Social Networking

"...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.
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Twitter in Emergencies

This morning I came across Luis Suarez’s very informative post about micro-blogging in emergencies at elsua.net. His post led me to a great YouTube video by W David Stephenson.


David’s video led me to the American Red Cross’s twitter feed and their Safe and Well feed. Ike Pigott at Occam’s RazR has a great post that explains how Twitter can be used to keep the Safe and Well database up to date.

I left a comment on Ike’s site wondering about how to get the word out to the general public. After all most people wont be reading blogs like this before an emergency. While I was writing this post it occurred to me that Red Cross t-shirts would be the ideal medium. Just include the instructions for how to SMS the Safe and Well feed on the back of the shirt.
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Social Networking Tools Part 2 - Twitter and Tsunamis

On 12 and 13 September there were a series of earthquakes near Indonesia spawning fears of another Asian Tsunami. It proved to be a good test of our Twitter based NGO security tree.

I was in Mannar, Sri Lanka at the time and I didn’t have a useable Internet connection. My first warning of the situation came when a concerned staff member called wanting to know “when is the Tsunami going to hit!” As the fear of a Tsunami spread I started to receive more and more calls from staff. Soon the mobile system was completely overburdened in many parts of the country and creaking under the strain in others. The very slow, single line dial-up Internet connection continued to work but proved to be all but useless for gathering timely information.

Fortunately I quickly started to get SMS’s. Some came from feeds I was following on Twitter: BBC, Reuters, CNN, EQTW, etc. Others came directly or were forwarded from UNOCHA, the Sri Lankan Disaster Management Centre, the Met office, the police and assorted individuals. Twitter allowed me to quickly forward the useful ones to all my followers while limiting the strain on the overburdened mobile system.

There were some glitches however. I continued to receive forwarded text message warnings long after credible sources had given the all clear. In some instances it seems that text messages became trapped in the telephone companies’ SMS system and were released as the queue began to clear. In some cases staff, confused by contradictory information, continued to forward outdated information.

Unfortunately the biggest problem with the Twitter based NGO security tree was one of buy in. Only a fraction of the staff who were intended to be served by the tree had bothered to sign up. The manual SMS security tree, which had been left in place as a backup, failed for much the same reason.

Lesson Learned: While emergency communications tools continue to improve, and become easier to use, buy in remains the number one problem. NGO staff members, especially office staff, often prove reluctant to dedicate even minimal effort to their own personal security until it proves too late.

For some background, check out “Social Networking tools for NGO Security – Part 1”.

To see a live feed of the NGO Security stream check out the demo page here. There is a Jaiku based stream as well.
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Odds and Ends

Mashable.com has a collection of 60+ Collaborative Tools for Groups. Is anyone out there up to the challenge of an NGO Security Wiki?

I've always thought that something like the SPOT personal GPS tracker would be very useful for NGOs working in conflict zones and complex emergencies. According to the SPOT website it'll be out in November.

Sam at groundviews has a short piece on pledges in Sri Lanka. Wryly ironic.
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Social Networking tools for NGO Security – Part 1

I was experimenting with Twitter when it occurred to me that it was an ideal tool for NGO security officers. Rather than using the service to merely update friends on what I was having for breakfast I could be sending out security information alerts and updates. All my “followers” would then get current, low cost, security information.

This method has many advantages over the SMS security tree method commonly used by NGOs. Traditional security trees tend to fail when one or more members (the branches of the tree) do not receive or pass on the text messages they receive to those below them, typically because they are on leave or because the tree information is not up to date. Traditional trees can also be expensive. Each SMS sent by every member of the tree comes out of someone’s budget. This can add up quickly if you are sending out several messages a day to a two hundred-member security tree.

Social networking services like Twitter or Jaiku allow us to avoid these problems. Essentially Twitter and Jaiku allow the head of the security tree to send one SMS to the service’s server. The service then distributes the SMS to all the “followers” (subscribers) of the account more or less simultaneously. This means the tree still works even if members are missing. In addition you only pay for the SMS to the service’s server. SMS messages from the server to each of the followers are free*.


* Most mobile service providers only charge for text messages that are sent while those received are free.


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