Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bad Malaria Drugs

Oh, oh. The National Institutes of Health just released a study that found 20 to 42% of all malaria drugs in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are of poor quality or are fake. Here's the press release. This obviously has large potential implications for staff safety in areas where malaria is prevalent.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Maki Map Symbols

Maps are frequently used in humanitarian safety and security. And if you're ever required to make a map, it should quickly and clearly convey information. One of the challenges is selecting an appropriate symbol to represent some physical location. All too often maps have arcane symbols that end up confusing the user. When you mistake a bus station symbol for a train station it can be annoying. But when a hospital symbol (at least you thought it was) leads you to a coffee shop, that could be a serious problem. Fortunately, governments and organizations such as American Institute of Graphics Arts (AIGA) have come up with standardized sets of symbols.

The AIGA symbols are good, but as a self-professed map-geek, I'm always on the look out for new map symbols that in some cases may work better across cultures. I recently came upon a growing collection of symbols named Maki that show promise. They're cleanly designed and most of them work pretty well. Here's an interview with one of the Maki designers to learn more about how they were developed.

If the Maki and AIGA symbols don't meet your needs, then head over to the excellent Noun Project site for even more free, downloadable symbols. And remember, if you're going to make a map that uses symbols, be nice to your users and include a key; that's map-speak for a list of the symbols with brief text descriptions next to them.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Predicting Conflict

A recent issue of The Economist features an intriguing article titled, The Science of Civil War: What makes heroic strife. It talks about how computer models are being developed that can predict the outbreak and spread of civil conflict. It's a fascinating read with some obvious implications for humanitarian security practitioners. (There's a lively discussion on whether this type of technology is really even viable at the always interesting Small Wars Journal.)

Unfortunately, no links to additional information sources were included with the article; typical for print pieces being leveraged to online. Oh well. If you want to learn more about the programs discussed, here are your clickies:

Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine (SCARE) and at West Point


Aptima (E-MEME)

Worldwide Integrated Crisis Early Warning System

Open Source Indicators

Temporal-Probabilistic Rule System


Monday, May 14, 2012

Extroverts, Introverts, and Risk

I just finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. From the title you might think it’s a self-help book targeted toward introverts; one of those I’m OK, You’re OK, pop-psychology guides to feeling better about yourself. That’s far from the case. The book is a fascinating look into the world of introverts (and extroverts). It’s very well written and Cain backs up her observations and opinions with lots of academic research that's been conducted on outgoing and inward people.

While not a safety and security-specific title, there are a number of take-home messages in the book that are relevant for humanitarian security practitioners. Some points I keyed in on include:

  • Extroverts tend to be greater risk takers than introverts
  • Greater risks are taken by a group of risk takers compared to a single risk taker
  • Group decision making can be improved by having a balanced mix of extroverts and introverts (think Crisis Management Teams)
  • Whether an extrovert or introvert is highly regarded is generally a cultural norm (e.g. the US and Europe tend to value extroverts, while introverts have higher status in Asia)
  • According to Free Trait Theory, personality traits that are hardwired (such as extroversion and introversion) can be overcome - if you care enough about something

There’s a lot of information in the book to take in and reflect upon. It gives introverts valuable context on their personalities, but it also provides extroverts with a better sense of how the other half lives (introverts account for anywhere from one third to one half of the population). Managers will especially find the book worthwhile as it provides insights into a topic that is rarely discussed in organizational dynamics references. There are even a couple of chapters devoted to parents of introvert children.

It’s a given that cultural awareness is one of the cornerstones of good humanitarian safety and security practices. An equal amount of, if not more, attention should also be paid to understanding human behavior. Books such as Quiet are must reads for security professionals interested in taking their practice to the next level.


Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Cars That Blend In

When it comes to cars and trucks used for international humanitarian and development work, I'm a big fan of vehicles that won't stand out in a crowd. That means cars and trucks that don't prompt even a second glance because they're so common. If you're adopting a low-profile security approach, a good way to get an initial sense of what's ordinary is to pay a visit to the Best Selling Car Blog. This fascinating site does just what its name suggests; providing a wealth of data on the most popular vehicles in over 160 countries and territories. If you want to blend in in Bolivia, be common in Cameroon, or mostly mundane in Mali, be sure to check it out.

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Monday, May 07, 2012

Warren Weinstein Abduction Video Released

Following the murder of Khalil Dale, a video of abducted development worker Warren Weinstein was released on Sunday. Weinstein, who was kidnapped in Pakistan last August, was the country director for development firm J.E. Austin. He had been based in Lahore for seven years.

In December, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri announced his group was holding Weinstein. At the time, Zawahiri's demands for Weinstein's release included an end to U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and the release of all Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.

The latest video was widely distributed on jihadist Internet forums. In it, Weinstein says if demands are not met, he will be killed. Weinstein is 70 years old and a U.S. citizen.

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Friday, May 04, 2012

Khalil Dale Follow-up

Several days ago I posted about abductions in Pakistan and the murder of Khalil Dale. Since then I’ve received several emails from readers asking me to elaborate on some my comments.

To begin with, I can’t speak to the ICRC’s efforts to secure Mr. Dale’s release. I wasn’t involved and don’t have access to the details. I do know that ICRC is very professional when it comes to safety and security. And my heart goes out to those involved in the negotiations. It’s devastating when someone loses their life despite your best efforts and intentions. Second-guessing decisions made at the time can haunt you for a very long while.

