Blog

October 21, 2014 | 0 comments

By Ian Roxborough

The message from three distinguished speakers from the U.S. Government was “the people are the solution.” The 8th annual Tides Tech Demo at Fort McNair hosted a panel featuring Ms. Heather King, Director for Preparedness Policy at the White House National Security Council, Jim Craft, CIO of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, and the Hon. Dennis McGinn, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment. Each talked about ways in which the government could help stimulate technological innovation and preparedness for disasters.

Assistant Secretary McGinn pointed out that there are already people on the ground before the first responders arrive; the issue is whether they are part of the solution or simply victims. The panelists agreed that the best way for government to help the immediate responders – the people experiencing the disaster – was for everyone to take responsibility for building resilience at both the community and the national level. Preparing now for local hazards, building up the right kind of databases, beginning exercises and finding ways to link everyone together was the message. Obvious in principle, but not so easy to do in practice.

Heather King talked about what the government was doing right now to build the right kind of knowledge base and prepare for disasters. She talked about how the government sponsors White House Innovation Fellows; how it supports various ways of sharing innovations...

October 21, 2014 | 0 comments

By Ian Roxborough

We are great at collecting data: we now have all sorts of sensors feeding us huge volumes of data. The problem comes in analyzing the data and in making decisions based on that data. We need to focus now on making sense of the data. One of the panels at the 8th annual TIDES tech demo addressed this question. According to John Crowley of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the World Bank, we have a broken analysis process. We aren’t good at making the best use of the data that we have. This impacts decision-making: we don’t have good triggers that tell us how to act.

Part of the solution lies in more data. We need much more micro-level data so that we can start building risk and impact models that will tell us what is likely to happen at the local level: how many schools will flood, which ones, when? Street mapping and crowdsourcing are ways to make this happen. According to John Crowley, there are already 1.7 million open street mappers at work around the world. We also need to integrate the various different kinds of datasets so that they are all available in one place. Governments need to have not just lists of hospitals, but also GPS locations for each of them. We need a building-by-building picture, and the technology to do this is coming on stream.

In conjunction with improving the quality and relevance of data, we need to work on ways that will enable local responders to prepare for disasters. Part of that is making sure...

October 21, 2014 | 0 comments

By Ian Roxborough

The Toilets for People exhibit at the 8th TIDES tech demo stood out from the crowd: the Crapper, a cheap, easy to make toilet that doesn’t use water. It uses dry-composting techniques to deal with human waste. The compost can be recycled, there is no need to develop a sewage system and bring in water, and so you don’t need to worry about the effects of burying human waste on the local water system. Dealing with human waste by dry composting reduces water contamination (and hence disease and death) and is particularly useful in flood-prone areas.

The name is an acronym (so all Department of Defense personnel should applaud!): the Compact Rotating Aerobic Pollution Prevention Excreta Reducer. Funny how that ended up as “Crapper.” Seriously tho’, the need for a cheap and simple solution to the problem of human waste is clear. I don’t know why we haven’t spent more energy on this in the past: perhaps there are cultural taboos involved. It certainly isn’t glamorous.

Talking about culture, one of the issues is that different societies prefer different postures. They have, as it were, different “business models.” According to Toilets for People, the world can be divided up into sitters and squatters, and the Crapper accommodates both. It turns out that the cultural issue isn’t all that difficult to deal with. What has caused more headaches is the impact of injecting new resources into a community, particularly during a pilot project. The...

October 21, 2014 | 0 comments

By Ian Roxborough

I didn’t expect to be drinking water from the Potomac on the second day of the 8th annual TIDES tech demo at Fort McNair, but I was, and it tasted just fine. Let me introduce the two pieces of technology that made this possible. First, the Waterhippo water roller: a plastic drum holding 22 gallons of water. When a lightweight metal handle is attached it can be pulled easily and can be rolled to where the water is needed. It saves all those trips carrying water in small jugs and bowls. Since it is women that do most of the trekking back and forth, the Hippo helps liberate women from some of their backbreaking work. Second, the AQN, made and distributed by Hydrovolt and the Basilar group: a small water purification machine. It’s a cube, about two and a half feet high, that can be towed, brought in by helicopter, or manhandled easily to where it’s needed. It weighs about 450 pounds. With its own diesel power source it purifies both seawater and freshwater by reverse osmosis and can pump out thousands of gallons a day. Simple to use, it produces high-quality drinking water. I know, I drank it.

This was a marriage of lo-tech and hi-tech. The AQN was rolled across the grassy lawn of Fort McNair to where the Potomac runs by, a hose was dropped into the river, the AQN pumped water out of the Potomac, purified it, and pumped it into the Waterhippo. The 22 gallon drum was then rolled across the lawn to the tech demo site and water was there for...

October 21, 2014 | 0 comments

By Ian Roxborough

The 8th annual TIDES tech demo is bringing together some surprising people, all of whom want to make the world a better place. On Wednesday there was a panel of folks who started out in the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011: Shlomo Adam Roth and Devin Balkind. When superstorm Sandy hit the East coast a year later these guys – and thousands of others like them – used the connections they had made, and the experience they had gained in the Wall Street protests, to organize community responses to the storm. They called it “Occupy Sandy.”

In a panel discussion at Fort McNair the organizers - along with Isadora Blachman-Biatch who reported on the activities that Occupy Sandy conducted - explained their philosophy of bottom-up organizing empowered by social networking tools. During the Occupy Wall Street protests they had learned how to provide food for thousands of protesters, how to organize sanitation, how to deal with the logistics of getting and distributing the supplies they needed. They then used the same techniques in superstorm Sandy. Within a week they were providing 20,000 meals a day. And they did so without leaders and without a formal organization. The speakers believe that their flat networks enabled them to move swiftly. They weren’t offering charity, they were part of a community that was self-organizing. Mutual aid is their term for what they do.

How do anarchists like the Occupy Sandy activists interface with the...