From the bottom up
- By Brian Robinson
- Aug 30, 2004
he Regional Alliances for Infrastructure and Network Security (RAINS), unlike many other technology projects, is a curious and unconventional initiative that seemingly popped up out of nowhere.
Born of a patriotic impulse among several Oregon businessmen to do something to help after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it began as a low-budget project sustained mainly by in-kind donations and technical resources, with no major players involved to give it prominence.o
And yet its seemingly haphazard, grass-roots approach — the opposite of the usual top-down method — to building networks that allow emergency management workers in the Northwest to securely share information is catching the attention of an increasing number of government and industry officials.
If just a few things go its way, RAINS could end up as one of the core systems driving a nationwide emergency management network stretching all the way from federal agencies to government and private organizations at the local level.
For example, Defense Department officials hope that RAINS will allow them to seamlessly connect with state and local government officials, "down to the cop on the beat," said Brian Reily, technology manager for DOD's homeland security command and control Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations program.
DOD officials need that kind of communication for their mission to help protect
critical infrastructure throughout the United States, but officials worry that any approach coming from the federal government might meet resistance from local agencies, Reily said.
The RAINS solution, a local public/
private development from the beginning, took that issue off the table. The fact that it's also a technically sound system enhances its appeal, he said.
"We need an adaptable environment that can fit with what's already in place," Reily said. The RAINS system "allows us to do that in a seamless way, particularly with the alerting, visualization and collaboration part. So far, it's worked out great."
Charles Jennings, chairman and chief executive officer of Swan Island Networks Inc. and a founder of RAINS, believes the initiative's success stems from its organic beginnings and the influence those beginnings have had on the way the RAINS technology has developed.
Rather than imposing a solution, the RAINS information-sharing network has grown from the bottom up, with new capabilities being deployed as they are developed. This spiral development has allowed a network of networks to blossom, Jennings said.
The approach permits each member network to fully service its own particular domain within the emergency management universe while maintaining the connections needed to allow information to pass from one to the other.
"You clearly need a top-down model for organizations such as the FBI, which operate on a command-and-control model," he said. "But community-retained networks need to grow from the bottom up with a focus on diverse cross-organizational connectivity. In that way, you build momentum and bring a true network effect to bear."
Technology is just one part of it. To swap information among disparate domains of interest — each speaking its own organizational lingo and having its own business processes to consider — operational, legal, cultural and political provisions that make such data sharing possible have to be developed parallel with the technology, Jennings said.
RAINS not only delivers the technical means to share information but has the necessary organizational factors embedded in it, which is a different approach from what most people are used to seeing, he said.
"Some of my colleagues got hung up on asking what product RAINS was selling," said Tom Simpson, director of emergency management for Oregon's Multnomah County, an early user of RAINS. "It takes some time to realize it's more of a process that is being sold, but once you do see that, you really do have something very flexible you can use."
Jennings believes one of the major strengths of RAINS is that it's been developed mostly in the real world.
RAINS initially began as a technology test bed. But just six months into the program, officials at Portland, Ore.'s 911 center decided they could use what had been developed so far to build an automated alert notification system linking local schools, hospitals, building managers and others. That system went live in August of last year.
From an early date, real data was used to develop the RAINS system, Jennings said. As importantly, the existence of a working example kept the enthusiasm
of the largely volunteer RAINS workforce high and focused,
and helped convince industry and government officials that RAINS was not another project that would never be more than an idea.
"When I first heard of RAINS in 2002, I was as skeptical as anyone else,"said Gerald Hagan, founder and chief executive officer of Fortix LLC and now one of RAINS' industry sponsors. "I've seen a lot of [technology systems] come and go. But I came to see that these guys had a good message that became more refined over time."
Having those early working examples of the RAINS system in action has been a huge contributor to the success it's had so far, Hagan said.
"That was really our introduction" to its possibilities, he added. "It didn't take long for me to say, 'We're in.'"
ESRI has also signed on to the RAINS approach.
As a prominent mapping software developer with extensive sales across all levels of government, ESRI doesn't need RAINS to sell products to governments, said S.J. Camarata, the company's director of corporate strategies.
But because RAINS is intended to provide secure means for information exchange, he believes it will allow the company to better serve its existing customers.
The RAINS system lacked a mapping component, so ESRI will contribute one, Camarata said. A big attraction for the company was the initiative's commitment to open standards and use of the Web, he said, plus the fact that the developers' approach to management provides an easy way for ESRI to interact with RAINS.
"That makes a big difference," Camarata said. "In large organizations, you have to work your way upward in the management level to get any decisions made, whereas RAINS is very responsive at the technical level, and we get to work directly with some very high-caliber people."
RAINS has gained some good early traction and the system is allowing a range of public and private entities to exchange data. But these are mostly early-stage projects or small pilots. The creators of RAINS know they need larger successes to confirm the system's potential.
One recent development might help. The federal Transportation Security Administration recently awarded a $1.6 million grant to the Portland-based Regional Maritime Security Coalition to create a multiagency Cargo Information Action Center, which would cover 22 ports throughout the Northwest. That project will use RAINS as the secure communications bridge.
If any high-visibility project should expand into a full-blown program with RAINS at the core, it could be the final stamp of approval that will launch RAINS onto the national scene.
But failures will also have their effect.
"If we can show that [RAINS] works, works on time and is scalable, then the sky's the limit," said Luis Machuca, president and chief executive officer of Kryptiq Corp., one of RAINS' company sponsors.
"But it needs that one big, early success," Machuca said. "If there are, say, three consecutive flops, then things will get much harder."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Project: Regional Alliances for Infrastructure and Network Security (RAINS), a public/private partnership that includes about 60 private companies and more than 300 organizations, universities and public agencies.
Purpose: To accelerate development and deployment of innovative technologies for emergency management and to contribute to economic development.
Status: RAINS technology is in use in various emergency management programs and as part of a number of local, state and federal pilot tests. Several other states are evaluating RAINS for use with emergency management communications systems.