A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

online tools

Safe Charity

A quick search on Google Trends shows that people become more interested in charity and giving in the approach to the holiday season (but note the sharp decline in the second half of December).



The chart also shows much greater interest in giving in wake of a major crisis. Both the 2004 Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina precipitated numerous Google searches as people tried to figure out how to help.

Unfortunately the holiday season and crisis events also bring out the scammers. The unscrupulous can make it difficult for the well intentioned private donor to avoid being scammed and to ensure that maximum use is being made of their contribution.







Charity Navigator can take some of the risk out of giving. The site evaluates the financial health of over 5,300 charities using two broad indicators; organizational efficiency and organizational capacity. In short they seek to measure how effectively organizations will use your donations.



Charity Navigator also has a valuable tips and resources section that will help keep you from being scammed and ensure that your money is spent the way you expect it to be spent.

Dates of Religious and Civil Holidays Around the World

As an NGO security officer you’ll need to to account for holidays in your security planning. While its not too difficult for holidays that occur on the same day every year its trickier for variable holidays or those based on another calendar. When Is is a handy resource that indicates the dates of religious and civil holidays around the world several years in advance.

Centre for Monitoring Election Violence - Sri Lanka

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence is monitoring the election in eastern Sri Lanka. They are using the emerging standard, Twitter updates mashed with google maps, a blog, and mobile phone access to spread the word. Even if you are not interested in the elections you should check it out in case you need to do something similar in your own country.

CMEV is comprised of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) the Free Media Movement (FMM) and INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre. Despite financial constraints they plan to field 330 stationary monitors at selected polling centres across the Eastern Province along with 49 Mobile Teams.


SIPRI, ISN and FIRST - Open Source Data at its Best

I believe that publicly funded data (data from governments, the UN and other world bodies, and INGOs) should be truly public. By this I mean that anyone can easily, and without cost, access the data in a non-propietary format. No locked pdf files. No password protected databases. No one-query-at-a-time, one-answer-at-a-time forms. Just the data in a simple user accessible format.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) understand. They have teamed up to provide an integrated database known as FIRST . FIRST contains free, open source, clearly documented information from research institutes around the world. The databases filled with hard facts on armed conflict, peace keeping, arms production and trade, military expenditure, armed forces and conventional weapons holding, nuclear weapons, security, international relations, human rights, and health statistics. Most of the data can be exported in comma-seperated value (.csv) or Excel (.xls) formats. These formats are easily imported by many analytical tools allowing the user to carry out their own processing and analysis.



As an excellent example of what can be done with data from FIRST check out Jeffrey Warren's Vestal Design interactive data visualization of world-wide arms transactions. You can view the full Java-based visualization at ARMSFLOW. I love this kind of thing. Effective data visualization allows you to quickly present complex data to senior level decision makers without overwhelming them.

World Wide Arms Flow Chart 1981

Now if only there was a way to get NGOs to share security incident data in the same way!

Tracking Kenyan Violence

Ushahidi.com is a brilliant website that gives Kenyans a simple way to report and follow post-election violence. The site offers a simple map-based way to see where violence is taking place, and collects eyewitness accounts and photographs. Its even possible to report incidents via SMS.

Ushahidi.com screenshot

If you want even more White African has a comprehensive list of blogs covering the post-election violence.

"...becoming a better NGO security officer"

I was feeling a little depressed over the weekend. I’d reread Paul’s post on why he wasn’t liveblogging the Global Symposium +5 in Geneva. It bothered me. I could sense his frustration at what he sees as the slow progress in the world of humanitarian information exchange. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I thought I could detect a similar sentiment at the NGO security blog in recent weeks as well. Of course there is a good chance it’s just me.

When I started this blog I had a vague idea that I could share some ideas and maybe pass on a little hard won wisdom. I suppose I also thought that I could, in a small way, influence the course of the NGO security world. Seeing people I respect have doubts made me question whether I could make a difference. In effect, “what the hell makes me think I can change anything when these guys, so much more articulate and educated than myself, are feeling stymied?”

Fortunately for me, and my mood, serendipity intervened. I received three packages. Two are ‘tech toys’ with a security bent (I’ll post about them over the next couple of days). I’m a geek at heart so shiny gadgets, software, and such always pick me up. It was the third package that really made the difference however.

