Satellites to the Rescue

Satellite image of Muzaffarabad region of Pakistan showing landslides caused by the 2005 south Asian earthquake. Map created on 13 October 2005

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation on how satellites and space technology are helping, and might help, in the case of big medical emergencies, from earthquakes to Ebola. It’s a slightly different tack for me and perhaps not the usual fare for loose wire blog, but I thought I’d throw it in here anyway.

When former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was seen leaving a conference in Geneva in November 2005 clutching maps of the south Asia earthquake disaster, it was evidence that satellites – as a key weapon in humanitarian emergencies – had arrived.

In the hours and days after the October 8 quake struck killing more than 73 000 people and injuring some 150 000, experts from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United Nations scrambled to gather and interpret images data from satellites to assist rescue workers on the ground from local authorities to nongovernmental organizations (NGO), like Télécoms Sans Frontières.

WHO | Space technology: a new frontier for public health

Flying Posteriors

  Discards Asses and Butts 
  Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

Couldn’t resist this: my wife discovered cigarette ash was blowing in through her window so we asked the apartment super if he could do anything about it.

The result was this wonderful sign that has just gone up in our building:

“Do restrain from throwing your cigarette asses and butts out of your windows… Due to the wind, some of this cigarette asses and butts had got into the lower units.”

Flying posteriors. A hazard of living on the ground floor I hadn’t considered when we moved in.

“It Says Take a Left Up This Impassable Mountain Track”

photo from Reuters

Apparently technology is making us so dumb we need signs to jolt us back to common sense. Reuters reports that Britain has started trials of special road signs warning “drivers about the dangers of trusting their satellite navigation devices (satnavs)”:

Some have reported that software glitches have sent drivers down one-way streets or up impassable mountain tracks.

One ambulance driver with a faulty satnav drove hundreds of miles in the wrong direction while transferring a patient from one hospital in Ilford east of London to another just eight miles away.

At what point, I wonder, did the ambulance driver think that perhaps he wasn’t taking the fastest route? The original story, according to The Times, involved the driver and his colleague driving

for eight hours before finally delivering the patient. After the equipment sent them north, they covered 215 miles in about four hours. The way back was only slightly shorter and took more than 3½ hours.

The device was reprogrammed, as were the two drivers. The Times comes up with a couple more examples:

Last month a woman dodged oncoming traffic for 14 miles after misreading her sat-nav system and driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway.Police said it was a miracle that no one was injured after the young woman joined the A3M, which links Portsmouth to London, on the southbound side — only to head north.

In September a taxi driver took two teenage girls 85 miles in the opposite direction after keying the wrong place name into his sat-nav. The girls asked to go to Lymington in the New Forest, Hampshire, but the driver tapped in Limington, Somerset.

I hear Somerset is very nice in September.

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Cellphone Spikes and Disaster Management


Steven Levitt makes a good point on the Freakonomics blog about the spike in cellphone usage after the Minneapolis bridge collapse which alerted at least one carrier to an emergency before the news hit. His conclusion:

This would seem to hints at strategies that could be useful for coordinating quick emergency response more generally, as well as military/intelligence applications.

One commenter suggests that this may simply throw up lots of false positives, while another says the real problem is in identifying the cause of the spike — disaster, or a radio station offering $1,000 to the 26th caller?

Seems to me that you should be able to tell pretty quickly where the spike originates — lots of people calling from stranded cars on a bridge are unlikely to indicate a phone-in competition. Perhaps if cellphone masts and base stations also included cameras and/or two-way communication devices it would be possible for cellphone engineers to be able to not only assess the situation but open their communications up to rescue services, who could then monitor the situation and convey instructions and information to those in the affected area.

Indonesia’s Quake

For anyone interested in helping the victims of the Yogyakarta earthquake, in which thousands of people have been killed inside their heavy stone and slate homes, here’s Indonesia Help – Earthquake and Tsunami Victims.

Sadly, this website was originally set up for the tsunami, now 17 months ago, but has been quickly resurrected to provide news and information on how to help. Even the website of the administration of the town of Bantul has updated its site with some news and photos of the quake. More information can be found at the airputih media center. The tsunami has clearly made local organisations and individuals aware of the need for rapid disbursement of information, especially on missing persons and where to give your aid. I noticed Saturday night folk walking around traffic in Jakarta with donation boxes, but we also know from experience the prevalence of scams during such times. Better to give your money to an organisation recommended by one of these sites.

