21 November 2007

Cyberspace December 2007

Technology in trouble

The recent fires in western USA showed how technology can help the displaced urban dweller, provided that the authorities are moving with the times as well. In October 2007 over 250,000 residents in San Diego were displaced into shelters such as schools and football stadiums.

Many residents took their mobile phones and laptop computers with them when they evacuated. Some shelters set up dedicated computer rooms together with Wi-Fi systems connected to the internet. Evacuees could email relatives and friends, as well as keep up-to-date on the news about the fires. This reduced a lot of stress.

Because of the numbers of people brought together in small regions the mobile cell towers could not accommodate the number of users trying to make calls (you might know that Telstra installed a number of temporary transmitters around Sydney Olympic Park in 2000 for this reason - you can imagine 60,000 people calling friends after the 100m final). People were therefore encouraged to use SMS rather than voice calls, although those with VoIP phones such as Skype (recently now available from phone carrier 3) could use those over the Internet.

San Diego has "Reverse 911", which allows the authorities to automatically dial all phone numbers in specific areas with emergency information. This has been limited to land-lines to date, but it is conceivable that the same could occur to all mobile phone users in a given cell-tower range, subject to the capacity of that cell-tower. There might also be other issues with people getting multiple calls as they move into adjacent cells, but I'm sure someone can solve it.

Many people forgot or couldn't take their charging devices with them, or the mains power was out. With judicious use of the equipment many users were able to stay connected on and off for days, turning things completely off when not in use.

Some shelters used "mesh networks." These are Wi-Fi networks that don’t rely on a single transmitter and access point. Instead, each computer in the area becomes a little transmitter as well, meaning that if you had a line of 1000 people 10m apart you could have a network stretching out 100 km! Otherwise that 1,000 people would have to be clustered in a circle 100 m radius around the transmitter.

Of course, the relief workers benefited from this technology too, and their job was made easier because evacuees could be a little less anxious through access to information.

Sadly, many people went home to charred blocks of land. It's hard to imagine how many digital photos, financial records, letters and more disappeared. Some may have had backups, but they may have been destroyed as well unless they were kept off-site. You can do that using Internet services (there are dozens, and I use http://idrive.com for no particular reason) or just copy everything to an external USB hard disc once a week/month and leave it at work or at a relative's home. I like the convenience of Internet based services, as they just inspect my files each night and back up anything new or changed. I even get multiple versions so I can roll back to a previous version if necessary.

While considering what else may be of use in a disaster area, I thought about mobile broadband such as that offered by 3G phone providers or Unwired. You could be sitting in your car trying to evacuate and be able to see roadmaps or evacuation route advice. A GPS would be helpful too. An iPod would pass the time, but would otherwise be useless as it doesn't have a built-in radio, unlike, say, the Zune or many others.

What planet is Greens Senator Kerry Nettle from?

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle has allegedly said, referring to a leaking boatload of people who were ultimately rescued by the Royal Australian Navy

"They weren't able to rescue those people because of our strict immigration laws that prevent them from being able to rescue these people at sea,"

Does she really believe that we have laws against rescuing people in peril? That is so stupid. Yes, of course we have immigration laws, but they do not, in any way, stop a ship rescuing anyone. Rescue has nothing to do with immigration.

It's a shame that she thinks that she has to peddle this rubbish to try to obtain some political advantage.

To make it worse, this alleged lawmaker said according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

They were doing what they could to ensure that these people didn't drown.
I understand their nervousness in getting involved in these sorts of activities
particularly right before an election."

What sane person thinks that the law changes from week to week because an election is imminent? Probably a moron, actually. I'm very concerned that people like Nettle have any responsiblity for Australian law. It's people like her that demonstrate that the country runs itself in spite of its politicians.

05 November 2007

Freedom of information in Australia?

... or should that be freedom from information in Australia?

More than 500 separate legal provisions in 335 different state and federal acts of Parliament are denying Australians access to a vast amount of information they should be able to see, a major new report says.

The Right to Know Coalition today released an audit on the state of free speech, which its authors say provides a damning picture of "how free speech and media freedom are being whittled away".

Now, it should be noted that the "Coalition" is a group of media interests, but nevertheless this is firm evidence of something many of us have probably suspected for some time - in fact, Background Briefing on ABC Radio National did a piece some years ago on "commercial in confidence" which basically meant that the government used that excuse to not be accountable to taxpayers and the electorate.