Note: the below blogpost pertains to the upcoming Irish constitutional referendum.
Archive for the ‘news’ Category
Tags: #democracy, #ssm, ireland, marriage, mural, no, referendum, yes
Tags: #haiyan, #Yolanda, aid, disaster, lessons learned, Philippines, relief, typhoon
It will be one year tomorrow since Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines. Obviously there will be lots of retrospectives published online and in the printed press. Most of these will outline the great work that has been done and is still ongoing. While I fully support those types of articles I’ve decided to do something different. I’m going to summarise the obstacles that we’ve encountered when responding with Disaster Tech Lab. You can read all the good stuff about our work following typhoon Yolanda here. However by summarising the obstacles we encountered, the mistakes we made i hope to make even a tiny small contribution on how disaster response and humanitarian aid could be improved.
By no means is this a study on the subject, these are simply my observations from the left-field of disaster response. Disaster Tech Lab is only a small organisation and we sometimes have an unconventional approach. We also have a task focussed rather than a process focussed approach and this occasionally conflicts with organisations who prefer to do more planning and discussion. I have also broken this into bulletpoints rather than elaborate analysis. It’s supposed to serve as a catalyst for discussion rather than a guideline.
- Tunnel vision: While Tacloban was probably to most severely hit area by Yolanda it received too much focus by the media and the major aid organisations. Hence it became a black hole for resources. While Yolanda made its East to West path across the Philippines it also hit areas such a East Samar, North Cebu, Panay and Culion & Busuanga islands. I am fully aware that even for the large NGO’s resources are limited and it’s impossible but even considering that Tacloban received an unequal share of the aid.The cynic in me says that’s partially due to the overwhelming media focus on the area. Most of the initial aid provided to the outlying areas was provided by smaller, grassroots type organisations like ours, individuals and/or faith based organisations.
- Logistics: We experienced several issues here. We had no pre-established logistical planning for a response to the Philippines and due to the urgency logistical arrangements had to be made up on the fly. With a damaged infra-structure and a huge influx of responders, equipment and supplies that is a recipe for disaster. A large batch of our equipment went “missing” and some is still stuck in customs (yes after 8 months and reams & reams of forms completed and submitted by us). When we switched to having volunteers bring equipment with them on their flight in as excess baggage we sometimes ran into other issues. This led to such things as panicky incoming phonecalls at 4 am from a Korean airport when one of our volunteers wasn’t allowed to check in the Goal Zero batteries he was carrying and was also not allowed to bring them as carry-on. While large NGO’s have the budget to pay for commercial airfreight or get space on other airlifts for an organisation like us, who do not have the funding for this, it remains a challenge. We have since worked to bring logistical expertise in-house and are developing logistical plans for the most likely destinations across the globe.
- Biggest kid on the block: After so many years and so many disasters during which small grassroots type organisations and the “informal organisations” have made valuable contributions to the relief effort it still seems to be largely impossible for the larger NGO’s to recognise the increasing value these organisations bring as part of the overall relief effort. Most large NGO’s either are unaware of anything that’s not happening on their doorstep or within their direct network or they’re just flat-out not interested in working with such smaller organisations. This brings the added complication that some of the larger donors of relief supplies and equipment donate to these larger organisations expecting that their donation, to an extent, is shared amongst the the responding organisations. Instead these donations hardly ever make it past the few organisations at the top of the pyramid. Direct, validated requests by smaller organisations to larger ones for support are ignored or flat out refused. This in spite of clear evidence and report after report on the value that these smaller organisations bring to the overall relief effort. I am not going to name names but those at both sides of this divide know what I am talking about. A better cooperation and a recognition of the value of each others work and the different parts of the disaster response puzzle that each of us brings will only make future responses better.
- Prevention is better than a cure: While we had seen this before, even during response in the USA, the disadvantaged areas are always the slowest to recover after a major disaster. While this is self-explanatory as it is you can’t repair what isn’t there in the first place. If an community doesn’t have any dependable means of communication you can’t rebuild one. If there’s no hospital to start with, and hence no trained medical personnel, then providing medical aid becomes a larger undertaking. As we worked in areas that can be described as disadvantaged we gave this challenge some deeper thought and quickly came to the conclusion that rebuilding better rather than just rebuilding after a disaster is an important step. This not only means that infra-structure and services need to be rebuilt better and more resilient but you need to teach people how to become more resilient themselves. This is not solely a question of improving skills but also a matter of mindset. As governments are struggling to respond to disasters in an efficient manner people will have to learn that recovery and rebuild efforts will require a lot of their own hands-on input. An interesting observation is that we noticed an increased dependency and expectation in the more westernised, touristy areas of the Philippines while the more remote (but significantly poorer) areas showed much more resilience and willingness to improve their own lot.
