I recently had a fascinating meeting in Seattle with Larry Pixa, Microsoft’s Senior Manager for Disaster Preparedness & Response Program. What I thought would be a half-hour meeting turned into an engaging two-hour conversation. I wish we had had even more time.
Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) co-Chair Dr. Jennifer Leaning and I had a conversation two years ago on the need to merge disaster training with serious gaming and 3-D crisis mapping. Her vision, for example, was to recreate downtown Monrovia as a virtual world with avatars and have both live and manual data feeds simulate the virtual environment, a.k.a. immersive realism meets reality mining.
This world would then be used to create scenarios for disaster preparedness and response training, much like my colleagues at ICNC have done by developing a serious game called “A Force More Powerful” which uses artificial intelligence and real-world scenarios to train nonviolent activists.
Larry and his colleagues at Acron are pushing the envelope of disaster simulation for training purposes. They are integrating Acron’s serious games know-how with Microsoft ESP and the video game engine of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator platform with dynamic crisis mapping to develop a pilot that closely resembles the vision set out by Jennifer back in 2006. I personally thought we were still a year or two away from having a pilot. Not so. Larry will be presenting the pilot at HHI’s Humanitarian Health Summit in March 2009.
The goal for the pilot, or as we the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) call it, the “software-based proof of concept,” is to establish the proof of concept into a “training platform” to be combined with training materials that will serve as a demonstrate the tool to governments and international organizations worldwide; particularly vis-a-vis training to build preparedness & response capabilities and informed decision making for the adoption of technologies to enable or improve disaster response and crisis management.
So our goal is to engage with any/all appropriate agencies to provide training against the “training platform”; the training will be based on some key scenarios in Bangladesh acquired through the partnership between WFP and Microsoft.
Successful training requires that we actually remember the training. But we all know from conventional class learning that we retain little of what we read. On the other hand, our memory retains almost all of what we do and that, according to Larry, is what his new disaster simulations platform seeks to achieve.
What I find particularly compelling about Larry’s work is that the tool he is developing can be used for both disaster training and actual disaster response. That is, once trainees become familiar with the platform, they can use it for in situ disaster response thanks to live data feeds rendering the “virtual” world in quasi-real time. This should eventually enable disaster responders to test out several response scenarios and thereby select the most effective one, all in quasi-real time.