Michael Street: “NATO looks at improving how defense forces from different nations can work together better”
NATO Communications and Information Agency Innovation Manager on NATO Hackathons and the features of the first Ukrainian defense hackathon
What is a NATO TIDE hackathon? What is the purpose of NATO hackathons?
– NATO’s TIDE hackathons are led by NATO’s Allied Command Transformation. TIDE stands for Technology for Information, Decision and Execution superiority; and the TIDE hackathons are used to stimulate innovation and transformation by letting some very creative minds demonstrate the potential of disruptive data science, information and communications technologies. They can apply these technologies in a very free and creative way, to solve some of the NATO challenges of sharing information and using it to make better decisions and more effective execution.
Typically, NATO sets three challenges for the teams, all based around some fundamental NATO aim of collective defense; usually they focus on challenges of allowing national defense forces to cooperate in a multi-national environment, so they could share information more readily and so be more effective. Teams try to solve one of these challenges by using a combination of readily available technology, their own coding skills and also bringing some cool ideas. The last part is the most important and what we appreciate most. If we look at what kind of people attend the hackathons and participate in them, most of our teams are students – mainly from military academies; but we also get teams coming from universities, government research laboratories and from industry. The teams always have a strong technical background, but they also have a ‘can-do’ attitude and a passion for solving problems. Most of our hackathon teams are young (or at least they have a young attitude), this means they bring new ideas and fresh thinking to problems. They are also very practical, always developing, testing, trying out what works and what doesn’t. Only having one week to create a concept, build it and demonstrate it really focusses their efforts. The final demonstration is in front of their peers and a judging panel made up of senior military officers, technology experts and even a former Defense Minister. So you never see anyone looking idle during the hackathon!
Some of the teams are from outside the defense sector, they are from private companies or universities as we try to keep potential participation as broad as we can. This is a recognition, that to solve these challenges really well you need cooperation between private and government sectors. Usually it’s a combination of government, academia and industry. That seems to be a very positive model.
Who organizes NATO Hackathons?
– NATO’s Allied Command Transformation runs the NATO TIDE hackathons. This command has the responsibility for looking into the future and making sure that NATO is prepared for it.
NATO’s Communication and Information Agency provides significant support to NATO TIDE hackathons, providing some ‘technology building blocks’ which the teams can build upon. These building blocks are very similar to the systems and services which NCIA provides to thousands of NATO users across 29 nations. Staff from both these parts of NATO provide guidance and advice to the teams during the week.
The Ukrainian national hackathon was organized by General Staff of Ukraine, Government Office for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and Stratcom Ukraine center with help of NATO C4ISR Trust Fund.
– The NATO TIDE hackathons are to get innovative technology which can make a difference into service much more rapidly than normal.
In NATO hackathons normally we have three different challenges, which address three different problems. In each hackathon we select a winning team from each challenge. Those winners have a little bit more time to develop their solution further, which could have a positive impact on the way our defense forces cooperate. One month later, they demonstrate it again to NATO’s TIDE-Sprint community who chose the most promising solutions. The winning teams and their designs are then fast-tracked to NATO’s CWIX Exercise. This is an exercise which focuses on new technology for defense and security so the best hackathon outputs get tested rigorously against innovative technologies which have been developed through more conventional routes. In just a few months we are able to get good ideas of hackathon teams from here and put them into a real exercise environment where they have to connect to NATO systems, to national military systems and share real data. This is a very short time, typically, in other conditions that could take several years of development. We don’t expect the hackathons to give us disruptive technologies which are perfect straight away, but this way successful concepts from the hackathon can take a huge short-cut on the path to being put into service by NATO nations. This is an opportunity to get very innovative ideas to solve our problems and refine them very quickly. Plus, we all learn a lot through this development; some of the outputs of our previous hackathons were added to NATO’s Future Mission Network standards which define how technology lets the NATO and partner nations interact and cooperate – how they connect their different information systems together.
What kind of challenges \ issues are addressed at NATO Hackathons?
