A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

Communications

Sending GPS Coordinates from your Thuraya to Twitter

Aid Worker Daily has instructions for sending GPS co-ordinates from your Thuraya satellite phone to Twitter via an SMS message. This might come in handy if you get into trouble and need help like James Karl Buck.

Gadget Roundup

NGO security is really about people... but a few gadgets can't hurt either.

MOGO Wireless Signal Booster

We've all worked in areas where mobile phone coverage is spotty at best. MOGO Wireless has a wireless signal booster for mobile phones that claims to reduce dropped calls and boost signal strength. There is a home version that plugs into the USB port of your laptop and also a mobile version that plugs into the power port in your car. The only down side is it seems they only do 800/1900MHz so globe trotting aid workers might want to wait until other antennas are available.


ATP GPS Photo Finder

I've been experimenting with geotagging lately. Its very useful for keeping track of where you took your facility security, post-incident , and other photos. Most systems are still a little kludgey but a friend pointed me to the GPS Photo Finder. Simply carry it around while you take your pictures. Later, put your camera's memory card into the GPS Photo Finder and all the location data is merged with the digital photos. Your photos can then be used GPS compatible photo software or sites such as Google Maps and Flickr.


Solio Universal Solar Battery Charger

Better Energy Systems has introduced a couple of new models of their universal solar battery charger known as the Solio. I've used the original model for a couple of years. It comes in really handy for keeping your mobile phone and gadgets charged when you are working in areas without reliable electricity. All of the models are small enough to fit into your field bag. It only takes about four hours of tropical sun to charge fully... longer at more temperate latitudes.

The only thing I don't like about the Solio is having to carry all the little adaptors needed to support my various phones, iPods and other gadgets. Of course that's really not Solio's problem. I pray for the day when gadgets come with standardized ports.

Twitter Tracking for NGO Security

Two months ago Twitter added the ability to track keywords. Essentially this capability means that whenever someone sends a public update containing the word or phrase you’ve told Twitter to track you’ll receive a copy of the SMS.

Since its introduction I’ve been examining this feature’s potential utility for NGO security officers. I’ve tracked the names of several towns in trouble areas, the term Tsunami, and a variety of other keywords. The effort produced some positive results.

While most of the results were tweets sent by news services there were some other useful messages. On two occasions the messages containing tracked terms tipped me off hours before the issue made the media. On another occasion the issue never even made it to the mainstream media. In each case we were able to take pre-emptive action to reduce our potential risk.

There are caveats however. You get ALL public updates containing the search term, even ones in languages you don’t speak. It’s also surprising how terms are used sometimes. ‘Information Tsunami’ seems to be making its way into the modern lexicon. Apparently Tsunami is also the name of a very popular Sushi restaurant. It must be on the other side of the world from me because people’s lunchtime “enjoying Sushi at Tsunami” messages would arrive in the middle of the night. Needless to say I’m not tracking Tsunami any more.

BGAN Explorer 500 - Final Thoughts and Lessons Learned

Earlier I wrote about the new BGAN Explorer 500 we were fielding. Well I’m back from the field and the unit is set up and running so I thought I’d share a few lessons learned and give my revised impressions of the unit.

Lessons Learned

  • Ensure you completely set up your account before you go to the field. Some service providers (like ours) want you to log in to their website to activate your account before they’ll allow the BGAN to make a data or voice connection. This is going to be difficult if you are already in the field and have no other reliable connection. I learned that the hard way.

  • Make sure the IT section either removes all proxy settings on the computer you’ll attach to the BGAN or that they give you administrator privileges.

  • Take lots of extra cable. Ten-meter lengths of CAT 5 and telephone cable, plus a similarly sized outdoor power cable should suffice. This might seem like a lot but if you need to use it from inside a bunker you’ll be glad of the extra length.

  • Take backup cables. You never know whose dog will decide to chew through them.

