A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

The Common Sense Myth

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard some variation of this statement; “Security is just common sense.” I’ve seen NGOs use this belief to justify not dedicating resources to security. “We don’t need a security officer… we have experienced staff with good common sense.” Worse, I’ve seen people use it to justify breaking security procedures. “Its all just stupid rules… my common sense will keep me out of trouble.”

There is only one problem. Common sense is NOT good for security! Common sense is based on a whole series of faulty assumptions, biases and quirks.

Assumption of Common Knowledge

The first assumption is sometimes referred to as “Assumption of Common Knowledge”. In other words you know something so well that you think everyone must know it too. It just seems so obvious to you that it must be common sense.

The faulty logic of Assumption of Common Knowledge is revealed when common sense is cited in instructions. Reliance upon the term common sense when giving instructions pre-supposes that the instructed already has a grasp on the subject, and therefore needs no specific detail.

Some examples from security advice I have read:

“When working in high-risk areas use your common sense.”
“When travelling in a foreign country use common sense to avoid offending people.”
“If you are involved in a motor vehicle accident and an unruly crowd begins to form use common sense.”
“Use common sense during first aid emergencies.”

Do these statements make sense to you? Consider that in most security manuals, immediately after the “use common sense” statement, you’ll find a checklist of things that you should and shouldn’t do when in such a situation. If it is truly common sense why is the checklist needed?

Not convinced? Try these:

“When deciding whether or not to bilaterally transect the artery use common sense.”
“When connecting new wiring to the building mains use common sense.”
“If you are alone when you go into labour use your common sense.”
“When conducting sensitive hostage negotiations use common sense.”

Do you feel a sudden need for more detailed instructions? If saying, "use common sense" worked security procedures wouldn’t be nearly so wordy.

Cultural Norms

Every culture and subculture has norms which members are immersed in and unable to distinguish from common sense. Anyone with experience working in other cultures has had the experience of running up against cultural practices that seemingly lack any semblance of common sense. Eventually of course you realise that members of other cultures may also view your own cultural norms as similarly nonsensical. The physical reality of the world remains the same wherever you travel but the ‘common sense’ rules people use to navigate it change.


“Saudi flag on football = good PR” vs “Saudi flag on football = insult to Allah”
"When negotiating “be open and honest” vs “allow participants to save face”
“Using weapons to protect NGO personnel and property decreases security by sanctioning violence” vs “Weapons are necessary for protection. Its just common sense!”

By the way, the last statement was expressed to me by national staff members of a large INGO. While they were willing to accept that the ‘soft’ international program staff might not see the necessity for self-defence weapons they really could not believe that a security officer couldn’t see the common sense in it.


In effect it sounds like it makes sense. Clichés often fall into this category. “Opposites attract” - common sense right? “Birds of a feather flock together” – common sense too!

Clever arguments, well stated, can be persuasive even if built on a foundation of bias lacking evidence. Take for example the politician who exclaims, “What we need is a common sense solution to the conflict” leaving the majority nodding their heads sagely while overlooking the fact that the opposition never actually supported a solution devoid of common sense.

“Mosquitoes can spread AIDS.” By now most of us should know that that just isn’t true. Surprisingly many people still believe it. To them it just sounds plausible. “AIDS is spread by body fluid to body fluid contact… mosquitoes transfer body fluid… mosquitoes spread AIDS.” It’s just common sense, right?

Cognitive Biases

There are a large number of cognitive biases that cloud our thinking and skew our common sense. Covering them all is beyond the scope of this article but consider these:

Optimism bias the tendency to be overly optimistic about the outcome of intended actions
Recency effect — the tendency to consider recent events as having more import than earlier events
Zero-risk bias — the preference for reducing a small risk to zero over a larger reduction in a greater risk

Pre-Pubertal Learning

Ideas learned before puberty are difficult to unseat and are generally believed by the holder to be common sense. Thought processes change during puberty allowing most of us to more readily consider inconsistencies, question assumptions, and assess the grey areas of life. However, what we have learned prior to puberty generally remains unchallenged.

Most children accept "morality of authority" in which truth is what a credible authority figure has stated is truth. In effect parents, primary school teachers, and religious instructors all shape our ‘common sense’. Later in life it is difficult for us to unlearn these truths. How many of us still believe that sound travels better through liquids than through air or that Ben Franklin's kite was struck by lightning? How much harder is it to change our perceptions of risk?

Analysis 101: Geographic Distribution Analysis 2

As Paul pointed out it would be beneficial to compare our office location (the blue square) with the IED incidents. We’ve also added military installations (the green squares) and the primary military convoy routes (marked in orange dashes) as these are likely targets.