- Trust no-one: Well actually, trust everyone but carry a big stick. During our disaster relief work following Yolanda we again learned that when you are doing relief work in far away beautiful destinations you will sometimes attract people who volunteer driven by the main desire to get an all expenses paid holiday. We encountered this again and as a result of this we have tightened up our volunteer screening procedures even more! There is no room for profiteering in this work and we have a 100% no tolerance policy on this. It is *not* representative of 99.9% of the volunteers working in this field and we won’t let that 0.1% mess things up. However as a non-profit you should never drop your guard; just because someone volunteers doesn’t make them a saint. Screen the person, screen their motivation, screen their references and use your intuition.
Tags: aerial, communication, disaster, emergency, quadcopter, wifi
In the last week there was a bit of buzz about a project by Yan Wan from the University of Texas who, at the Smart America Expo, showed a WiFi enabled drone that *ding* could provide WiFi with a range of up to 5 miles! This was presented as a great step forward in disaster communications. The various articles made it seem like one of these devices would cover a 5 mile area with WiFi.
See for yourself by the viewing the video here.
Having worked in the fields of wifi and disaster response I decided to have a bit of a closer look. Was this really such a step forward and whatsmore, how was this achieved…
Firstly let’s have a look at the hardware, what components were used to build this. The aerial platform is a DJI F650 platform. It’s a nice of the shelf platform. The payload is a Ubiquiti Nanostation. Then there is some sort of servo which rotates the Nanostation. Wether or not the rotation is automatic and slaved to the location of the station the devices connects to or not isn’t clear.
The Nanostation is a widely used WiFi AP/CPE operating in the 5GHz band. I’ve used them on different occasions and we recently deployed some when working in the Philippines with Disaster Tech Lab. They’re a functional, cheap and cheerful type of device which theoretically can provide up to 150 Mbps on a point-to-point link of up to 15 km.
So in short this project has taken two of the shelf products and bolted them together.
Now for the technical bit; The Nanostation is designed to be one end of a point-to-point link and as with all point-to-point links range/distance is achieved by narrowing the antenna beam. While an omni-directional antenna will cover a 360 degree radius it’s range is limited. A directional antenna, like the one inside the Nanostation, takes the same transmission power (TX) but squeezes it into a narrow bundle. That way the range is much further but the signal radius is much smaller. Any device outside the range of the bundle will not be able to connect. Compare it to standing in a huge dark room and switching on a lightbulb versus a flashlight and you’ll get the picture. In addition the touted range of 5 miles is really not such a big deal. Most of the off the shelf WiFi point-to-point devices have a much longer range. I can recall building a link over 40 kilometers back in 2004 (I think) using homemade gear.
So going back to the implication of this aerial platform; we have a radio device with a narrow beam mounted onto what by definition is an unstable platform. Just ask anyone who has ever build a point-to-point link using masts with a lot of wind-sway how this can kill your connectivity.
Then there is the issue of backhaul; connecting two WiFi devices is great and all but it means very little without a source of internet backhaul. As this is an airborne device using a cable is a big no-no. So a form of wireless backhaul is called for. 3G/4G/LTE? All possible but it will add to the size and weight of the payload as well as require more battery power. In addition, if 3G/4G/LTE is available would that not negate the need for an airborne wifi device? So satellite maybe? That would mean an ever bigger payload and battery drain. The last option is to consider using lots of these devices and building a WiFi mesh with one or more fixed end-points with internet connectivity. Now this would theoretically be a possibility but there are several factors to consider. using directional antennas on airborne/unstable platforms might cause dropped links. Then there is ones of the bigger drawbacks inherent to WiFi mesh networks; a drop in throughput with every hop (unless you use dual radio devices but that won’t really work here). Lastly there is the logistics and costs of building, deploying and operating a large number of these type of devices.
So considering all the above I can only conclude that it’s a case of much ado about nothing. It might look cool and get much ooh’s and aah’s from the hackathon crowd but there’s really no benefit in this product at all. The cost of the combined package comes to around $1300 (off-hand) with $1000 of that being the aerial platform. Compare that to about $150 for a length of scaffolding pipe, a roof mount kit and some clamps. The latter would also create a link with much more stability.
