Tag Archives: Natural Disaster

We’re All Kevin Smiths Now

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

A few weeks ago a gentleman of, by his own account, more than average girth was thrown off a Southwest Air flight between Oakland and Burbank.

Unfortunately for the airline this was no ordinary gentleman but Kevin Smith, director of such classics as Clerks and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and, perhaps more importantly, a man conversant with social media.

As he was unceremoniously removed from the flight because he was a “customer of size” and therefore a safety risk, he turned to twitter to vent his spleen.

The resulting fracas was what we in the nerdy world call a twitter storm. That is, one person is able to leverage the power of social networks to make a much bigger noise than would otherwise be the case.

Some commentators have suggested this is a new kind of customer: “a new kind of uglry customer who isn’t always right but insists on his right to share his feelings with us and his right to be heard”, as one Singaporean travel industry insider put it.

Of course, this isn’t the case. There have always been Kevin Smiths, it’s just they have not been able to convey their disquiet so effectively. Now they have, at their fingertips, the ability to express and disseminate their feelings.

I’m a Kevin Smith. We’re all Kevin Smiths. We’re all capable of knowing when we’ve been discriminated against—not, in this case, because of his girth but because he was not told before he got on the plane, or when he bought his ticket, that he wouldn’t be able to fly.

We’re all Kevin Smiths, and we’ve all got the tools of Kevin Smith. Perhaps not the colorful turns of phrase, but the means.

Now I’m not blaming Southwest here, at least at the corporate level. Actually they did all the standard things to try to put out this blaze. They tried to reach him by email, by phone, and then publicly by twitter, to apologize.

They blogged about it, about their policy and the lessons learned.

But their failure was to understand that information travels much faster now. So in the crucial hours—no, minutes—after Kevin Smith was dumped off the flight there was a chance to turn all this around.

It didn’t happen. Either those overseeing the Twitter feed didn’t see it coming, or they were at dinner, or they had to escalate the matter. Whatever happened, there was a chance to stop the storm before it had left the building.

In this new world, minutes count.

People in the leisure industry would do well to draw different conclusions than perhaps they are.

The temptation is to label Kevin Smith a noisesome celebrity and thereby both give him star treatment and to treat him as an unusual case.

He’s not. He’s a star, true, and he’s got a strong following, both online and offline. But his diatribe is just as likely to be echoed by others—indeed, the anger his supporters felt is as much to do with a sense of injustice as of having their hero treated shoddily.

In the old days we could write a letter to the CEO, or complain to the cabin crew, or write a letter to the local paper. Most of us wouldn’t bother.

But now we can. We can tweet about it, Facebook it, blog about it. It may not always snowball but it’s there, out there for millions of other people to find, indefinitely.

In other words: Not only do we have the means to vent our spleen, but we have access to everyone else’s vented spleen. No longer are we the lone eccentric to be tolerated or ignored, bought off with a $100 voucher or a free pass to the poolside barbeque.

We are validated.

So no, Kevin Smith is not the new kind of ugly customer. He’s everyman: He’s a customer who not only knows what he wants but knows that he’s not alone in wanting it. And that he can find a way of getting satisfaction in the most public way possible if he feels his rights are violated.

Not exactly good news for those companies that would rather we kept quiet or were bought off. But good news for those of us who have bitten our tongue and kept mum one too many times.

The New Newswire: a Dutch Student Called Michael

Twitter is now a news service in its own right. ReadWrite Web, an excellent website dedicated to Web 2.0 stuff, points out that the recent earthquake in England–not that unusual in itself, apparently, but rarely actually strong enough to be felt by humans—was reported first by Twitterers and by a Twitter-only news service called BreakingNewsOn (www.twitter.com/BreakingNewsOn): 

This story broke over Twitter in the past half hour, and nothing is up yet on the BBC sites, the Guardian, or the Telegraph. This story is breaking live on Twitter.

Looking at the situation a few hours later, it’s certainly true that mainstream websites have been a bit slow with the story. From what I can gather, the timeline is something like this (all times are in GMT):

Quake hits south of Grimsby 00:56  
First tweets 00:57  
BreakingNewsOn 00:59 (“Unconfirmed reports of earthquake in London”)
BreakingNewsOn 01:01 (“Reports of earthquake, working to confirm”, followed by lots of tweets)
BreakingNewsOn 01:10 (confirmation from European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre)
Dow Jones Newswires 01:29 (quotes BBC report)
Associated Press 01:30 (garbled alert)
Reuters 01:36 (“Quake shakes Britain, no casualties reported”)
AFP 01:45 (“Moderate quake shakes Britain”)
BBC twitter feed 01:56 (“Tremors felt across England”)

There may be some holes in here: I don’t have the exact time when the BBC website first carried the story, but I’m guessing it’s a few minutes before the wires. And this is not the first BreakingNewsOn has been ahead: It was, according to some reports, first on the Benazir Bhutto assassination, although I’ve not been able to confirm that. 

