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Big Data can help save the world

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Statistics and analysis may sound dull but now big data is being roped into saving lives in the humanitarian hellholes of the world, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Once, it was a national park. Now, a vast area of Bangladesh has been turned into a sprawling refugee camp. Hundred of thousands of Rohingya people have poured across the border from Myanmar in recent months, forced out of their homes by a brutal army crackdown.

The vicious persecution aims at eradicating a Muslim presence from the primarily Buddhist country of Myanmar. Thousands have been killed for no other reason than being part of a community. Aside from the Rohingya themselves, the brunt of the anguish has been borne by Bangladesh, which has welcomed the refugees into a country that can barely cope with its own problems.

Aid workers have poured in from around the world to help. But that has sometimes only added to the confusion.

“How do you deal with an emergency in the chaos of a million people milling around?” asked Leonard Doyle, head of media and communications for the United Nations Migration Agency. “International and local agencies go piling in, installing tube wells next to water points that are contaminated. That’s not smart.

“Our role is to coordinate the response, which is a massive a challenge given that everyone is doing what they want. We have feedback channels and information points to help coordinate such disasters, but when information is collected out in the field where there is no Internet connectivity, and only submitted a few days later, it does not have the immediacy or urgency that is needed.”

The Agency finally turned to big data – the science of collecting and analysing large amounts of data, and using it for better decision-making. It developed an online platform to receive the information, as well as a software tool people could carry on their phones to collect and submit information.

“It’s a very simple app that allows people to log information and upload it to a response team, and view it on a mini-dashboard with quick statistics of all the feedback collected. It is easy to synchronise with a community response map, and data can be exported from platform and shared with other agencies via PDF and Excel, live data and infographics.

“It’s a very simple tool to collect information for every actor in the field. Now, information coming from these desperate people gets quickly fed into system. So, for example, if someone finds a boy who has lost his parents, and inputs that information, it creates a response procedure that ensures the boy us looked after immediately. We need better ways of getting aid to people, and this is one way.”

Doyle was speaking at the SAS Analytics Experience 2017 conference in Amsterdam, an event that draws both on 40 years of pioneering data science at the SAS Institute and on some of the most current case studies and strategies for turning data into decisions. Addressing humanitarian crises and human problems was a strong theme at the conference.

“The human being and mathematics are merging,” said Jon Briggs, the BBC broadcaster who also happens to be the British male voice of the iPhone voice assistant, Siri. Chairing the conference, he issued a powerful warning:  “The danger in relying purely on statistics is that it can have the effect of dehumanising what is often a very human tragedy.”

However, he pointed out that the work of the UN Migration Agency showed how data could save lives on global migratory routes. Also known as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the body is currently dealing with 65-million displaced persons, 21-million refugees, and 41-million people displaced in their own countries. Almost a third of this latter group is in Africa. In one month in the DRC alone, 1.5-million people were displaced.

“These folks are the wretched of the earth,” said Doyle. “Already the human traffickers, sex exploiters, human slavers, are there. The vultures are circling. As these people become exploited and enslaved, there is an enormous danger of radicalisation. Yet, much of the suffering is unnecessary.

“These man made disasters may feel distant on our TV screens, but they have a habit of coming close to us. You have in your hands and brains and pockets many of the tools that could enormously help in dealing with the humanitarian issue.”

The message was reiterated by a member of the Dutch royal family, Pieter-Christiaan Michiel, Prince of Orange-Nassau, van Vollenhoven, who is also vice chairman of the board of the Dutch Red Cross.

“I believe big data can make the world better, more humanitarian and smarter,” he declared.

That was the thinking behind the creation by the Dutch Red Cross of a data unit called 510 Global, named for the 510-million square kilometres that make up the surface of the earth.

It is described as a “dedicated hybrid team of data scientists and information managers and researchers who apply their skills across humanitarian activities with Big Data”.

“From visualising and communicating information through interactive dashboards, maps and infographics, our team collects, collates and analyses big data, extracting insights and translating them into data-driven decisions, positively impacting humanitarian aid,” the organisaton says.

Prince Pieter-Christiaan presented a case study that is still raw in the memories of the Dutch: the devastation of the Netherlands territory of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean by last month’s Hurricane Irma. More than 7 out of 10 buildings were damaged or destroyed. The relief operations were a nightmare for aid organisations, the military and government.

The 510 Global team was tasked with both preparing data before the hurricane hit, and assessing the damage afterwards.

“We worked with Google, which was able to predict the path of hurricane, and first responders were able to share information via Google Maps. We knew the hurricane would hit the island, but we wanted to create an accurate picture of where people lived and map the houses on islands.

“We used satellite data to count houses and see where the roads are to reach them. A lot of illegal immigrants were living and working on the island, living in makeshift buildings. We used crowdsourcing to find how many unregistered buildings there were, and that map was used for the rescue operation.

“We used drones for damage assessment, and volunteers used satellite data to map and colour code the most devastated areas, to focus relief operations. We also used that for the recovery, to see how many roofs were needed for makeshift buildings.”

That still left aid workers scrambling for resources on the ground, but it helped divert these to where they were needed most.