Abductions are a delicate subject within the humanitarian community. The main reasons you don’t hear too many details about kidnappings (those covered by the media or not) are because of an organization's desire to:
  • Comply with K&R insurance policy terms
  • Protect organizational reputation
  • Decrease legal exposure (especially, if good security standards weren’t in place)
  • Discourage copy-cat abductions
  • Prevent sensitive security measures and responses from being revealed
These are all obviously very good reasons. However, not sharing information about abductions also greatly increases risk. I’m aware of organizations that don’t share post-incident lessons learned, even with internal staff. I know of organizations that won’t disclose to other humanitarian groups working in the same area that an abduction has occurred, thus increasing the chances another NGO may be targeted next. And I can count more than one organization that sends mixed messages by not adhering to publicly stated abduction policies. In my opinion it's a mess and a big vulnerability because abductions aren’t discussed more openly (with the occasional exception of NGO security practitioners talking among themselves, and then only with others they know well and trust).

While it’s human nature to want to know the inside story behind an incident, whether out of idle curiosity or as an attempt to find meaning, there are ways to have a dialog without getting into specifics that could cause further harm. The aviation, law enforcement, and military communities all recognize the importance of sharing information on sensitive topics and do so successfully; often scrubbing out compromising details, but leaving the key lessons intact. I’ve long believed the humanitarian community could benefit from doing the same with abductions and other types of safety and security incidents.

In regards to Pakistan specifically, here’s my take on what appears to be happening. In various restive provinces, at least one group, perhaps more, is staging abductions with the primary goal of forcing international humanitarian organizations to suspend operations. This may be stated explicitly as a demand or not, but the point is other demands are secondary. If the secondary demands are met, they provide economic benefit to the abductors (the demands are typically greater than what organizations have experienced in the past and there’s an increased chance the organization may cease operations following the experience). If the secondary demands aren’t met, the abductors are very willing to carry out violence because it supports their primary goal (whether this is what happened in the case of Mr. Dale is a matter of speculation). These abductions have been well planned and carried out with a military or intelligence agency level of precision.

In social planning, this kind of situation is known as a wicked problem. It is very complex and there are no quick and easy solutions. It’s worsened by a lack of sharing information and collaboration among NGOs. I know for a fact there are humanitarian organizations working in Pakistan that are unaware of these types of abductions. When faced with a kidnapping they will approach negotiations with the belief the problem can ultimately be resolved by coming to some reasonable agreement over demands. Professional negotiators who are engaged by insurance companies may believe the same (I'm aware of several instances where negotiators with a considerable amount of experience handling kidnappings in Latin America were brought in to deal with Pakistan abductions, and were at a significant disadvantage because they didn’t understand local culture, context and how NGOs work).

While thankfully not all abductions in Pakistan (and potentially elsewhere) are going to be wicked problems, it is worthwhile to know they are occurring and could be something your organization may face one day.

Please forgive me for speaking in generalities. This is a sensitive and difficult subject, one that weighs heavily on me and other humanitarian security practitioners. My words are meant to raise awareness, encourage thought, and hopefully lead to greater formal or informal exchange of information between organizations.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Turning security documents into ebooks

If iPads and iPhones are popular in your organization, you might want to consider distributing organizational security documents in a format that's iOS compatible (policies and procedures, security manuals, and checklists are all good candidates).

While Apple tablets and smart phones can display PDF files, the format isn't very usable on smaller screens. Text doesn't flow correctly due to the device's screen size and the constant scrolling and zooming in and out really detracts from reading.

Instead of PDFs you should be thinking ebook files. Apple and Android tablets and phones have ebook readers (either built-in or freely downloadable) that are designed to make reading and searching certain file types a snap. The most widely used ebook file format is called ePub. And converting Word documents into ePub (and other ebook formats) is surprisingly simple.

The tool of choice is a free (donations appreciated) program called Calibre. Calibre is designed to manage your collection of ebooks but it can also convert ebooks from one format to another; for example you can take an Apple compatible ePub file and convert it to an Amazon Kindle readable Mobi format file. Turning security documents created with Word into ePub files is pretty easy. Here are the basic steps:
  1. Save the Word document as RTF
  2. Run Calibre and add the file to your ebook library
  3. Select the RTF document and convert to ePub
Calibre will crunch away and convert the file, retaining the formatting. When it's finished, the file is ready to distribute as an ebook, and be happily read by staff members on a tablet or phone.

Calibre has been around since 2006 and is widely used and well documented. There are versions for Windows, OS X, and Linux operating systems. It's the defacto tool for ebook geeks, but you don't need to be a techie to successfully use it.

The other tool I have at the ready when creating ebook security documents is called Sigil. It's a free ePub editor. At times Calibre isn't perfect, and the formatting of a converted file can get messed up a bit. In those cases I'll open the file up in Sigil, pretty things up (it's just like using a word processor), then save the changes. Sigil isn't quite as mature as Calibre in terms of usability and reliability (it's still a work in progress), but it's still very useful and usable.

Note: If you're an open-source fan and use OpenOffice or LibreOffice there also are extensions available that allow you to create ePub files from within the word processor (such as Writer2ePub). I haven't had any experience with these add-ons, but they may be worth checking out.