OK, I confess that it wasn’t really a package per se but ‘three packages’ just sounds better. Actually it was a video I downloaded off the web and hadn’t watched until this morning. It’s a presentation by a guy named Stephen Downes at the National Research Council, Institute for Information Technology, in Canada. I won’t bore you with the details. You can watch it yourself below. Go ahead, don't let the lead frame fool you.



Stephen’s presentation made me realize that I had it wrong. This blog is not about me teaching. It’s about me learning. It’s about learning the way I always wanted to learn. It’s about me becoming a better NGO security officer... or maybe just better.

Through blogs, RSS feeds, email, YouTube, Skype and a myriad of other online tools I’m connected to, and learning from, people who aren’t afraid to push the boundaries and strive for something beyond the status quo. I have access to teachers who are also fellow students. I have access to fields of endeavour too niche for textbooks and lectures. When was the last time you saw a textbook about “Security Reporting, Accessible Maps and GeoRSS” or “YouTube for Security Training”?

All of this has been a round about way of getting to what I really want to say. To all my teacher-students out there, you are making a difference. Thank you.


Note: If you’re not sure if I mean you I probably do. You can also check out the sidebar on the resource page for some hints if you are still unsure.

IT Security and NGOs - A Little Knowledge?

The other night I was having dinner with some NGO friends when the subject of government eavesdropping on NGOs came up. One of the people at the table said that in the past they had used an email trick to allow sharing sensitive information amongst team members. Essentially the premise was that one could sign up for a free web mail account and share the account password amongst team members. Members would draft emails as usual but rather than sending them they would simply leave them as drafts. Other team members would then read them by going to the account.

The idea was that as long as the email wasn’t sent it couldn’t be monitored. Unfortunately it is just not true as Nart Villeneuve points out here.

I recalled the conversation a few days later and wondered what the problem was. It is not that my friends weren’t aware of the potential risks, and they are certainly not unintelligent. I think the issue is that most aid workers already have more than enough work to do without trying to keep up with the latest developments in IT security. So the problem becomes one of learning about IT security in small, manageable, easily absorbed bits.

Fortunately there are resources that can help. Thanks to Bruce Schneier at Schneier on Security for pointing out securitycartoon.com. I don’t think it is meant to be funny but it does present IT security in a straightforward and comprehensible manner. Subscribe to the RSS feed to make it even easier.

Privaterra is a good resource that covers data privacy, secure communications, and information security for Human Rights NGOs.

Over course you shouldn’t miss Nart’s blog. It isn’t NGO specific but it covers Internet privacy, freedom of expression, censor-ware, security, surveillance and anonymity. Whether you are interested in "Cyber-Cafe Monitoring in India" or need to know how to avoid internet filtering Nart’s blog is a good place to start.

Silobreaker - Online Analyical Tool

Online research can be a great tool but as anyone who has used Google can attest there is a lot of information out there and most search tools just dump out an endless list of links. Sorting through it, discarding the irrelevant, and putting the remainder into some usable form is a task left to the user. Any tool that allows the already busy Security Officer to spend less time searching for information and more time assessing and analysing it is of value. Silobreaker is one of these tools. In the words of Silobreaker, "Silobreaker looks at the data it finds like a person does. It recognises things - companies, people, topics, places - and puts them in context".

While I was testing the public Beta I quickly discovered its utility. A basic search for the term 'suicide bomber' brought up the type of content you might expect but with some preliminary organization. There was a top stories pane, a search result timeline frame, an entity list, a "Quotes" pane, a more traditional search results list and a network visualization diagram. The sidebar also has a list of entities related to your search; cities, people, companies etc.

Since I'm currently in Sri Lanka I "drilled down", as Silobreaker calls it, to Sri Lanka. The result were now much more relevant and lo and behold there were items of interest and relationship that hadn't captured my attention before.

As one would expect with a Beta there is still some work to be done. Even on my relatively fast connection the site seemed slow at times. One very useful feature that counters the sluggishness is the liberal use of hover overs allowing a quick preview of content before you commit to clicking on a link or entity.

Silobreaker is currently allowing free public access to its online Beta. I recommend you give it a try and see if it meets your needs.

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This work by Kevin Toomer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.
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