If you are looking at a workable application for aerial platform mounted WiFi then look at a combination of a 3G/4G/LTE backhaul device and a WiFi router with an omni directional antenna. That way you can create small bubbles of WiFi that can be flown into hard to reach areas and which are not dependent on a directional link for connectivity.
Even better rather than a means of connectivity provisioning use aerial platforms as sensor networks able to detect wifi or cellular signals transmitted by client devices (smartphones etc) pinpointing people in need.
Tags: bag, bugout, edc, emergency, grabbag, kit, prepper, SERE, survival
I’ve committed to give a talk later this year on “The perfect Bugout bag”. It’s topic that I’ve discussed with regularity over the years and one that also caused a lot of controversy and heated debate on the numerous prepper, survivalist and related fora. During my deployments abroad with Disaster Tech Lab I always carry a small bag/pack with my basic essentials. A bag that would enable to me to “survive” for a few days if all my other bags were stolen or lost. So I do have a some practical experience in this area.
Traditionally discussions of what a bugout bag should contain include most, if not all, of the following:
- Water, water bottle & water purification
- Basic First Aid kit
- Map & compass
- Emergency Shelter
- Matches, flint & tinder
- Weapon (handgun or rifle)
- Survival blanket, small sleeping bag
- Collapsible stove
- Insect repellent
- Wind-up radio
- Fishing kit & snares
- Cash or gold coins
In my opinion the above list is based on an outdated principle. It assumes that any bugout situation will see one ending up in a remote wilderness situation. This is no longer true and a lot of bugout type scenarios will now take place in an urban environment. With increased instability in certain parts of the world you could find yourself having to bail out of a hotel, taxi, public transport or other urban location and having to depend on whatever is in your bugout bag for the next few days. In such an environment you will not be placing snares or fish for food, you won’t have to build a basha for shelter, or need to carry spare clothes.
You will require a whole lot of different items. Ones that provide you with access to digital communications (phone or internet), digital copies of important documents, a method to power your electronic devices. Even a way to smarten up your appearance quickly.
What you don’t want to carry is a big knife or even machete. Even a stove and cooking equipment is excess weight. Water is also less of an issue.
Basically you will need a Bigout Bag 2.0
I will be working on compiling a summary of my personal recommendations of tried and tested items that I carry in my bugout bag but as I am also very interested in finding out what other people carry. And please note, “bugout bag” is only a generic term. You might call it your grab-bag or your EDC but it basically boils down to the same.
So please, after reading it take the time to leave a comment with your opinion or experience in the area of bugout bags.
Tags: #bigdata, #corkflood, #dublinflood, #galwayflood, #limerickflood, #mapping, #opendata, emergency, flood, flooding, ireland, response
Following storm Darwin earlier this year and the widespread disruption caused by storm damage and flooding I carried out an on-line survey on how information on storm and flood-damage was being disseminated to the Irish public. Having worked with Disaster Tech Lab in disaster zones all over the globe for the last 4+ years I’ve learned that the gathering but even more the curation and dissemination of relevant data is crucial during extreme weather events. It serves dual purposes; first it allows for a better tailored response effort but secondly it also increases awareness amongst the general public allowing them to avoid dangerous areas and/or to evacuate if necessary. The survey was basic and had the single purpose to ascertian if people had received information about damage caused by storm Darwin and through what medium they had received this information.
Following is a summary of the results:
- Respondents were 61.11% male & 38.89% female
- The majority were in the 35-44 age bracket
- Most respondents lived in Dublin, Cork & Galway (in that order) with the rest spread over the country.
- 77.78% had flood damage in their immediate area.
- 11.11% experienced flood damage in their immediate area.
- 88.89% travelled inside of Ireland shortly after storm Darwin.
- 77.78% encountered flood and/or storm damage during their travels
- But only 55.56 % was aware of this damage
- The most interesting part was that 83.33% received this information through Social Media while only 5.56% received the information through the local authorities.
The Irish local & national authorities are dropping the ball in a major way here and appear to be woefully unprepared. The only publicly available resource is the floodmaps.ie website run by the Office of Public Works. The most recent data there dates to 2011 and was gathered through a retrospective study. There is no obvious way to report damage in real-time. With the current drive for Open Data and Big Data you would expect that this would be available. There are a number of easily implementable, Open Source platforms to create an online map with a real-time reporting mechanism without having to re-invent the wheel.
