6 out of 10 people worldwide use mobile phones – ICT Development Index compares 154 countries

March 29, 2009

The International Telecommunications Union released their annual survey of ICT usage worldwide this month.

The report (press release, full PDF), compares information and telecommunications technology (ICT) over 154 different countries, from 2002 to 2007.

The most advanced countries in terms of ICT were found mostly in Northern Europe, although South Korea came in second (above both the US and the UK).  Sweden topped the list. 

Poorer countries, notably this in Africa, were found to have lower ICT development scores, as would be expected.  Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Viet Nam, however, have made rapid growth over the last 5 years (due mostly to the combination of combined mobile phone users and Internet adoption).

Other notable statistics from the report include:

  • On average the world increased its ICT usage by over 30% in the past 5 years.  
  • 23 out of 100 of the world’s inhabitants use the Internet.
  • There are approximately 3x as many mobile phone users as fixed line users.
  • ICT costs are lowest in Singapore and the United States, accounting for less than 1% of monthly expenses.
  • ICT costs ranged between 40 and 72% in the bottom least developed countries, a clear indication of their unavailability for the general public.

Hackers have already attacked US electric grid

March 28, 2009


GreenerComputing reflects on CIA reports recently released which admits that hackers from around the world have already attacked the US electric grid.

A year ago at the the critical infrastructure SANS SCADA Summit in New Orleans, the CIA said that hackers had already hacked into the networks of power companies overseas. The site SecurityFocus reported:

The cases involved unknown attackers compromising a utilities company’s network and then demanding ransom from the firm. In at least one case, the attack cause a power outage that affected multiple cities, the CIA analyst said.

The attacks were launched via the Internet. Here’s the full statement that the CIA official gave, according to the SANS Institute:

“We have information, from multiple regions outside the United States, of cyber intrusions into utilities, followed by extortion demands. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that some of these attackers had the benefit of inside knowledge. We have information that cyber attacks have been used to disrupt power equipment in several regions outside the United States. In at least one case, the disruption caused a power outage affecting multiple cities. We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet.”


Robotic warfare and humanitarian aid

March 27, 2009


CNET.com interviews P.W. Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”

The interview describes recent developments in the use of robots and autonomous or remote vehicles in conflict environments.  One of the most interesting questions, from a humanitarian standpoint, was this one:

How will robot warfare change our international laws of war? If an autonomous robot mistakenly takes out 20 little girls playing soccer in the street and people are outraged, is the programmer going to get the blame? The manufacturer? The commander who sent in the robot fleet? 

Singer: That’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas that come with this 21st-century technology. It’s also the kind of question that you might have once only asked at Comic-Con and now it’s a very real live question at the Pentagon.

I went around trying to get the answer to this sort of question meeting with people not only in the military but also in the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch. We’re at a loss as to how to answer that question right now. The robotics companies are only thinking in terms of product liability…and international law is simply overwhelmed or basically ignorant of this technology. There’s a great scene in the book where two senior leaders within Human Rights Watch get in an argument in front of me of which laws might be most useful in such a situation.

The quote, “that’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas” could well apply to a range of issues faced by future humanitarian organisations.  And not just aid organisations, but any organisation grappling with the changing dimensions of technology, law, and ethics in a world of ever increasing change.

Of course these kinds of technologies don`t only have to be used for killing.  Imagine autonomous aerial drones equiped with devices to seek out, map and catalogue unexploded land mines and other ordinance.  Such a flying robot could not only map and identify the location of such hidden killers, but then communicate to other friendly robots to come and disarm or detonate them.  Or picture a world where Big Dog-like robots could carry aid and equipment to disaster torn areas that would be too difficult to navigate by truck?  There is then the familiar premise of the old Wim Wenders film, “The End of Violence“.

It all seems rather science fiction perhaps, and would require a shift in the values of production of deployment of such devices.  But then again it wasn’t too long ago when unmanned flying killing machines seemed a little bit science fiction as well.  As usual, these end up being cultural and political choices, not technological ones.

The full interview is here.

Political net attacks on the rise

March 25, 2009


Kevin Siers, North Carolina - Editorial cartoons from the Charlotte Observer

Kevin Siers, North Carolina - Editorial cartoons from the Charlotte Observer

The MIT Technology Review has an excellent interview with a series of Internet security experts, which finds that politically motivated net attacks are sharply on the rise.

When armed conflict flared up between Russia and Georgia last summer, the smaller country also found itself subject to a crippling, coordinated Internet attack. An army of PCs controlled by hackers with strong ties to Russian hacking groups flooded Georgian sites with dummy requests, making it near impossible for them to respond to legitimate traffic. The attacks came fast and furious, at times directing 800 megabits of data per second at a targeted website.