So who or what is BreakingNewsOn, and how does it scoop the big guys on their own turf? The service is actually pretty much one guy, a 20-year old Dutch student called Michael van Poppel, according to this interview by Shashi Bellamkonda. He is a news junkie, and makes money from it too, doing something called web-trawling—searching the net for stuff he can sell to the big players. (He was the guy who last September dug up a videotape of Osama bin Laden, which he then sold to Reuters.) 

Van Poppel works with a couple of other people and is clearly experienced and voracious in hoovering up web content. But it’s also about citizen journalism, crowd sourcing, whatever you want to call it: in the case of the UK quake, the first alerts actually came from witnesses, who twittered about the jolts they felt; it was BreakingNewsOn’s skill in harvesting that information, and staying sufficiently close to its readers for them to think to share their experience, that led to the fast turnaround. 

Of course, there’s much about this that is new. Everyone is now a reporter, if they find themselves in the middle of news. And everyone can be a media publisher: In this case it’s one 20-year old student with a twitter feed and an Internet-connected computer. And, finally, everyone can now subscribe to that once holiest-of-holies: a newswire service that updates in real time. Only now it’s not called a Reuters terminal or a Bloomberg but Twitter. 

But behind that, not much has changed. I’ve covered a few quakes in my time, and it’s all about finding the stuff out quickly by getting it out quickly. Nothing much has changed. No one was injured or killed, and it sounds like there was no falling masonry or damage to buildings. But that’s no excuse: earthquakes are news, and especially if they’re the strongest in the country for more than two decades

Twitter is perfectly suited for breaking news, because it’s all about short pithy sentences and updates. As ReadWrite Web points out, during the California wildfires last year, Twitter and other citizen journalism tools were used by people on the ground, scooping the mainstream press. And all this offers some lessons for the mainstream press that it would be wise to absorb: 

  • Mainstream media cannot afford to be slow off the mark on stories like this, since their value to high-paying subscribers is intimately tied to their speed;
  • Alert streams are no longer the province of market traders;
  • Traditional media needs to find a way to work with these new sources of news, or else find a way to add value that such services cannot. In this case it could have been finding a way to reflect in the headlines the unusual nature of this event;
  • Traditional media has to both monitor these new sources of news–the tweets from ordinary folk surprised to be shaken awake by a tremor—and work with them to ensure that they, too, benefit.

Some might say that what van Poppel does isn’t news. I’d contest that. He did everything right in reporting the story: it’s big enough an event to merit an “unconfirmed” snap, a quick follow-up which contains what we old newshounds would call an advisory letting subscribers know what he’s doing and to expect more. When he got confirmation he put out, all within 10 minutes. That’s a time-tested, old-fashioned and reasonable news approach. He leveraged the new media, but he showed an understanding of news values and what his readers needed. 

Kudos to him. We all could learn a lesson.

(An extended version of this post is available for publication to newsprint media as part of the Loose Wire Service. More details here, or email Jeremy Wagstaff directly.)

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

Getting Ecards from Worshippers

You got to give scammers credit where credit is due. This latest wave of e-card spam at least exhibits some imagination on the part of the sender:

image

At first it was from a friend, then a colleague, then a classmate; now it’s neighbors and worshippers sending you ecards. Good on them. I must confess I don’t worship that often, and I haven’t spoken to my neighbor since the Korean-funded mistress moved out from next door, so they’re not likely to dupe me. But they might dupe someone. (If I got one from from a Fellow Technology Columnist, I might bite.)

Which would be bad, because the links contain a variant of the Storm Trojan, according to Urban Legends, which will turn your computer into a zombie and do some scammer’s bidding.

All this must be really hurting what is left of the e-card greetings industry (when was the last time you received an e-card? A real one, I mean?) Indeed, a press release from the Greeting Card Association warning users about these scams offers advice to recipients that is so tortured it’s hard to imagine anyone would bother following it:

For consumers who are unsure if an e-card notice is legitimate, the Greeting Card Association recommends that they go directly to the publisher’s website to retrieve an e-card, rather than clicking on a link within the e-mail.
— Manually type the name of the card publisher’s website URL into your browser window.
— Locate the “e-card pick up” area on the publisher’s website.
— Take the card number or retrieval code information contained in the e-mail and enter it into the appropriate box or boxes on the publisher’s e-card pick-up area.
— If you are unable to retrieve the e-card, you will know the notification was a scam, and that it should be deleted.

