A bomb goes off in a crowded shopping centre. Police, fire and paramedic services respond along with the centre's own security staff. A neighbouring school is evacuated and hospitals are put on alert. Several local and national government agencies, utility companies, transport companies and businesses become drawn into the aftermath.
How the crisis is handled depends crucially on the communications systems in use. Can the police talk to the local security staff? Can the fire service exchange information on casualties with the paramedics? Who can access the images from the surveillance cameras? Where will the evacuated children go?
In situations like this, many organisations and individuals who normally work independently need to come together quickly to form a "virtual organisation". Unfortunately, the infrastructure to permit free communication between everyone within such virtual organisations has been lacking - until now.
The solution comes from a convergence of interest between two communities that historically have had little to do with each other. One is research scientists using the most powerful supercomputers, often based at selected universities. To share these scarce resources they use a Grid, analogous to an electricity supply grid, so that subscribing users can tap into the computing power wherever they may be.
The second group is the network providers and telecom companies who are busy building ever-faster telephone and data networks, especially the "next-generation" networks that will bring ultrafast internet links into every home.
From the overlap between these two areas comes a new idea: can we provide a service Grid to supply all manner of resources not just for researchers but also for public authorities, businesses and individuals? And can mobile users be accommodated as well?
The idea crystallised as Akogrimo, an European Union-funded project to develop the infrastructure to make such a Grid possible. "We're talking about a mechanism to enable dynamic collaborations between different organisations", stated project manager Stefan Wesner of Stuttgart University. Now that the project has finished, the partners, led by project co-ordinator Telefónica, are looking for ways to develop commercial applications.
A key difference with other Grid projects is that Akogrimo is designed to link not only organisations but also individuals, often using mobile devices. It can accommodate virtual organisations that are set up in advance for day-to-day tasks and also those, such as in a crisis situation, that come into being at very short notice.
It also copes with many different kinds of devices. "A user may connect to the Grid using different devices", Stefan Wesner explained. "It could be a fixed workstation, it could be a small PDA, or some other device. They all have different capabilities, screen size, computational power, and use different bandwidths."
Akogrimo can also keep track of people switching from one device to another without breaking communication, ideal for individuals on the move. The imagined bomb attack was the major application demonstrated in Akogrimo with the assistance of the local authority and emergency services in Bristol. "It was a bit like having a single information space between all the people involved in the crisis", stated Stefan Wesner.
Many applications in telemedicine are possible, especially to support paramedics or other mobile response teams. Diagnostic techniques usually only available in hospitals could be brought to the patient through the Grid, along with audiovisual consultations with clinical specialists.
Likewise, service technicians in the field could access powerful diagnostic tools and expert advice wherever they go. For emergency repairs to expensive products, such as aircraft, this could be very cost effective. Akogrimo also has applications in education, not just in distance learning but, for example, in supporting students on field trips so they can easily share the information they gather.
Of course, in a commercial Grid, where services are supplied by many businesses to many users, the problem arises of how to keep track of who owes what to whom. Akogrimo has solved this too. "We have a model where you get a single bill for all these services from different companies, combined as a single payment", Stefan Wesner explained. "I would say this is one of our key innovations."
Many other projects around the world are looking at the potential of Grids for providing services, but Akogrimo is the only one that has designed an infrastructure for mobile users. Some of the partners are now working on a commercial application of Akogrimo, known as Sea Cage Gateway, to support the offshore fish farming community in Norway.
"Europe is actually in a leading position in the commercial next-generation Grid area", Stefan Wesner pointed out. "The funding for Grids in the USA is mostly provided by the departments of energy and defence so their applications are quite different. Everything to do with the commercial usage of Grids is well influenced by European stakeholders."