Wikipedia defines a denial-of-service attack (DOS) as ” an attempt to make a computer resource unavailable to its intended users”.  The US Computer Emergency Response Team has an overview here, observing that most DOS attacks involve:

  • unusually slow network performance (opening files or accessing web sites)
  • unavailability of a particular web site
  • inability to access any web site
  • dramatic increase in the amount of spam you receive in your account
  • While this is merely inconvenient for most public websites, such attacks effect every aspect of the internet and can be used to cripple email, file transfers, intranets, and all means of web-based communication.

    Better use of cyber infrastructure, including such net attacks, will be an increasingly common trend in the future.  Imagine if aid agencies themselves become the target of such attacks?  What if the humanitarian expulsion from Darfur also involved sophisticated efforts to cripple aid groups at their core, vis-a-vis target denial of service attacks? 

    UPDATE – Paul Currion, as usual, has a fantastic example of this kind of thing from Sudan, posted mere hours before this one!  Well done Paul and thanks for the link!

    UPDATE 2 – Humanitarian.info provides more examples on how this is already affected aid agencies (“Denial of service = denial of reality”).  It seems our “hypothetical” question about Darfur has actually already happened.  Do any other HFP Blog readers out there know of similar attacks on aid agencies and NGO’s?

    Accelerated swarming; Mumbai is just the beginning

    March 3, 2009

    Military theorist John Arquilla (author of Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy and several other excellent conflict and war studies books) argues in the New York Times that Mumbai style terrorists attacks are likely to become more frequent and more successful in the coming decade.

    “The basic concept”, he writes, “is that hitting several targets at once, even with just a few fighters at each site, can cause fits for elite counterterrorist forces that are often manpower-heavy, far away and organized to deal with only one crisis at a time.”

    Arqilla cites current US counter terrorist strategy that plans for up to three sites being simultaneously hit and using “overwhelming force” against the terrorists, “which probably means mustering as many as 3,000 ground troops to the site.”  He suggests that in an age of force multiplication, networks, and flexible fighting styles, this is the wrong strategy and doesn’t bode well for security in modern megacities.

    Nightmare possibilities include synchronized assaults on several shopping malls, high-rise office buildings or other places that have lots of people and relatively few exits. Another option would be to set loose half a dozen two-man sniper teams in some metropolitan area — you only have to recall the havoc caused by the Washington sniper in 2002 to imagine how huge a panic a slightly larger version of that form of terrorism would cause.

    John Robb over at GlobalGuerillas agrees.  He writes,

    The reason we will see more swarming is due to the pervasive influence of decentralized organizational forms, like open source insurgency, on warfare’s evolution.  Swarming is a characteristic of these loosely connected organizations.

    Robb suggests we’ll be more likely to more sophisticated and ambitious attacks soon, which “ventually attempt complete and sustained urban takedowns”.  Scary thinking, and while Robb argues there is little we can do, Arquilla suggests using similiar tactics will be an effective countermeasure.  These include smaller, more flexible, less centrally controlled response teams with more individual autonomy and less connection to HQ.

    Implications for humanitarianism?  Expect more Mumbai-style actions in your home town soon.  Just as small, flexible, semi-autonmous rapid response teams could be needed for a military response, might the same model work for humanitarian response?

    Recent studies of field collaboration

    January 8, 2009

    A recent article from the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management examined collaborative behaviour in four emergency response organizations.

    Researchers found that “collaboration was practiced to a relatively small degree, and that it primarily took place due to understaffing,” a sentiment echoed amongst HFP stakeholders in our recent Stakeholder’s Forum. The desire and awareness of collaborative need is present amongst many forward looking organizations, yet the reality is often far more challenging.

    As the complexity and interconnectedness of our organizational responsibilities increase, our propensity to collaborate may decrease. How might this tendency be resisted? How might over-stressed humanitarian response workers use technology or other means to collaborate more effectively in high stress situations?

    HFP’s on-going research with the International Council of Voluntary Agencies tackles many of these issues.

    Bruce Sterling (and others) on trends in 2009 (and beyond)

    January 8, 2009

    One of HFP’s favourite future thinkers and design critic Bruce Sterling is hosting a two week long discussion about global change in 2009 that has several relevant threads for HFP stakeholders and collaborators.

    We will be pulling out a few quotes from this rather free form and irreverent conversation as relevant, possibly discussing them here in the future.   In the mean time, please enjoy some of the more interesting excerpts below, organized by relevant themes for humanitarian workers and disaster strategists.

    On rapid change and our ability to forecast them:

    When you can’t imagine how things are going to change, that doesn’t mean that nothing will change. It means that things will change in ways that are unimaginable.

    On specialization and change:

    …systems over-adapted to an artificial stability can’t keep up.

    On ambiguity and change:

    … abstractions and analogies aren’t as helpful when you’re into new territory without a map. And I dn’t think we’re talking about “mere credit collapse” – that’s just one piece of an entire complex unraveling.

