Posts Tagged ‘disaster’

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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

Time Rubicon is one of the great volunteer organisations that grew out of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and that have developed into organisations providing expert care & assistance. They are a clear example of how a grassroots approach can work better than the large lumbering NGO’s. In the following video they talk about their work in Haiti as well as their motivations. Their motivations are very much the same ones as those that drove me to founding  Haiti Connect. Watch and learn:

One of the factors that led to my involvement in the disaster response and rebuilding after the Haitian earthquake last year started many years before after the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in late 2004. At the time I was following the disaster recovery efforts closely and one of the things I noticed was the huge communications issues between the various organisations operating in the disaster areas as well as internally within those organisations. With my background in wireless voice & data networking I got thinking and one of the needs I identified was the need for a simple way for mobile teams to “upload” a geotagged status report which would then be collated and used to coordinate the larger SAR efforts. Something as simple as a report that contained a string of data: “deceased person found, male, located at grid coordinates X”. All this data would then be processed in a mapping & planning system while the search team would be able to move on. Such a system would need to use commonly available communication methods such as mobile phone system, wifi, satellite etc. Ease of use and affordability would be the main requirements.

Over time I kept refining the idea in my head but for a variety of reasons I never did anything tangible with it. So it came as a pleasant surprise to notice an  organisation called USHAHIDI involved int he disaster response work in Haiti. Ushahidi had developed a system allowing people to use the mobile phones they already had to send short report to a preset number. They could report such things as medical emergencies, fires, rioting, property loss etc. and include the location. This was then collated (initially manually but now automated) and put ona  map. Once processed this collated information was then used successfully to coordinate aid-efforts.

The Ushahidi platform has since developed further and has used technology that is now common, but which was unknown when I started thinking about this back in 2004, such as FourSquare, Gowalla etc to create “checkins with a purpose”. It has grown to a system where you can checkin in a way similar to how you would use Foursquare and include relevant information and this would then be processed by the back-end as mentioned above and used in further planning. It is fascinating to see that there is a lot of common thinking even though I have no direct involvement with Ushahidi. Check out this ForaTV video and fast forward to chapter 6.

For some time now I have been saying that the current situation in Haiti could lead to a disaster of a a similar or even larger scale than the January 2010 earthquake. More than 6 months after the quake and with billions of dollars pledged in aid there are still over 1 million people living in tents and under sheets of plastic. These temporary housing solutions are already falling apart and will certainly *not* withstand the current storms or the upcoming hurricane season. Already every heavy rainstorm is leading to drownings. In addition to that there are the derivative effects of disease, violence etc flowing out of the current living conditions. What is needed is permanent, sustainable accommodation. I can not emphasise enough how much ongoing targeted support is needed in this country.  While Haiti Connect ( a charity I run) does not provide or build housing (it’s not our area of expertise) I try to support every effort to create sustainable housing as much as I can.

The following video will illustrate what the conditions are like better: