Big Systems - Global Institutions, Governance and History Archives

October 29, 2003

Information Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder, at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, have just released an interesting essay on the intersection of models of ethics and molecular nanotechnology. Although the piece focuses on a specifically on nanotech, the ideas presented apply to a broad range of distributed systems. I don't entirely agree with their conclusions, but I do think that they've put forward a solid argument.

The essay explores three different forms of organizational ethics: "Guardian Ethics," which focus on security; "Commercial Ethics," which focus on trade; and "Information Ethics," which focus on creation. In a world where new bio-, nano-, or info- technologies can bring both tremendous social good and frightening devastation, how can a global society responsibly manage their development and distribution? Each of the three ethical forms provides a different answer to that question.

Ultimately, Phoenix and Treder argue for a combination of Information Ethics and a bit of Guardian Ethics, where distribution of (and access to) the technology is largely unrestricted, but the uses of the tech itself are controlled. This is probably the most reasonable approach in the near-term, but (for reasons I'll explore here soon), would lead to longer-term problems of security and stability.

November 9, 2003

Getting Smarter About Security

Security is a tricky thing. If given a choice between a security system that is 99.99% effective in stopping malevolent attacks or careless mistakes, and one which is only 95% effective, going with the 99.99% one seems like a no-brainer, right? Not necessarily.

The real test of a system isn't what happens when it works right, it's what happens when it fails. And it will -- all systems fail, even the best-designed, 99.99% effective ones. If that level of protection results in reducing the ability of the system to respond to and repair the results of failure, then when the security does (inevitably) collapse, society is far worse off than it would have been with the less-effective, but more robust and flexible, alternative.

Let me give you a concrete example.

The latest issue of New Scientist has an article reporting on the results of recently-adopted American regulations controlling access to dangerous bioagents such as anthrax. The restrictions are intended to make it nearly impossible for terrorists to get their hands on pathogens such as ricin or botulinum. The controls on access include getting security clearances, lab inspections, and registration with the government. The implementation of the new laws has been aggressive and unrelenting, in order to stamp out on any possibility of terrorist access to lethal bioagents.

Continue reading "Getting Smarter About Security" »

November 11, 2003

Almost But Not Quite

In many cities in the UK, an average person is recorded by hundreds of cameras per day. These cameras are intended for public security, an unblinking eye watching over the citizens like some kind of older sibling. These closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras are connected back to a central police station, where officers keep an eye out for mischief and malcontents. When trouble appears, this central office can dispatch police to the scene.

The South Yorkshire city of Sheffield is taking this a step further by distributing hand-held computers with wireless access to the CCTV network in the city center, giving beat officers a way to keep track of the monitors and see problems as they arise.

The question that this prompts is why such access is limited to police officers? These cameras aren't in sensitive, private locations, and the images aren't being used to send secret police-only messages. One can readily imagine all sorts of public uses for these cameras, from "hey, has my friend arrived at the city park yet for some dogging?" to "how bad is the traffic?" Furthermore, more eyes watching public areas would mean a better chance of catching a crime in progress.

One term for this sort of activity is "sousveillance," which means "watching from below," an alternative to "surveillance," or "watching from above." As a concept, it's still a work-in-progress; the current manifestation of sousveillance seems to focus on making the lives of minimum-wage department store employees even more hellish. But if cameras are going to be everywhere, isn't it better to give everyone access to what they see, rather than just a limited few?

November 12, 2003

More on Brazil

Alex's post on Lula earlier today neglected to mention that Lula's administration, in late August, announced a strategic plan to begin using open source software at all levels of government. This article gives more details.

Although the financial benefits of moving away from commercial/proprietary software can be substantial (Brazil pays something on the order of $1.2B annually for proprietary code), the Brazilian government is aware of the bigger issues at stake:

The Ministers of Science and Technology, Roberto Amaral, and Culture, Gilberto Gil, also argued for the use of free software as a strategy for development and digital inclusion. [...] Gil affirmed that free software represents a democratic model of liberty and autonomy in the digital world.