    On technology and urbanism:

    Let’s just predict that in 2009 we’re gonna see a whole lot of contemporary urbanism going on. Digital cities. Cities There For You to Use. Software for cities. Googleable cities. Cities with green power campaigns. Location-aware cities. Urban co-ops. “Informal housing.”
    “Architecture fiction.” The ruins of the unsustainable as the new frontier.

    More to come in the future as the conversation unfolds. Track the conversation live here

    Humanitarian web mapping initiatives

    December 24, 2008

    There are some very interesting people doing excellent work bringing GIS, web 2.0, and web mapping tools to the humanitarian community.

    We hope to profile some of them in the new year and make stronger links between HFP and their work. In the mean time, there are two groups in particular worth highlighting, with representative posts below.

    Patrick Philippe Meier is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Fletcher School’s Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. We’ve been following his blog iRevolution for quite a while. He has several excellent posts related to humanitarian and crisis mapping, with a special focus on crowdsourced mapping platforms, digital activism, etc. Some of our favourites are below:

    HumaniNet has an excellent blog presenting lessons from their Maps 2.0 project.  Their goal is to “enable humanitarian organizations to post, access, share, modify, and use critical, geo-referenced information in emergency relief operations, post-emergency reconstruction, and continuing development projects.”  We here at HFP feel that these kinds of efforts are critical to help build skills for 21st century aid response, and HumaniNet is at the cutting edge of implementing these ideas.  Maps 2.0 has some fantastic reports from the field reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.  Some of our favourite posts from Maps 2.0 are below:



    All of this relates very directly to the work of one HFP’s partners over at InSTEDD.  That, however, is a post for another time.


    Futures map for 2009

    December 23, 2008

    Ross Dawson of the Future Exploration Network has published a very interesting trends map for 2009. The map integrates a variety of important issues for humanitarian strategists in a nice visual format.

    First tier issues from different parts of the map include:

    • Urbanisation
    • Too much information
    • Search for social control
    • Debt stress
    • Web 2.0
    • Slowdown in growth
    • Rising protectionism

    It’s fun (and scary) to play mix and match with some of the concepts on here.  Of particular relevance for HFP are the identification of some key global risks with severe humanitarian consequences. These include food shortages, mass migration, critical infrastructure attacks, and an influenza pandemic.

    The question always remains how to best convert this knowledge into actionable strategy. We recommend the joint HFP / Feinstein International Famine Center Tufts University report on Ambiguity and Change: humanitarian NGOs prepare for the future for a discussion of these issues in the humanitarian context. The report concludes that humanitarian strategists of the future will be more local in context (although “local” may refer more to trans-spatial affinity groups in addition to geographic scale), more connected and technologically leveraged, and far more savvy with data analysis, forecasting, mapping, and communication tools.

    From the HFP / Tufts report:

    Coordination will be less determined by conventional institutional structures than upon information protocols that may form coordination through ad hoc networks of information and subsequent agreement on actions. Those in emergency response will most likely be less inclined to work through the repertoires and standard operating procedures of conventional organizations and more inclined to utilize ad hoc associations and shifting networks. They will feel comfortable with sophisticated technologies and adept at training others – including “locals.”

    All of this points to the kind of flexible, dynamic, hyper-connected organizational model found in other sectors. How current organisations can adapt to this model is a question still to be answered, as is how such organizations will far in light of some of the trends suggested in the map below.

    Click here or on the image below for a PDF of the map.

    Complexity, collaboration, swarming, and the new politics of war

    December 23, 2008

    Inspired thinking on how 21st century guerilla groups are embracing principles of complexity, decentralization and collaboration to wage a new kind of warfare, with implications for humanitarian response strategy.

    John Robb, author of Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, provides some insightful insights into the dynamics of complexity and new collaboration techniques that are relevant to the humanitarian community.

    In a recent post on emergent communities dedicated to war, he outlines how highly networked terrorist groups are taking advantage of complexity principles to achieve their aims. He notes that such groups are:

  • have little formal structure (are a nest of relationships)
  • have flexible membership (participants flow in and out based on their own personal goals and motivations)
  • are formed in relation to a shared, central purpose or belief.
  • What are the implications of this organisational style for humanitarian collaboration? There are obvious and important differences between networked terrorist organisations and humanitarian organisations, not lease of which is their purpose. Despite these differences, however, an understanding of the tactics, strengths, and weaknesses of this approach is desirable in order to more effectively operate in a sphere where such groups exist and wield power.

    Robb argues, for example, that these groups and their tactics are particularly effective against large, cumbersome systems such as centralised bureaucracies because they understand system dynamics and are able to leverage small actions against their weak points to great effect. 9/11, Mumbai, etc. are relevant examples. While it is unlikely that humanitarian agencies will adopt the organisational style of such groups, knowledge of how they think and operate may be essential to adapt and respond to their actions in the future. His post on on cascading systems failure, for example, identifies strategies and mechanisms for attacking critical infrastructure that any agency responsible for their protection must be aware of. Browse his site in more detail for an engaging read on the future of decentralised, networked collaboration.