Geographic Distribution Example Map 2

A search for more information reveals the following:

You have two small low-key programs operating in town.
The bulk of programming takes place in other areas of the country but staff travelling to the field offices are forced to take one of the major roads.
The main road to the east is the only viable route to access offices in the east.
Local staff travel back and forth to work by public transport or personal vehicles using all the main roads.
International staff travel to and from work in agency vehicles.
The first military convoys of the day are usually between 0600 and 0900.

Analysis 101: Geographic Distribution Analysis

Geographic distribution analysis is a method of examining the occurrence of security incidents or the distribution of entities over a particular geographic area to determine what can be concluded about the incidents or entities. The analysis is usually performed on a map but the final results can also be expressed in a descriptive manner, as in a written report.

To complete a distribution analysis, data on the locations of violent incidents, entities of interest, etc. should be collected and plotted on a map that covers the area in question. Next the map is reviewed to produce a summary and to draw conclusions about what it might mean.

At its simplest geographic distribution analysis might only represent one dataset e.g. a plot of violent incidents on a city map. While this can be useful in itself, as a weekly briefing update perhaps, we can delve much deeper by synthesizing two or more datasets on the same map. We could compare a plot of violent incidents and criminal activities against a plot of proposed office and residence locations. As another example we could compare the locations of narcotic growing areas and smuggling routes with an overlay of violent incidents targeting NGOs.

To illustrate lets look back at our previous problem. As you’ll recall we did a time series analysis of a series of IED attacks. Although we were able to make some basic and tentative conclusions we knew we needed to do further analysis and geographic distribution is a good next step.

After plotting the IED incidents you come up with a map that looks like this.

Geographic Distribution Example Map

What are your conclusions now? Would you change or amplify your advice?

Analysis 101: Time Series Analysis Answers

Earlier in Analysis 101: Time Series Analysis I introduced an analytical problem and asked a few questions. You can find some possible answers here. CtJ also has some hypotheses that might serve as a good starting point for further analysis.

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.

‘Lanka a top danger spot for aid workers’

According to this Reuters piece …

Sri Lanka is among the most dangerous places on earth for humanitarian workers, the UN’s aid chief says, calling on the government to probe civil war abuses and consider an international rights monitoring mission. Aid agencies say 34 humanitarian staff have been killed in Sri Lanka since January 2006, including 17 local staff of Action Contre La Faim shot dead in the restive northeast a year ago in a massacre Nordic truce monitors blamed on security forces. “There is a concern ... about the safety of humanitarian workers themselves and the record here is one of the worst in the world from that point of view,” John Holmes, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday during a visit to Sri Lanka.

Read more…

This is not news to most of us who work here but it is a reminder just how bad the situation has become. Sri Lanka can be a very deceptive place. It is important that we not let the sunshine, beauty, and beaches blind us to the risk that NGO staff, especially national staff, face in what is in essence a civil war. I worry that we have begun to accept these deaths as the price of doing business here.

Analysis 101: Times Series Tools

Old School

To do basic time series analysis all you really need is graph paper and a pen or pencil. The down side is that this method is very labour intensive and as the dataset becomes larger most of us can’t cope.

Middle of the Road

The next step up is to use something like Excel. There are some useful free or low cost tools that can simplify time series analysis. In a previous post we saw how to use Excel to do some simple analysis. The sample templates we used are located here.

I’ve developed a Cumulative Security Incident workbook that I use to track longer-term trends. It is available on the downloads page. It’ll produce charts like this one.

casualties by month

Vertex 42 has a free Excel template that can help you create simple timelines. While it might seem to be better suited to presenting a final analytical product it can also be used in the analytical process. Back in the days of the First Gulf War I used a timeline similar to this in an effort to gain a better understanding of Saddam Hussain.. Above the line I plotted significant events in Saddam Hussain’s personal life. Below the line I plotted significant historical impacting Iraq. The exercise proved very revealing and shed light on the man behind the myth.


Some people use Gantt Chart software to do time series analysis but I find it awkward and time consuming.

Bleeding edge

If you are going to do a lot of time series analysis or if you need to analyse large quantities of data you should probably consider a product like Analyst’s Notebook by i2. It can handle a time series of several thousand incidents with relative ease. It is also beneficial in many other types of analysis so you’ll probably here me refer to it again. Be warned though, it is expensive.

Analyst's Notebook

Analysis 101: Time Series Analysis

A time series analysis is a security analysis technique that is used to examine the occurrence of similar security incidents over time. In this case time refers not only to time of day but also day of the week and the day of the month. Longer-term analysis can also include month and season.

By way of example let us imagine that during the past month there have been twelve Improvised Explosive Device attacks in the district where your organization is working. The attacks have occurred at ten separate locations. Victims have included soldiers, police officers, and civilians alike. The only apparent pattern seems to be that the attacks have all taken place on or near main roads. To make matters worse your country director wants to be briefed in four hours.