The prince pointed out that the Dutch Red Cross was 150 years old, but was now spearheading the concept of smart aid. However, this was no luxury.

“We have a $25-billion budget, but a $35-billion need. There’s a big gap. We are always short of money. Smart aid pinpoints our smart responders, allowing them to be much more effective by seeing where the relief effort is needed most.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

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Bring your network with you

At last week’s Critical Communications World, Motorola unveiled the LXN 500 LTE Ultra Portable Network Infrastructure. It allows rescue personal to set up dedicated LTE networks for communication in an emergency, writes SEAN BACHER.

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In the event of an emergency, communications are absolutely critical, but the availability of public phone networks are limited due to weather conditions or congestion.

Motorola realised that this caused a problem when trying to get rescue personnel to those in need and so developed its LXN 500 LTE Ultra Portable Network Infrastructure. The product is the smallest and lightest full powered broadband network to date and allows the first person on the scene to set up an LTE network in a matter of minutes, allowing other rescue team members to communicate with each other.

“The LXN 500 weighs six kilograms and comes in a backpack with two batteries. It offers a range of 1km and allows up to 100 connections at the same time. However, in many situations the disaster area may span more than 1km which is why they can be connected to each other in a mesh formation,” says Tunde Williams, Head of Field and Solutions Marketing EMEA, Motorola Solutions.

The LXN 500 solution offers communication through two-way radios, and includes mapping, messaging, push-to-talk, video and imaging features onboard, thus eliminating the need for any additional hardware.

Data collected on the device can then be sent through to a central control room where an operator can deploy additional rescue personnel where needed. Once video is streamed into the control room, realtime analytics and augmented reality can be applied to it to help predict where future problem points may arise. Video images and other multimedia can also be made available for rescuers on the ground.

“Although the LXN 500 was designed for the seamless communications between on ground rescue teams and their respective control rooms, it has made its way into the police force and in places where there is little or no cellular signal such as oil rigs,” says Williams.

He gave a hostage scenario: “In the event of a hostage situation, it is important for the police to relay information in realtime to ensure no one is hurt. However the perpetrators often use their mobile phones to try and foil any rescue attempts. Should the police have the correct partnerships in place they are able to disable cellular towers in the vicinity, preventing any in or outgoing calls on a public network and allowing the police get their job done quickly and more effectively.”

By disabling any public networks in the area, police are also able to eliminate any cellular detonated bombs from going off but still stay in touch with each other he says.

The LXN 500 offers a wide range of mission critical cases and is sure to transform communications and improve safety for first responders and the people they are trying to protect.

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Kaspersky moves to Switzerland

As part of its Global Transparency Initiative, Kaspersky Lab is adapting its infrastructure to move a number of core processes from Russia to Switzerland.

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This includes customer data storage and processing for most regions, as well as software assembly, including threat detection updates. To ensure full transparency and integrity, Kaspersky Lab is arranging for this activity to be supervised by an independent third party, also based in Switzerland.

Global transparency and collaboration for an ultra-connected world

The Global Transparency Initiative, announced in October 2017, reflects Kaspersky Lab’s ongoing commitment to assuring the integrity and trustworthiness of its products. The new measures are the next steps in the development of the initiative, but they also reflect the company’s commitment to working with others to address the growing challenges of industry fragmentation and a breakdown of trust. Trust is essential in cybersecurity, and Kaspersky Lab understands that trust is not a given; it must be repeatedly earned through transparency and accountability.

The new measures comprise the move of data storage and processing for a number of regions, the relocation of software assembly and the opening of the first Transparency Center.

Relocation of customer data storage and processing

By the end of 2019, Kaspersky Lab will have established a data center in Zurich and in this facility, will store and process all information for users in Europe, North America, Singapore, Australia, Japan and South Korea, with more countries to follow. This information is shared voluntarily by users with the Kaspersky Security Network (KSN) an advanced, cloud-based system that automatically processes cyberthreat-related data.

Relocation of software assembly

Kaspersky Lab will relocate to Zurich its ‘software build conveyer’ — a set of programming tools used to assemble ready to use software out of source code. Before the end of 2018, Kaspersky Lab products and threat detection rule databases (AV databases) will start to be assembled and signed with a digital signature in Switzerland, before being distributed to the endpoints of customers worldwide. The relocation will ensure that all newly assembled software can be verified by an independent organisation and show that software builds and updates received by customers match the source code provided for audit.

Establishment of the first Transparency Center

The source code of Kaspersky Lab products and software updates will be available for review by responsible stakeholders in a dedicated Transparency Center that will also be hosted in Switzerland and is expected to open this year. This approach will further show that generation after generation of Kaspersky Lab products were built and used for one purpose only: protecting the company’s customers from cyberthreats.

Independent supervision and review

Kaspersky Lab is arranging for the data storage and processing, software assembly, and source code to be independently supervised by a third party qualified to conduct technical software reviews. Since transparency and trust are becoming universal requirements across the cybersecurity industry, Kaspersky Lab supports the creation of a new, non-profit organisation to take on this responsibility, not just for the company, but for other partners and members who wish to join.

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