Sunday, December 27, 2009

Electronic maps

Good maps are an indispensable part of effective humanitarian safety and security efforts. Knowing where you are and how to get from point A to point B is essential for day-to-day operations as well as emergencies. You probably already know about Google Earth and its Web-based cousin, Google Maps, which both provide free and detailed satellite imagery for many parts of the world (with coverage expanding monthly). But you may not know about the Open Street Map (OSM) project. The goal of this community effort is to offer a free, public database (and map) of all the world's roads and streets. Volunteers enter map data for areas which then becomes part of the OSM data set. You can access the maps online or print them out. Keep in mind OSM isn't just for developed countries; there is a growing amount of map data for places humanitarian organization staff often find themselves.

Besides the obvious benefits of OSM, I want to mention two benefits that may be useful for technologically savvy security practitioners.

First, it's possible to use OSM map data to create maps you can upload to Garmin GPS receivers. Check out this link for a list of maps that have already been converted as well as instructions for making your own maps.

Second, there is an affiliated project called Walking Papers. This Web site started out as quick and easy way to create printed maps that use OSM data. It's recently expanded its functionality and offers a simple way for people to add updated information to the OSM database. It works like this. You print a map then hand draw in detailed features. Once you've finished your enhanced map, scan the map, save it as a JPG file and upload it to the Walking Papers site. Your scanned map appears and you can use a simple, drag-and-drop editor to add roads and points of interest that will become part of the OSM database; which everyone will have access to. It's slick, and recently I've seen UNHCR-related data starting to appear on Africa maps thanks to Walking Papers.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Some thoughts (and resources) on abductions

Many humanitarian organizations rarely plan for staff member abductions (if you want to sound security savvy, call it K&R, for kidnap and ransom). While some large humanitarian organizations use security companies (Control Risks Group is popular) for handling abduction incidents and negotiations most NGOs don't have the budget to put a firm on retainer or the knowledge and/or training to handle an abduction by themselves.

It's a no-brainer that any NGO doing international work should include discussion of abductions in their policies and procedures. Staff abductions are very complex, emotionally charged, and potentially life threatening events. It pays to be responsive and have well thought out plans in place instead of being forced to improvise on the spot.

Unfortunately, classes for handling abduction incidents are few and far between and there's not a very large body of references on subject. So what's a humanitarian security practitioner or senior manager that wants to be better prepared to do? Here is a brief reading list on the subject with a few thoughts.

One of the few books devoted to dealing with abductions (not including victim autobiographies, which can also provide useful insights) is Kidnap for Ransom: Resolving the Unthinkable by Richard Wright. The book is an excellent introduction to all topics relating to kidnapping and includes a number of case studies as well guidelines and checklists. The price may be a bit steep for adding a copy to your personal reference collection ($79.95 for a 230-some odd page volume), but don't let that stop you since the book is available through most inter-library loan systems.

When it comes to crisis negotiations, Christopher Voss is one of the most experienced negotiators in the business. Voss was the FBI's lead international kidnapping negotiator and dealt with a number of high profile cases (since retiring, Voss started a negotiation consultancy called the Black Swan Group - a reference to Nicholas Nassim Taleb's popular book on unpredictable events titled The Black Swan). Voss' negotiation strategy was greatly influenced by Jim Camp's business negotiation book, Start With No. Voss argues that kidnapping and hostage taking are business-oriented in nature and that business negotiation concepts and techniques can be successfully used during abduction incidents.

Aside from Camp's book, another good source of information is just about any class, book or paper that has come from Harvard's Program on Negotiation; or its affiliated instructors. This well regarded program delivers some of the best and brightest thinking on negotiations of all types - including important work on inter-cultural dealings, a critical component for successful resolution of an overseas abduction.

It's been my experience that even following successful abduction resolutions, many NGOs like to pretend the incident never happened. Policies and procedures may never be fully reviewed or if they are, the information never filters down to the field. While I understand the negative PR aspects of full transparency and the potential for encouraging future abductions if details of a ransom are disclosed, it's seems rare that an incident is used as a teachable moment for an organization. In most cases a clear lack of situational awareness and/or disregarding security policies led to the abduction. Case studies and real-world "lessons learned" capture people's attention and get them to think. Don't neglect making some good out of an abduction by seeing if you can use it to prevent similar events from happening in the future.