A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

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.

Tracking Kenyan Violence

Ushahidi.com is a brilliant website that gives Kenyans a simple way to report and follow post-election violence. The site offers a simple map-based way to see where violence is taking place, and collects eyewitness accounts and photographs. Its even possible to report incidents via SMS.

Ushahidi.com screenshot

If you want even more White African has a comprehensive list of blogs covering the post-election violence.

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.

Twitter in Emergencies

This morning I came across Luis Suarez’s very informative post about micro-blogging in emergencies at elsua.net. His post led me to a great YouTube video by W David Stephenson.


David’s video led me to the American Red Cross’s twitter feed and their Safe and Well feed. Ike Pigott at Occam’s RazR has a great post that explains how Twitter can be used to keep the Safe and Well database up to date.

I left a comment on Ike’s site wondering about how to get the word out to the general public. After all most people wont be reading blogs like this before an emergency. While I was writing this post it occurred to me that Red Cross t-shirts would be the ideal medium. Just include the instructions for how to SMS the Safe and Well feed on the back of the shirt.

Social Networking Tools Part 2 - Twitter and Tsunamis

On 12 and 13 September there were a series of earthquakes near Indonesia spawning fears of another Asian Tsunami. It proved to be a good test of our Twitter based NGO security tree.

I was in Mannar, Sri Lanka at the time and I didn’t have a useable Internet connection. My first warning of the situation came when a concerned staff member called wanting to know “when is the Tsunami going to hit!” As the fear of a Tsunami spread I started to receive more and more calls from staff. Soon the mobile system was completely overburdened in many parts of the country and creaking under the strain in others. The very slow, single line dial-up Internet connection continued to work but proved to be all but useless for gathering timely information.

Fortunately I quickly started to get SMS’s. Some came from feeds I was following on Twitter: BBC, Reuters, CNN, EQTW, etc. Others came directly or were forwarded from UNOCHA, the Sri Lankan Disaster Management Centre, the Met office, the police and assorted individuals. Twitter allowed me to quickly forward the useful ones to all my followers while limiting the strain on the overburdened mobile system.

There were some glitches however. I continued to receive forwarded text message warnings long after credible sources had given the all clear. In some instances it seems that text messages became trapped in the telephone companies’ SMS system and were released as the queue began to clear. In some cases staff, confused by contradictory information, continued to forward outdated information.

Unfortunately the biggest problem with the Twitter based NGO security tree was one of buy in. Only a fraction of the staff who were intended to be served by the tree had bothered to sign up. The manual SMS security tree, which had been left in place as a backup, failed for much the same reason.

Lesson Learned: While emergency communications tools continue to improve, and become easier to use, buy in remains the number one problem. NGO staff members, especially office staff, often prove reluctant to dedicate even minimal effort to their own personal security until it proves too late.

For some background, check out “Social Networking tools for NGO Security – Part 1”.

To see a live feed of the NGO Security stream check out the demo page here. There is a Jaiku based stream as well.

The Economist on Tech, Response, and NGOs

The economist has an interesting article on how technology is changing the power dynamics between NGOs and their beneficiaries. There are even a couple of paragraphs covering concern about how mobile phones and similar technologies might impact on NGO security.

Social Networking tools for NGO Security – Part 1

I was experimenting with Twitter when it occurred to me that it was an ideal tool for NGO security officers. Rather than using the service to merely update friends on what I was having for breakfast I could be sending out security information alerts and updates. All my “followers” would then get current, low cost, security information.

This method has many advantages over the SMS security tree method commonly used by NGOs. Traditional security trees tend to fail when one or more members (the branches of the tree) do not receive or pass on the text messages they receive to those below them, typically because they are on leave or because the tree information is not up to date. Traditional trees can also be expensive. Each SMS sent by every member of the tree comes out of someone’s budget. This can add up quickly if you are sending out several messages a day to a two hundred-member security tree.

Social networking services like Twitter or Jaiku allow us to avoid these problems. Essentially Twitter and Jaiku allow the head of the security tree to send one SMS to the service’s server. The service then distributes the SMS to all the “followers” (subscribers) of the account more or less simultaneously. This means the tree still works even if members are missing. In addition you only pay for the SMS to the service’s server. SMS messages from the server to each of the followers are free*.


* Most mobile service providers only charge for text messages that are sent while those received are free.


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