A new environment

Dave Reinke
InfoLink Project Manager

The tragedy of September 11 changed many things. New priorities, new worries, and new realities are affecting us all. For public works professionals, the terrorist attacks have created many new challenges in the present and for the future.

Prior to September 11, the 2001 Congress in Philadelphia was shaping up to be a successful event for InfoLink and IZOIC, as the booth on the show floor hosted a number of computers where users could register and post links on Version 2.0 of InfoLink, and view the unveiling of the first prototype for Version 3.0, the Right-of-Way Management Application. Many existing users stopped by, and many new ones registered and saw their links become part of InfoLink's growing knowledge base of information resources.

IZOIC sponsored the Opening General Session, and hosted two educational sessions on InfoLink Version 3.0 and how it can aid in ROW management. In addition, presentations were given to APWA leadership at the House of Delegates and Board of Directors meetings. But while the events of Tuesday did not cause the show to close, attendees and exhibitors quickly realized things would never be the same.

Impact on the infrastructure of the U.S. was unprecedented. The mandatory grounding of all commercial air traffic stilled some 40,000 flights on that Tuesday, disrupting travel plans across the country and the world. A huge area of Lower Manhattan was initially sealed off, and the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and other buildings generated what is estimated to be over 900,000 tons of debris, which could take up to a year (at a cost of over $1 billion) to remove. Telecommunication switching facilities, underground cables, pipes, and sewers were impacted, as well as transportation and transit infrastructure.

But during the attacks and in the aftermath, the Internet showed its strength, as it was designed to withstand disruption since its inception as a Defense Department Research network. While a major hub was destroyed in New York, network traffic carried on with only slight degradation, and the Internet provided new examples of the important role it has come to play in our society. While some news sites were initially overwhelmed by users seeking the most current information (CNN logged nine million hits an hour), they soon were constantly delivering news and updates to their worldwide audience. Many users, frustrated by the saturation and overloading of landline and cellular networks, turned successfully to e-mail and Instant Messaging to contact friends and relatives.

In the aftermath of the attacks themselves, government agencies used their Internet sites to post recovery information, instructions, and advice, and developed a separate site to collect tips that could lead to the arrest or conviction of suspects. First responders were able to utilize hastily resurrected telecommunications links to access GIS maps of the area, post updated information, and aid in emergency response and mitigation. Airlines used the web extensively to disseminate flight information, status, and new airport security measures. On the relief side, the American Red Cross posted contact information, status, and advice for a nation eager to respond. Their site included how and where to contribute, the status of needed supplies, and an interactive map of downtown Manhattan, showing location of shelters, assistance centers, staging areas and more.

APWA posted on apwa.net and apwa-infolink.com a link to "Public Works Responds," a page that contains links to news from FEMA, but more importantly resources to help prepare communities for a new reality. The site contains links to educational and planning resources for domestic preparedness for all public works agencies. New acronyms like WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) and NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical weapons) have now entered the public works vocabulary, and again the Internet can play a vital role in sharing information, experiences, and plans.

Unfortunately, the power of the Internet is not entirely benign. Terrorists can utilize the same connectivity, using freely available cryptographic programs to make their messages and transactions even harder to track. The anonymous nature of the web helps mask the identity of website causes and/or contributors, and increasingly the power of the Internet itself makes it a target in its own right.

This year the "Code Red" virus cost an estimated $2.6 billion dollars in cleanup, prevention, and lost productivity. While unrelated to the September 11 attacks, the Department of Defense had to limit public access to its site, and the White House had to physically change its cyberspace "location" to avoid an attack specifically aimed to shut it down. The more recent "Nimda" virus, more virulent in its ability to spread itself through web browsing in addition to e-mail attachments, is causing untold numbers of websites to shut down, in one case denying millions of hits a day from local county citizens conducting their business online. Attorney General John Ashcroft expects it to be more costly than "Code Red," and warned that economic losses from computer viruses this year could top $11 billion worldwide.

The language used to describe these "attacks," and the economic impact of them, are frighteningly similar to actual physical security issues and consequences, without the horrific human casualties. One of the impacts emerging from the events of September 11 is the realization of the importance of the Internet in our daily lives and the potential for damage to our "virtual" communities as well as our "real" ones. The newly-created Office of Homeland Security is charged with the protection of transportation assets, water and utility systems, which brings a new focus on the security of public works infrastructure. And this infrastructure now includes as a natural component the Internet that provides communication, access, information, and control.

In the weeks and months ahead, one of the new challenges for public works will be the safeguarding of potentially dangerous information, while at the same time enabling the necessary information sharing and collaboration required by the managers of our nation's critical infrastructure. And one new reality is that this infrastructure is now virtual as well as concrete.

For information regarding any aspect of APWA-InfoLink, contact Dave Reinke at 202-408-9541, or dreinke@apwa.net.