Building such a service would allow people to report any flooding or storm damage that they encounter via a variety of means. Email, sms or via the website itself. You could even build an app. Reports can include a location (automatically mapped), description and images or video. Once curated (again in realtime) this information will than be displayed on an online map. The data can serve dual purposes. It will alert response services to issues which require intervention or remidiaton but it will also inform the general public as to where a rood is flooded, a tree is blocking the road etc. This allows them to plan travel accordingly and avoid problem areas. The end result is more fluent traffic flows and the avoidance of traffic jams at problem spots.
While members of government discuss the issue of climate change and coastal flooding they fail to implement adequate response mechanisms. Ones which have become standard in countries like the USA which has been dealing with extreme weather events a lot longer. During a FEMA conference in Washington DC last year I commented that Ireland (and Europe) will soon see a drastic increase in extreme weather such as floods and storms. The recent flooding in Ireland and the current unprecedented flooding in the Balkans which has claimed over 40 lives are only the start of this. We need to prepare ourselves and an increased public awareness is the first step. Increased awareness will lead to increased preparedness and resilience. Recent studies in the field of disaster response has shown that the top-down approach taken in the past only solves short term problems and doesn’t improve matters in the long run. A shift from disaster response to disaster preparedness is needed and this can only be achieved by an increased public awareness and involvement. Empowering people by giving them a means to report problems and needs in real time and acting on this information is a first step in this.
Tags: #EP2014, #EU2014, #le14, elections, local
At the end of this coming week Irish voters will have the opportunity to cast their vote in two ballots; one for local elections and another one for European Parliament elections. In the lead-up to these elections almost every lamppost in Ireland has sprouted one or more election posters. The majority of these posters are wonders of misinformation showing only an image of the politician and the word “VOTE”. No mention of why someone would actually vote for one politician over the other. Should one vote on the number of a candidates posters or the proximity to ones house?
As I value the right to vote and want to ensure that my vote is an informed one I decided to email all candidates in both elections a short list of questions. Most of the questions were based on principle issues as this weighs much heavier for me than questions on specific issues. I could have asked the candidates for the local elections on how they would fix potholes or something parochial like that but in my these issued should be dealt with no matter where the candidates political alliance lies.
So on Monday May 12th I sent the candidates for the local elections in my constituency 5 questions. Well actually I sent it to all but one. For one candidate it proved impossible to find an email address, no matter how much searching I did. That in itself would make me not vote for them. Anyway, here’s the list of questions I sent them. Some have limited answers, and yes the questions are opinionated but these are issues which matter to me.
- What is your position on the subject of abortion, are you pro-life or pro-abortion?
- Do you support the proposed constitutional amendment which would legislate for same-sex marriage?
- Do you support or oppose the changes to the Junior Certificate curriculum?
- What is your position on income redistribution and matters such as a “wealth tax”?
- Should the Irish government play a leading or a supporting role in job creation?
As of today, nearly a week later and with the elections 5 days away I have not received a reply from a single candidate. Not even an acknowledgment that they have received my email and deal with it when they have the time.
I had one single canvassing team call to my door however. I pounced on them like a starving vulture would pounce on a dying wildebeest on the African savannah. “What is your candidates election manifesto?” I asked. The reply? ” Well eh, erm….erm….He’s local!”. Also “He has a lot of projects but just needs some more time to finish them”. That was the extent of their campaigning. What was even more disconcerting was their total surprise at being asked questions about their candidates political agenda. Did nobody else ask these questions?!
On to the candidates for the European Elections. Surely they would be more informed and of a higher calibre. Right?
I emailed these candidates a slightly adapted list of questions:
- What is your position on the subject of abortion, are you pro-life or pro-abortion?
- What is your position on the subject of same-sex marriage? Are you for, against or is this an area which should not be legislated by a government?
- What is your position on income redistribution and matters such as a “wealth tax”?
- Should the Irish & EU government play a leading or a supporting role in job creation?
- In your opinion, did Ireland receive a bailout from the “Troika” or did Ireland provide a bailout for banks and bondholders?
The response was overwhelming.
Last Friday I received a reply from Jim Higgins a candidate for Fine Gael. Jim replied to 3 questions, asked for more clarification on one and failed to reply on another one. All in all I have to commend Jim as he so far has more respect for his constituents than any of the other candidates. Unfortunately his party (FG) is the one which is trying to push through liberal abortion legislation and in doing so is breaking one of their election promises.