  • It’s also a good idea to have a compass. There is one built in to the unit but it is rather fiddly and, depending on the angle you need to adjust the BGAN to, it can be difficult to read.

Impressions

Software:

Both the OS X and Windows versions of the connection software, called LaunchPad, are easy to install and intuitive to use. Tip: Ignore the installation guide and just follow the installer defaults. The documentation doesn’t seem to be current and you’ll end up with files scattered everywhere.

You can also access the BGAN via your regular browser. It gives you the functionality of LaunchPad plus allows you to make more advanced settings. Be warned though, most users it will find it to be a little more intimidating.

Hardware:

The Explorer 500 itself is pretty much ‘bomb proof’. It held up well to baking sun, monsoon rains, bouncing around the back of the truck, the attentions of a flock of hungry chickens, and a curious mutt named Max.

Overall: I’d recommend the Explorer 500 to anyone looking for a rugged, easily deployed voice and data system.

Pros:

Rugged
Portable
Easy to set up

Cons:

Lengthy and confusing documentation
Most NGOs will find it somewhat expensive

Smart Clothes for Disaster Relief

Disaster relief workers may soon benefit from a new 'smart' suit being developed by I-Garment. The suit is intended to help remedy safety and communications problems faced by fire fighters but I can see its utility for humanitarian disaster response as well.

project_objective_image_2_404

The suit is intended to address three familiar problems;

1. the unavailability of standard communications means during disasters,
2. the lack of information as to the whereabouts and safety of relief workers during emergency efforts, and
3. the problem of acquiring and distributing timely geospatial data during an emergency.

Features_hi-res

If one were to combine the suit with CSIRO’s proposed power generating shirts it could even be self powered.

BGAN Explorer 500 Unboxing

The BGAN Explorer 500 is tiny! That is the first thing that struck me when I unpacked it. In fact it is only about half the size of my MacBook Pro. At 21cm by 21 cm and weighing in at 1.3kg it is truly portable.

For those who might not be aware BGAN stands for Broadband Global Area Network. Essentially it allows Internet and telephone connections via an INMARSAT satellite. The portability of this type of equipment makes it popular amongst journalists, disaster response worker, soldiers, and others working in remote areas or areas where the communications infrastructure has been destroyed.

BGAN Explorer 500


The Explorer 500 package I received included the following:

  • EXPLORER 500 BGAN terminal
    • Battery
    • AC/DC power cable
    • Vehicle accessory power adaptor cable
    • Bluetooth handset
    • Handset charging cable
    • CAT-5 LAN cable
    • USB cable
    • CD-ROMs with software and manual
    • “Quick Guide” and “Getting Started” pamphlets

You can connect your laptop to the terminal via USB, Ethernet, or Bluetooth. There are two power jacks, one to charge the terminal itself and one to charge the Bluetooth handset. You can also plug in a regular landline telephone if need be.

My one small quibble with the hardware is with the power cable for charging the USB handset. The terminal end seems quite delicate. I foresee it becoming easily clogged with dust or simply broken off with repeated use.

Software Setup

BGAN LaunchPad software for PCs (Windows XP) is included with the system. Despite the fact that some of the documentation suggests that it is PC only I was able to find a Mac OS X version (and an update) on a hand labelled CD. The documentation also suggests that the system is LINUX compatible but I have no way of testing this so we’ll just have to take their word for it.

Installing the OS X software was a little fiddly. The installer is very Windows like and installed bits and pieces all over the place. Unfortunately where the installer said it was going to install things was not where they were actually installed. When I ran the updater it generated an error that required me to find and open the install log. Come on! If I wanted to do that kind of stuff I’d buy a PC! Luckily the LaunchPad software seems to work fine despite the reported error.

I tried to test the system earlier today without success. Unfortunately the area around my office is cluttered with buildings and trees,not to mention nervous security forces. I wasn't able to get a good line of sight to the satellite so I’ll post more once I suitable open area and really put the system through its paces.

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