– In the past we’ve looked at how to find and share information in a multinational environment. This year’s winner brought together map data, from NATO geographic systems, from NATO-members and partner nations, information from several sources on activity from friendly forces, hostile forces and Aid Agencies, and it displayed it all as augmented reality on a smartphone to commanders on the field. Some of the services include IoT weather sensors, video streams from drones and other sources and information on the location of friendly forces. This means that when the commander looks at the environment around him, the application, which was built by the winning team at the hackathon, is able to pull all this extra information from a number of sources and put it on the screen. The application incorporates additional capabilities like text chat and radio silence support. It gives the commander extensive information on what is going on, allowing him or her to make better, more informed decision.
Another challenge looked at a problem we call a federated search. How to search for information not only in your own systems, but across the information systems of all the NATO and partner nations. This is quite a challenge due to the security constraints that we have. As an example - you search for photo on your phone. Now imagine trying to search for a photo on your phone and all your friends phones and their computers, where some friends are in other countries and sometimes their phones are switched off or have no signal. Now do it using a tiny fraction of the data that your phone normally uses. And when you find the image you’re looking for, ask your friend if you can copy the photo. In a multinational military environment these things are more complicated and require more thought to try to solve them.
During the week of competition we add some extra complication for the teams to make it more difficult and interesting. But also more representative of the kind of environment that defense forces regularly face and have to operate in. In the last hackathon in Montenegro, we added some extra spice to the challenge half way through the week, making their communication infrastructure less reliable and they have to adapt to this. It keeps the teams on their toes.
What are the differences between the Ukrainian and NATO Hackathon?
– They are very similar, in the way it is structured, in type of people involved. The main difference is in the challenges. NATO looks at improving how defense forces from different nations can work together better – which is very relevant for NATO. For the Ukrainian national hackathon the challenges are aimed more at areas which relevant to the country’s defense forces. So it is focused more on your national needs. One of the challenges is to find solutions to improve communications between different organizations involved in Ukraine’s national defense and security. Another task is to make information sharing between individuals easier, while keeping it secure, trustworthy, authorized and reliable.
What is the level of Ukraine’s participation in NATO TIDE Hackathons?
– We’ve been lucky to have several teams from Ukraine participate in the last two NATO hackathons. We have a number of very strong Ukrainian teams. They are young, but well educated. They brought a really high level of skill, dedication and imagination to the challenge. In fact Ukrainian teams have won a prize at every NATO hackathon so far and their work is taken forward. But they brought not only a competition, but also good collaboration, sharing their ideas. They contribute to the whole hackathon community, rather than just operating as single isolated teams.
Now, the winner teams from the Ukraine national hackathon – including the “MITI Hedgehogs” team from Military Institute of Telecommunication and Informatics –will join a NATO event inBerlin on the future of the military command post.
Dr. Michael Street. Senior Scientist, NATO Communications and Information Agency Innovation Manager. In 1992 he began to work on software defined radio as part of research funded by the UK MoD. In 1999 joined NC3A to study the military use of commercial personal communication technologies for peace-keeping and similar scenarios. He led NC3A’s technical effort to select the future NATO narrow band voice coder and represents NATO on ETSI’s TETRA Voice Coding Working Group and the TETRA Security and Fraud Prevention Group. He previously worked on terrestrial and satellite military communications after gaining a PhD in narrow band radio communications at the University of Leeds in 1996. He is a Chartered Engineer and a member of the IEE. Since 2005 he has co-chaired the NATO secure communication interoperability protocol test and integration working group and has established the multi-national SCIP test facility at NC3A, which hosts its first formal tests this month. In 2008 Street joined the Chief Technology Office at NC3A, with responsibility for communication systems. The CTO ensures technical coherence of NATO C3 systems throughout their development, validation, verification and procurement by NC3A and in their subsequent operation. In 2018 he was one of the judges during TIDE Hackathon in Montenegro and Ukrainian national defense hackathon. In 2001 he was awarded the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation’s medal for achievement. Michael Street is an author of more than 40 scientific reports.