November 21, 2003

Commitment to Development Index

A recent issue of Foreign Policy contains a detailed examination of the degree to which the rich nations are actually commited to the development of poorer nations. Foreign Policy teamed with the Center for Global Development for the study, which "grades 21 rich nations on whether their aid, trade, migration, investment, peacekeeping, and environmental policies help or hurt poor nations." The Netherlands, Denmark, and Portugal scored the highest; Australia, the United States, and Japan were the bottom three.

The results may be surprising. Although the U.S. and Japan are, in raw dollar terms, the largest developmental aid donors, they rank at the very bottom of the index for a variety of reasons, ranging from restrictions on how the aid can be used to environmental and immigration policies detrimental to global development.

In ranking these countries’ commitment to development, the CDI rewards generous aid giving, hospitable immigration policies, sizable contributions to peacekeeping operations, and hefty foreign direct investment in developing countries. The index penalizes financial assistance to corrupt regimes, obstruction of imports from developing countries, and policies that harm shared environmental resources. Although the governments and leaders of poor nations are themselves ultimately responsible for responding to the many challenges of development, rich countries can and should change their policies to spur economic growth and social development in poorer nations. The CDI highlights and ranks the rich countries’ policies themselves, not their final impact. This approach emphasizes what each rich country—regardless of size and reach—can do to improve opportunities for development throughout the world.

The article is long, but well worth reading, as it details the ways in which developmental assistance is a complex system. A wide array of factors contribute to the ability of developing nations to move out of poverty and tyranny. A better understanding of the complexity of the problem can only help policymakers, activists, and the public figure out the best ways to extend development in an equitable and sustainable manner.

A link to the listing of the 21 richest countries in order of their CDI score can be found here.

December 4, 2003


BoingBoing notes a new program called BadBlue, which lets you view on your work PC material proxy-loaded on your home PC, thereby evading any content restrictions and monitoring one's office may have -- it treats workplace restrictions as damage and routes around it. The main use for this is, unsurprisingly, for adult surfing. While this is of admittedly marginal WorldChanging utility (unless you work in an office which has blocked access to Slashdot), it does remind us of Peekabooty, a similar concept aimed at a very different audience.

Politically repressive regimes fear the free flow of information over the Internet, and censor it with firewalls. Peekabooty is a distributed, peer-to-peer application explicitly intended to bypass national firewalls. In short, it treats political censorship as damage, and routes around it.

Peekabooty is software run by "global-thinking, local-acting" people in countries that do not censor the Internet. A user in a country that censors the Internet connects to the ad hoc network of computers running Peekabooty. A small number of randomly selected computers in the network retrieves the Web pages and relays them back to the user. As far the censoring firewall is concerned, the user is simply accessing some computer not on its "banned" list. The retrieved Web pages are encrypted using the de facto standard for secure transactions in order to prevent the firewall from examining the Web pages' contents. Since the encryption used is a secure transaction standard, it will look like an ordinary e-business transaction to the firewall.

Users in countries where the Internet is censored do not necessarily need to install any software. They merely need to make a simple change to their Internet settings so that their access to the World Wide Web is mediated by the Peekabooty network. Installing the software makes the process of connecting to the Internet simpler and allows users to take fuller advantage of the Peekabooty network.

"Global-thinking, local-acting" people in countries that do not censor the Internet install Peekabooty, which can run "in the background" while they use their computer for their day-to-day work. It doubles as a screen saver that displays its status as well as information about human rights and censortship.

So you're all ready to go and grab a copy of Peekabooty for yourselves, right? Unfortunately, the Peekabooty Project is in a transition from version 1 to version 2 of the software, and no downloads are yet available of the new application. You can be sure that we here at WorldChanging will let you know the minute that changes...