Love Is In The Air, Or At Least A Captive Audience Is

Was reading a piece in the Journal (subscription only) saying Delta Air Lines’ Song division is going to plug the CD by Better Than Ezra (a band that last had a hit 10 years ago) to passengers, a captive audience Delta have just realised they can sell anything to so long as they batter them hard enough:

Better Than Ezra released its last and only big hit (“Good”) in 1995. But the one-hit wonder from the mid-’90s is on the forefront of an odd new experiment in promoting and selling music. The group’s new album is being released by Song Records, a collaborative effort between the airline, Artemis Records and Creative Branding Group Inc., a Los Angeles marketing company.

I can hear all sorts of people groaning about this. How bad do things have to get before you try and flog an over-the-hill rock band to people trapped inside an airplane? But it also made me think more generally about airlines and the whole sound thing. Why are the sounds they use, for example, the more soothing the more danger the passengers are in? The little ‘doong’ sound that means the seat-belt sign is on — “So get back to your seat, buckle up tight, we’re about to throw you around the cabin!” Who came up with that sound? Were they all sitting around their office at Boeing or Airbus and thinking what kind of sound could we have which wouldn’t frighten the bejesus out of the passengers, but which doesn’t sound like the passenger sitting next to them snoring? Was there a guy with a xylophone in the board room playing notes and waiting for the suits to say ‘that one! That’s the one which will calm down skittish fliers and sober up the drunken ones!’ Imagine you’re hearing that sound for the first time. ‘Doong’. It sounds kinda nice. “Ooo! A surprise!” No, it means you’re going to die.

Then there’s the piped muzak. They always put this on when something bad is about to happen, when you’re about to hit turbulence, or lose altitude, or when one of the wings has fallen off. Everyone’s screaming, praying, losing their hair, and you hear ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ played on a xylophone. Malaysian Airlines, I notice, plays Elton John’s Song For Guy during these special moments. Great. Do they know it’s about Elton John’s despatch rider who was killed in a car crash?

Then there’s the safety demonstration. The attendants are always smiling when they do this. The music is always cheesy, as if to say, “in the unlikely event of this airplane not making it, we’re going to inflate these life-rafts and have a picnic. It’ll be like a party. You each get these yellow vests and disco whistles, and we’ll even turn on some party lights. Only they’ll be on the floor, which is where you’ll be spending most of your time. It’ll be fun!”

I think they should be more honest. I think the safety demonstration should scare the hell out of passengers. I think they should start with something like “There’s a nine percent chance this plane will crash, a four percent chance it won’t take off, a two percent chance the pilot is considering suicide, a 0.45 percent chance the plane will just spontaneously combust without us ever really knowing why. We’d like to show you how you can improve your chances of survival by as much as 0.06 percent by wearing a piece of rubber over your head and curling up under your seat. Now if anyone still wants to fly, please remain seated and wait for the peanuts. And here’s another track from Better than Ezra.”

Earthquakes, Power Laws and Sparklines

The Asian tsunami, and the quake near Nias, bring home how volatile the region is, particularly Indonesia. (Another quake this morning sent Nias residents fleeing into the hills in panic.) But I thought an interesting way of illustrating this volatility might be to do a sparkline of earthquakes and their magnitude around the world in the last week, highlighting those in Indonesia (most, but not only, around Sumatra) in orange:


Of course, it would be better to show their depth as well, but the sparklines tool I’m using, the excellent SparkMaker from Bissantz, is not yet up to the task. Data is from the USGS Earthquakes Hazards Program.

That’s more than 140 quakes in a week, more than half of them in Indonesia. And each one is of a size not to sneeze at, obeying, I guess the power law that, according to John Gribbin in Deep Simplicity, determines there is no single trigger for a major earthquake: An earthquake of any size is governed by the same rules. (This implies that another tsunami is not necessarily a long way off, just because there was one recently.) But if nothing else the sea of orange indicates how many Indonesians live in a state of almost permanent shock.