Seriously. Who is going to do all that? My advice: if you care enough about the person, send them a real card. Or leave something on their Facebook wall.

Google Earth as Harbinger of Doom

Researchers are using Google Earth, the New York Times/IHT reports, to look for evidence of giant tsunamis, signs that the Earth has been hit by comets or asteroids more regularly, and more recently, than people thought:

This year the group started using Google Earth, a free source of satellite images, to search around the globe for chevrons, which they interpret as evidence of past giant tsunamis. Scores of such sites have turned up in Australia, Africa, Europe and the United States, including the Hudson River Valley and Long Island.

Chevrons are huge deposits of sediment that were once on the bottom of the ocean; they are as big as tower blocks and shaped like chevrons, the tip indicating the direction from which the tsunami came. 

I love the idea that academics use a tool like Google Earth to — possibly — puncture one of the greatest myths of the human era: that comets only come along once every 500,000 years.

Scientists in the working group say the evidence for such impacts during the last 10,000 years, known as the Holocene epoch, is strong enough to overturn current estimates of how often the Earth suffers a violent impact on the order of a 10-megaton explosion. Instead of once in 500,000 to one million years, as astronomers now calculate, catastrophic impacts could happen every few thousand years.

There are a couple of other quirks to this story. The working group of misfits is cross-disciplinary — there’s a specialist on the structural analysis of myth in there — but only formed when they bumped into each other at a conference. How more efficient it would have been had they been blogging; they might have found each other earlier. (Perhaps they met before the blogging age; there’s a piece on the subject here from 2000.) 

The second quirk for me is that the mythologist (actually Bruce Masse calls himself an enviromental archaeologist) reckons he can pinpoint the exact date of the comet which created the Burckle Crater between Madagascar and Australia using local legends: 

Masse analyzed 175 flood myths from around the world, and tried to relate them to known and accurately dated natural events like solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions. Among other evidence, he said, 14 flood myths specifically mention a full solar eclipse, which could have been the one that occurred in May 2807 B.C.

I love the idea of myths; I see them as a kind of early Internet, a way of dispersing knowledge using the most efficient tools (in those days, this meant stories and word of mouth.) We tend to think of myths as superstition and scare mongering, but in fact in many cases they are the few grains of wisdom that get passed on from generation to generation.  They often get contorted in the telling, the original purpose — to warn — sometimes getting lost. 

Like the Moken sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea, most of whom were spared the 2004 tsunami because they “knew from their tribal lore that this was a warning sign to flee to higher ground”, according to Reuters. On the Acehnese island of Simeulue, similar lore, dating back to the 1907 tsunami, tells islanders that “if the land is shaking and shoreline is drained abnormally, they have to go to very high land.” Only seven people out of 80,000 islanders died. 

Based on this, the idea of trying to pin down the comets, the craters and the chevrons by exploring local myth makes a lot of sense. I like the idea that is being done alongside using something as modern, and as freely available, as Google Earth. I guess I’m just not happy about the implications for us current planet dwellers. 

Source: Ancient crash, epic wave – Health & Science – International Herald Tribune (graphic here)

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.

Tsunamis, Warnings and the SMS

Systems — especially warning systems — need to work perfectly, or not at all. Take Thailand’s new tsunami early warning system, which recently failed a trial because busy phone networks took hours to deliver vital SMS messages, while some some warnings sent by fax didn’t turn up at all, according to AFP. (More on the drill from DPA here.)

The report quotes Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Centre as saying that text messages sent by cell phones to emergency coordinators around the country took hours to arrive, while warnings sent by fax during the morning drill also failed to arrive. Said Pakdivat Vajirapanlop, the centre’s deputy operations chief: “The problem we faced was with communications. We have no idea whether our messages sent to local operations chiefs by fax and SMS arrived on time or not, and by midday some of them said they did not recieve the SMS. We need to know whether they have received our messages. What can they do if the messages don’t arrive on time? Then the warning is useless,” he said.

Indeed. SMS is not a reliable way to transmit messages, especially during a crisis. A warning system is as weak as its weakest link, and relying on SMS, or even fax, is not going to work. I’m just not sure what would work under such circumstances. The system needs to have an inbuilt check that a) ensures the message reaches its destination and b) the sender receives confirmation that the recipient has received and opened the message (what you might call passive acknowledgement. The recipient doesn’t need to actively acknowledge the message has been received, because that requires a further step. The message itself actually has an inbuilt acknowledgement mechanism.