December 13, 2003

WSIS and Open Source

A quick update on the now-ended 2003 phase of the World Summit on the Information Society. The International Herald-Tribune has a nice article on the the back-room attempt by Brazil, India, South Africa and China to push open source software as a key IT tool for developing nations.

Samuel Guimarães, executive secretary in Brazil's foreign ministry, told government representatives at the summit meeting's opening sessions that free-to-share software is crucial for the developing world because it enables poorer countries to develop their own technology instead of having to import it.

While the wording in the final document was watered down under pressure from the U.S. and Microsoft, momentum is clearly building for open source and Free Software to be used as cornerstones for progress in the developing world.

January 7, 2004

Points of Influence

I find that Jon Stahl's Journal often has interesting links to material on the web which may no longer be precisely timely but is certainly relevant. Such is the case with his link to Donella Meadow's excellent 1997 article in Whole Earth magazine, Places to Intervene in a System. It's a system-focused approach to finding points of leverage, which often, as she notes, "are not intuitive."

The nine intervention points:

9. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).

8. Material stocks and flows.

7. Regulating negative feedback loops.

6. Driving positive feedback loops.

5. Information flows.

4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints).

3. The power of self-organization.

2. The goals of the system.

1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

Meadows covers each item in substantial detail. She concludes with an appeal to let go of comfortable paradigms in order to attack the roots of global problems:

I don't think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off paradigms. In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do with pushing levers than it does with disciplined thinking combined with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.

January 12, 2004

The Bubble of American Supremacy

George Soros is both smart and rich. Very smart and very rich, in fact. And, more often than not, he is on the side of the Good Guys. So when Soros starts talking about international politics and the role of America, he's worth listening to.

The December 2003 issue of The Atlantic includes a long-but-fascinating essay by Soros entitled "The Bubble of American Supremacy," in which he argues that the notion of the United States as a hyperpower able to act unilaterally across the globe is the functional equivalent of a financial bubble -- rooted in part in fact, in part in self-delusion, and prone to disaster once it pops. Soros, no stranger to global crises and the threat of totalizing ideologies, spells out both the danger of the current course and what the United States should do in order to better achieve its global goals of spreading democracy and freedom.

The supremacist ideology of the Bush Administration stands in opposition to the principles of an open society, which recognize that people have different views and that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth. The supremacist ideology postulates that just because we are stronger than others, we know better and have right on our side. The very first sentence of the September 2002 National Security Strategy (the President's annual laying out to Congress of the country's security objectives) reads, "The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise."

The assumptions behind this statement are false on two counts. First, there is no single sustainable model for national success. Second, the American model, which has indeed been successful, is not available to others, because our success depends greatly on our dominant position at the center of the global capitalist system, and we are not willing to yield it.

Even if you disagree with him, this is an article well-worth reading and thinking about.

January 21, 2004

George Soros Redux

As a follow-up to our earlier post about George Soros' article (and new book) The Bubble of American Supremacy, here's a newly-posted interview with Soros on Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo political blog. In it, he provides further discussion of the need for open societies, for an international regime based on respect for law, and for a recognition that might does not always make right:

SOROS: I think that the reliance on military power is sort of an excess of this Social Darwinist point of view. I had been opposed to market fundamentalism as a philosophy or as an ideology. Namely, that life is a struggle for survival, and the struggle manifests itself mainly in competition. And the competition is, who is stronger? And the survival of the fittest is basically the survival of the strongest in competition. But, in actual fact, survival also requires cooperation. And there is a need for having rules to which everybody agrees for us to survive. And there are also problems like the environment, that can only be … and maintaining peace in the world, that can only be achieved through cooperation. So there's a misinterpretation of the Darwinist theory of survival of the fittest --- that achieving power over others is the goal. And that is not really the basis of our civilization.

Open Source Voting

WorldChanging hasn't up until now done an entry focusing on electronic voting, but regular readers should be able to guess our position: good idea (since it makes voting more accessible to the disabled and non-English speakers) but it needs to be made more trustable. American experiences with electronic voting, by and large, haven't been all that encouraging, including obvious miscounts with no way of recounting, proprietary software found to have serious security flaws [PDF], and more. But there are solutions.