None of the other EU election candidates has so far.…
So basically things haven’t changed, in spite of the economic crisis, the multiple revelations of public sector incompetence and the growing awareness by people of public and private affairs, politicians still think they can win elections by handshaking and kissing babies.
Tags: #wfd6, airtight, aruba, cloudpath, disaster tech lab, extreme networks, wifi, wireless field day, xirrus
Time for a long overdue blogpost.
On January 3rd an email from Tom Hollingsworth landed in my inbox. Now I had never spoken or even emailed with Tom but he’s one of the people behind the “Wireless Field Day” (and a whole lot of other Field Day’s). Tom wanted to know if I was interested in talking about my work with Disaster Tech Lab at the upcoming Wireless Field Day 6 at the end of the month?
DID I HELL!
I had been following the Wireless Field Day events for some time as it was a sort of holy grail for wireless geeks like myself. To get the chance to speak at the event would be magnificent.
Roll forward 3 weeks and I’m actually in San Jose. I arrived late so missed the first evening socializing with my fellow geeks ( This might have been a good thing…). Day one started with everyone jumping into a stretch limo which brought us to Airtight Networks offices. Airtight had a number of interesting presentations lined up for us with introductions into their cloud based services, social wifi and analytics. It followed on with a WIPS demo by Rick Farina. Rick is my kinda guy with lots of experience in security, hacking and related fields. It was entertaining to watch him to bring up the WiFi Pineaple device. Anyway, it was enjoyable and gave some good insights into where Airtight Networks is going.
Next we hopped in the limo which brought us to the Aruba Networks offices. This was a bit of a big deal for me as Aruba has been a great supporter of Disaster Tech Lab from right back when we started in 2010. Yet this was my first visit to their offices. I wasn’t disappointed as the offices are pretty cool especially the showroom with all numerous devices on display. Being real geeks we even spotted some sort of prototype USB dongles connected to some of the AP’s. I suspect that these were for use with the Meridian software of which we got a nice real life demo using the Aruba Campus App. After a quick welcome by Ozer and Sean it was time for Manju Mahishi to show us about Aruba’s plans with the Meridian software. In short it offers a platform for user and asset tracking allowing such things as public venues to get greater insight into user movement patterns and such. The presentation led to a lively discussion on topics such as privacy as well as technical.
Next was my own presentation on Disaster Tech Lab’s work. Rather that tell you about it I suggest that you watch the video.
Day 2 started bright and early with a presentation by Germán Capdehourat from Plan Ceibal. Plan Ceibal is a state sponsored project in Uruguay which has as goal to bring internet access to all schools. They obviously use a lot of wifi technology but also branch out into user devices and educational content. Projects like these have great value and contribute immensely to children’s education. Germán was followed by Kevin Koster from Cloudpath. Cloudpath does some really advanced stuff with large scale device onboarding and authentication. It’s not really my area of interest but for anyone managing large networks with hundreds or thousands of users their products are well worth looking at. You can watch the full video here.
Cloudpath was followed by Xirrus. This was going to be an interesting presentation as Xirrus’s presentation at the previous WFD had been very marketing & PR heavy and had been torn to shreds by the attendees. Dirk Gates, founder of Xirrus started of with a good presentation into the company, their history and the future. Next was the absolute highlight of #WFD6 in my opinion. Xirrus had brought in their head of antenna design Avi Hartenstein. Avi, besides really knowing his shit, looks and sounds like a cool extra from a Bond movie. His presentation with into the antenna design into minute details and for someone like me who loves RF it was simply a pleasure to watch.
To end the day we travelled to Extreme Networks office which were by far the flashiest ones with loads of artwork, purple colors and even rotating server racks with flashing lights. Their presentations there gave a lot of insight into Extreme’s large stadium deployments. It’s interesting to see how a lot of the problems encountered in such environments can be resolved through smart RF use. Real life examples illustrated how antenna placement, antenna radiation power, spatial isolation and low TX power are the main contributors to solving a lot of problems.
I do realise that this is a way too short blogpost to encompass all the awesomeness that was Wireless Field Day 6. I got to spend a couple of days in the company of people whose knowledge and expertise for exceeds mine but who were also hugely entertaining to hang out with. On top of that we were given an royal welcome by the various companies supporting this event and they each went all out to share their technology and visions of the wireless future with us. Lastly I want to give serious kudos to Steven, Tom and everyone else at GestaltIT for organising not only this fantastic event but all the other Field Days they organise. Seriously guys (and galls) it’s impressive.
I also suggest that you go and watch *all* the videos here.