SMS actually allows this confirmation, where the user can receive an SMS back informing him his message has been received by the sender. This system is not perfect of course, since nowadays SMS messages are filtered by increasingly sophisticated smartphones. So, for example, in the past an SMS’ arrival would intrude upon the recipient by a) making a noise and b) appearing on top of any other data or image on the phone’s screen, now smart phones can handle the SMS differently, from directing it to a specific folder to not appearing on the screen at all if another program is being used, or the phone is in silent mode, say. A great example of technology actually getting in the way of using the communication device as an alerting mechanism.

There are other ways, of course. One could use email trackers like MessageTag or DidTheyReadit which would alert the sender that the email has been sent. Although not popular with privacy advocates, this might be a way to inform a sender of a tsunami alert that a message has been read — even when, and perhaps where. Perhaps email trackers could be packaged and sold for this purpose?

On the other hand, how about picking up the phone and calling someone?

Googling the Tsunami

More from Google Trends, the sad rise and fall in our interest in the tsunami: At the end of 2004, the Asian Tsunami piqued/peaked our attention, but the later blips (F, the last little flag on the chart, is the first anniversay) reflect, perhaps, how quickly such things are forgotten.

G-tsunami

Phones As Emergency Tools

The excellent textually.org  carries a piece about a technology which would allow people to “receive emergency messages on their mobile phones via an audio system — even when networks are down or out of reach, such as when underground”. The signal would be embedded as “data in an audio signal which can be transmitted over a radio, TV or PA system and sent using an encoded link via SLS to mobiles in the vicinity.” 

It sounds like a good idea. I’d love to see the cellphone used more imaginatively as a way to reach and transmit emergency data — whether it’s information which may help the owner, or as a beacon for the owner to convey their location. After the London bombing I was thinking aloud about whether Bluetooth could in some way be used as a kind of panic button allowing people to pass on information even when existing networks were congested or down. But as I have as much technical knowledge as a penguin this idea may not have reached the powers that be.

Still, my own ignorance aside, I think the cellphone needs to be considered as a vital lifeline — the awful sadness of SMS messages being sent by schoolchildren trapped under landslides in the Philippines should be reminder enough that everyone has one of these things in their hand nowadays and make it seem such an obvious step to try to make them a more useful emergency device.

One Kid, A Tsunami, Nineteen Days At Sea, And A Soccer Match

This is nothing to do with technology, but it’s such a wonderful story I have to share it. Here’s how AP reported it:

Portugal welcomes a special fan: Indonesian tsunami survivor

LISBON, Portugal (AP): When Portugal walks onto the field Saturday to play Slovakia in a World Cup qualifying match, its captain will be holding the hand of a special guest – an 8-year- old Indonesian boy who survived alone for 19 days after the December tsunami.

Martunis, whose second name was not provided, was found on a beach in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, wearing a Portugal soccer shirt – prompting Portuguese soccer officials to invite him to Lisbon. Martunis survived by drinking puddle water and eating dried noodles after his parents were swept away by the tsunami. He was later reunited with his father and grandfather at a hospital.

Martunis, who names Manchester United’s Portuguese winger, Cristiano Ronaldo, as his favorite player, met with local schoolchildren Wednesday. Portugal’s Brazilian coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, bought Martunis and family a house in Indonesia last year on behalf of the team.

Now, the Portugal soccer federation is giving them euro40,000 (US$49,000) . Martunis will hold the Portugal captain’s hand – likely to be Luis Figo if selected – when the two teams enter the 65,000-seat Stadium of Light arena for the Group 3 match.

He’s an amazing little kid. My friend Tessa related recently how

I had the pleasure of meeting the young lad at the recent launching of a book that [Radio] 68H has published – Lolos dari Maut Tsunami – containing his and other stories from people who survived the tsunami.

68H invited Martunis and his father (his mother and two sisters died in the tsunami) to Jakarta for the book launch. Like every other seven year old boy I have ever met, after about five minutes he was predictably fidgeting in his chair and looking around for better entertainment, all the while sporting his favourite shirt, a Portuguese number 10 football shirt, that of his hero, Rui Costa, the same shirt he was wearing when he was swept away.

If anyone’s interested, I have an English translation of his story from the book. It makes for an extraordinary read, even for those of us who have heard every kind of tsunami escape story.

Footnote: Here’s a picture of him. I haven’t cropped it cos I love the expensive sofa he’s sitting on:

Martunis

(Thanks Tessa)