conservatives of the present era is their failure to see that American military might can be turned into a worldwide force for betterment and disaster relief and implied threats to the assorted ancien regimes that still haunt the planet. But this is a re-imagining. And at the heart of that re-imagining is to understand just how powerful the modern database has become. Unleash Google on disaster relief. Or unleash the amazing students who constructed the course catalog that MRU released and that I manage ... they saw in an entirely different light a problem that I understood thoroughly ... and they changed my way of understanding my own information.

So this becomes the question: when will government and international relations catch up with the technology that runs Amazon and eBay and Facebook? When it does, the Haiti earthquakes of the future will entail much less suffering.

Photos by Arod, from around town. From my ongoing series that I call "Flat Faces".

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