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Cloud and observability tools help global first responders

How an NGO 'Uber for ambulances' service used observability tools from New Relic to improve AWS-based app performance under life-and-death circumstances.

Jason Friesen was leading emergency responders in the aftermath of a devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti when the idea for Trek Medics International -- an "Uber for ambulances," as its website now describes it -- took shape.

After the catastrophic damage caused by the earthquake in January of that year, Friesen remained in the country for two years as the director of a non-governmental organization, treating victims of an outbreak of cholera that struck Haiti in October. Also an experienced paramedic, Friesen said he took a different view on how to respond to the cholera crisis than other healthcare providers.

"The Ministry of Health said, '95% of our cholera fatalities are happening before they reach the hospital. What should we do?' And the consensus among the providers there was, 'Build more cholera treatment centers,'" said Friesen, now the executive director of Trek Medics International, in an interview with TechTarget Editorial last month. "As a paramedic, my thinking was, 'No, find a way to get people to the hospital quicker.'"

Local people were transporting those sick with cholera to treatment centers "using private vehicles and the phones in their pockets," Friesen recalled. "I thought, 'Maybe there'd be a way that we could send out alerts to let people know when somebody needed to get picked up so that the right people could get to the right location at the right time.'"

Jason Friesen, founder and executive director, Trek Medics InternationalJason Friesen

No such tools existed at the time. When Friesen returned to the U.S. in 2012, he paid out of pocket for the first prototype of what is now Beacon -- a combination of a web-based and mobile app that ties together cloud-based SaaS running on AWS, Google Maps and SMS messaging managed by Twilio to coordinate DIY emergency services in areas similar to Haiti in 2010.

More than a decade later, Beacon has been used by first responders in the ongoing Ukraine war. The Florida State Fire Marshal division used Beacon in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian to coordinate mental health services for first responders on the state's southwest coast. A multi-state effort called the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is also using Beacon to provide crisis services for mental health emergencies. Last year, first responders worldwide used the service to respond to more than 30,000 incidents.

Beacon, hosted in multiple AWS data centers in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere and managed remotely by a Trek Medics team, is suited to the DIY disaster response required in places such as Ukraine, where centralized local efforts could prompt Russian cyberattacks, Friesen said.

"We have this self-directed portal, and we started seeing all these phone numbers from Ukraine popping up [as users]," he said. "We were able to start to support some of them at the local level in eastern Ukraine, which has been gratifying. But it's a little different there because things change so quickly that one day they're using it and the next day they're not, and obviously they're very reluctant to talk about any of it."

Observability busts bottlenecks, boosts app scale

Cisco awarded Trek Medics a technology grant in 2019, at a time the organization was primarily used for emergency response, and "challenged Trek Medics to find a way to make the Beacon platform relevant to disaster settings," according to a Trek Medics press release.

Among the updates required was shortening response times from Beacon's API endpoints, Friesen said, so the platform could take on more users. This effort required measuring results before and after changes to the endpoints, which is when observability tools from New Relic were added in 2020.

After using New Relic to improve the performance of back-end APIs, Trek Medics moved on to troubleshooting for the Beacon web application. In some cases, web application monitoring helped the Beacon team identify potential performance bottlenecks before they affected end users, Friesen said.

For example, users can upload their own sets of Google Maps markers to denote local landmarks, which is important in remote areas without street names or house numbers.

"So someone came along and uploaded a custom map layer with, like, 10,000 map markers," he said. "That, as you can imagine, put a lot of strain on Beacon. … Because of New Relic, it took our engineers all of two minutes to figure out what's going on, and that saved our other users a lot of trouble."

Friesen said New Relic donated its software to Trek Medics, and Trek did not consider competitors such as Dynatrace or Datadog. New Relic runs a broader Observability for Good program that supports five users and up to 1,000 GB of data ingestion free for verified organizations. New Relic is listed on Trek Medics' website as a partner, along with Cisco, PagerDuty, Twilio and Google.

After a tumultuous two years in the wake of restructuring its product lines in 2021, New Relic was taken private in August 2023, events that did not affect Trek Medics' use of its observability platform, Friesen said.

Next: Mobile monitoring and generative AI

New Relic added support for mobile apps built using the open source Flutter framework in March 2023, which Friesen said will be next on the Beacon team's list of priorities to evaluate.

"On the web application, observability makes it really easy for tracing and troubleshooting. … [Next,] we want to do it for the mobile app," he said.

Because of New Relic, it took our engineers all of two minutes to figure out what's going on, and that saved our other users a lot of trouble.
Jason Friesen Founder and executive director, Trek Medics International

New Relic's AI Monitoring tools, introduced in November, will also be on the list to evaluate as Trek explores ways generative AI could help emergency responders.

"You don't want to use ChatGPT for [medical] treatment. It gives you a lot of answers that would be lethal [as] treatment options. But there are a lot of things that AI could be useful for," Friesen said. "What I'm interested in is more of the speech recognition of a dispatcher talking to someone on the phone, to be able to immediately transcribe that and start picking out keywords."

New Relic's Observability for Good program made it possible for Trek Medics to use the software. But its user-friendly interface for developers has been key to its expanded use by the organization, he said.

"Our funding fluctuates, and sometimes we'll have to bring on extra developers for either new projects or new functionality, and we want them using New Relic," he said. "The developers always pick it up quickly and see the value of it as soon as they start playing with it."

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

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