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Equipping the Soldier with End-User Programming

Edwin Morris

Whether soldiers are on the battlefield or providing humanitarian relief effort, they need to capture and process a wide range of text, image, and map-based information. To support soldiers in this effort, the Department of Defense (DoD) is beginning to equip soldiers with smartphones to allow them to manage that vast array and amount of information they encounter while in the field. Whether the information gets correctly conveyed up the chain of command depends, in part, on the soldier's ability to capture accurate data while in the field. This blog posting, a follow-up to our initial post, describes our work on creating a software application for smartphones that allows soldier end-users to program their smartphones to provide an interface tailored to the information they need for a specific mission.

The software we developed is constructed primarily in Java and operates on an Android platform. We used an object database (DB 4.0) as the underlying data store because it provides flexible and powerful application programming interfaces (APIs) that simplified our implementation. For performance reasons, our application is a native Android app - it's not running on a browser of an Android smart phone.

Our app--called eMONTAGE (Edge Mission Oriented Tactical App Generator)--allows a soldier to build customized interfaces that support the two basic paradigms that are common to smartphones: maps and lists. For example, a soldier could build an interface that allows them to construct a list of friendly community members including names, affiliations with specific groups, information about whether the person speaks English, and the names of the person's children. If the soldier also specifies a GPS location in the customized interface s/he constructs, the location of the friendly community members could be plotted on a map. Likewise, the same soldier could build other customized interfaces that capture specific aspects of a threatening incident, or the names and capabilities of non-governmental organizations responding to a humanitarian crisis.

Challenges We Encountered

The software we built is intended for soldiers who are well-versed in their craft, but are not programmers. While we are still conducting user testing, after we developed a prototype, we asked several soldiers to provide feedback. Not surprisingly, we found that soldiers who are Android users and relatively young (i.e., digital natives) quickly learned the software programming application and could use it to build a new application on-site. Conversely, non-digital natives had a harder time. Since our goal is to make our software accessible to every soldier, we are simplifying, revising, and improving the user interface.

As with any device used by our military, security is a key concern. Through our work with DARPA's Transformative Apps program in the Information Innovation office, we can take advantage of the security strategies they conceive and implement. We are also working to address challenges associated with limited bandwidth and battery consumption in this work and other work within the Research, Technology, and Systems Solutions program at the SEI.

Another area of our work involves enabling our software to connect to back-end data sources that the DoD uses. For example, a soldier on patrol may need to connect to TiGR and other information systems to access current information about people, places, and activities in an area. Our software will enable these soldiers to build customized interfaces to such data sources by selecting fields for display on the phone and by extending the information provided by these sources with additional, mission-specific information. This capability will provide mash ups that support soldiers by capturing multiple sources of information for display and manipulation. Once our full capability is available in spring 2012, it will become much easier to build phone interfaces to new data sources and extend these interfaces with additional information.

Looking to the Future

Currently, eMONTAGE can handle the basic information types that are available on an Android phone, including images, audio, and data. Technologies like finger print readers and chemical sensors are being miniaturized and will likely be incorporated into future handheld devices. With each new technology, we'll need to add that basic type to our capability. Fortunately, this is a relatively straight-forward programming operation, but it does require engineering expertise. As a new type becomes available, professional engineers will add it to eMONTAGE, thereby making the type available to soldiers who may have little or no programming expertise.

Our current focus is on ensuring that the software is reliable and does not fail, but we are also looking to extend it to provide features that we believe are essential, such as better support for collections of objects. For example, soldiers may need to classify a single individual into different groups: a family member, translator, or member of an organization. Each of these groups is a collection. Soldiers will have the ability to list and search through collections (e.g., list all members of an NGO who work for Doctors Without Borders) and plot the members of a collection on a map (e.g., display all members of Doctors Without Borders who are within 10 miles of my current position.)

While we can provide access to military iconology, eMONTAGE is not DoD-specific by design. This application can be used by other government organizations--or even non-government organizations-- that want a user-customizable way to capture information about any variety of people, places, and things, and share this information effectively in the enterprise.

Part of our ongoing research involves testing our applications with soldiers through the Naval Post-Graduate School's Center for Network Innovation and Experimentation (CENETIX). In our initial tests with the soldiers, they told us what capabilities they need and what did not work. These collaborations tie our work firmly into both the research and military communities and keep us focused on providing a useful and cutting-edge capability. In addition to continuing our collaboration with CENETIX, we are working with Dr. Brad Myers of the Carnegie Mellon University Human Computer Interaction Institute. Dr. Myers is helping us define an appropriate interface for soldiers to use the handheld software in the challenging situations they face.

Additional Resources:

This posting is the second in a series exploring our research in developing software for soldiers who use handheld devices in tactical networks. To read our first post in the series, please visit


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