To aid your analysis we will make a quick Excel chart with the time of day on one axis and the incidents on the other. For each incident we put an X the the row that represents the time of day that the IED attack occurred. The chart should look something like this one.

time series TOD

Examining the chart we see that most of the incidents have occurred between 0600 and 0900. Of these half occurred between 0800 and 0900. We'll highlight these incidents in blue to remind us that they seem to be part of a grouping. There are also four incidents that don't fit the general pattern. We've marked these in red.

With the information you have now what assessment can be made? What would you advise the country director?

Lets take it one step further and make a new chart that plots the incidents against the day of the week.

time series DOW

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern here but on closer examination you'll notice that all of the ‘red’ events that were highlighted earlier fall on a Friday except for one that occurred early on Saturday morning. The remaining events all occurred on weekdays (Friday and Saturday are considered the weekend where you are working).

What does this new information suggest to you? What can you tell the country director? What recommendations can you make? What additional information do you need to seek out? What additional analysis can you do?

The Analysis Gap

There is a real gap in the availability of good analytical training and resources for NGO security officers. Most NGO security manuals introduce the topic by stressing the importance of good analysis and an understanding of the local context. They might then go on to briefly cover actor mapping, and if we are lucky incident plotting. Beyond that the reader is left to his or her own devices.

Admittedly there have been a number of recent analytical studies that examine the patterns of violence against NGOs. These studies come replete with multiple regression analysis and complex equations like this one; "Sec100k = -1.384 + 1.691*BorderPak + -0.00011*Poppy + 0.036*Homeradio". I’m sure these studies are useful for developing policy and keeping underemployed academics out of the soup lines. However, they are unlikely to provide much solace when the country director wants to know how he can safely keep program running despite the recent spate of IED attacks.

In order to try and address these shortcomings I am opening the conversation on security analysis for NGOs. We’ll start with simple, robust, and inexpensive tools and techniques that can be used anywhere under any conditions. We’ll also examine more advanced tools that take advantage of the latest in ICT.

Anyone who wants to share tips and techniques should feel free to do so. It doesn’t matter to me whether you do your analysis on the back of an empty cigarette package under a sputtering lantern or on the latest networked GIS platform in a brightly light office. The goal is to identify and share best practices and to encourage the development of new tools and techniques.

I'll post the first technique shortly.

Sri Lanka's Dirty War

Groundviews, a Sri Lankan citizen journalism initiative, is a good place to find alternative views on the conflict in Sri Lanka. Recently they posted a quick piece titled Sri Lanka's Dirty War. It includes links to an HRW report and a 13 minute video produced by Journeyman Pictures on abductions and human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Check them out, both for the story and for an idea of what citizen journalism in a conflict zone can be.

Data Visualization

Smashing Magazine has an excellent summary of current innovative data visualization techniques that’ll leave your PowerPoint presentations crying in the corner. There are plenty of ideas and links to get the analytical juices flowing. I’ve run across several of the resources before and for me two stand out.

The first is Dr Hans Rosling’s now legendary talk at TED wherein he explains a new approach to presenting complex statistical data. His Trendalyzer software turns decades of complex data into colourful animations that make world trends come to life. He takes mountains of publicly funded information, normally squirreled away in UN data silos, and turns it into knowledge that can be acted upon. Watch the whole video and see if it doesn’t change some of what you think you know.

The second is newsmap. This enlightening application displays the dynamic content of Google News as blocks. The more websites and news services that carry a headline the larger the block becomes. As the creator points out newsmap displays the underlying patterns in the news media, reflecting and highlighting it bias. How is this useful? Well consider this. The headlines that make it onto the newsmap display are the ones that are bombarding the senior decision makers, donors, and general public. Where does your particular issue fit in? Has it made the headlines?



Worldmapper.org has a collection of world maps where territories have been morphed according to the subject of interest. Many of the maps deal with threats and relative risk. They are a handy means of communicating complex data to a lay audience and can be quit revealing especially when you compare one theme to another.

landmine deaths
Proportional Landmine Deaths

NGO Security Blog

Nick seems to be posting again on the NGO Security blog. This is good news! Welcome back Nick.

Other Stuff

Subscribe to Patronus in a feedreader
Subscribe to Patronus Analytical RSS Feed by Email

Low on bandwidth? Try this low graphics version

Lijit Search

Bloggers' Rights at EFF Global Voices: The World is Talking, Are You Listening?

Support CC - 2007

Creative Commons License
This work by Kevin Toomer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.
Jun 2008
May 2008
Apr 2008
Mar 2008
Feb 2008
Jan 2008
Dec 2007
Nov 2007
Oct 2007
Sep 2007
Aug 2007
Jul 2007