Verifiable voting is key: the e-voting machine produces a paper print-out to allow the voter to check that the machine recorded his or her vote correctly, then stores those paper ballots for later spot checks (and, if necessary, hand recounts).

The buggy proprietary code problem also has a straightforward (if radical) solution: use open source/Free software. It's far less likely that security flaws will slip through (let alone intentional backdoors) if the code is open for everyone to examine. Problem is, the big e-voting companies have no desire to open up their proprietary software.

Fortunately, a solution is at hand. Wired News has an article today about the Open Vote Foundation, a nonprofit started by a 19-year-old political science and math student at UC Davis, Scott Ritchie. This group (which, at this point, may just be Ritchie, but will likely grow quickly) intends to offer open source voting software to the state of California and, later, to other regions. The software they'll use is a modification of eVACS, the Electronic Voting and Counting System created (and GPL'd) by an Australian firm, Software Improvements. And the code isn't untested betaware -- it was used in Australia in 2001, and an updated version will be used again this year.

The use of an open source/Free voting system would be a big step in awakening people to the possibilities inherent in distributed/collaborative security, where we all look out for each other in the ways we know best.

February 13, 2004

Measuring Globalization

The journal Foreign Policy occasionally produces detailed reports about the state of the global system. These articles are usually well-worth reading. (In November, we linked to a piece they did last year on "committment to development" demonstrated by the 21 richest nations.) This week, Foreign Policy released the latest of its annual studies on the degree of global integration.

The Globalization Index measures a country's various transnational links, "from foreign direct investment to international travel, telephone traffic, and Internet servers," as well as looking at a country's involvement in international organizations. The main article, Measuring Globalization: Who's Up, Who's Down?, includes a link to a country-by-country ranking, as well as links to the source data (.zip file) and a discussion of the report's methodology. Other good articles include Measuring Globalization: Economic Reversals, Forward Momentum, which goes into greater detail about the meaning of the index, and a brief essay (oddly offline at the moment) about the challenges of trying to tie cultural globalization into the index.

The report, while claiming not to take sides on the pro- and anti-globalization debate, clearly comes down on the globalization-is-a-net-positive side. But even if you disagree with the overall conclusions, the data presented in the articles and charts are worth thinking about. For example, the chart of "Globalization and the Environment" shows an apparent correlation between global ties and environmental responsibility. What is it about transnational connections that makes it more likely that a country will demonstrate environmental sensitivity?

March 4, 2004

Electronic Voting

We've mentioned concerns about electronic voting in the past; last Tuesday's elections underscored some of those worries in a few places. One of the most interesting essays about electronic voting on Super Tuesday came from Avi Rubin, a Rice University computer science professor who led the group that analyzed Diebold software and found numerous security holes. Professor Rubin, in response to critics who claimed that he may know about computers but knew nothing about elections, signed up to be an "election judge" -- one of the workers at a polling place -- for Baltimore County. He learned first hand what worked and what didn't with the electronic voting systems, and about the importance of good poll workers. Definitely recommended.

March 11, 2004

Black Star: Ghana


Black Star: Ghana, Information Technology and Development in Africa is, by far, the most detailed discussion of the problems and successes in bringing information technology to the developing world. G. Pascal Zachary, a Berkeley-based writer and scholar, author of several books on technology and culture, and regular contributor to publications as diverse as AlterNet, The Wall Street Journal, and Technology Review, has an extensive article in the March 2004 edition of FirstMonday about the ongoing economic, technological, and social development in the nation of Ghana. In it, he covers the behavior of international corporations, the ongoing "brain drain" to Europe and the United States (as well as the increasingly important role of emigrés investing in Ghana), the problems with the educational system, the effects of culture, and much, much more.

Most importantly, while he details both the extensive challenges facing any attempt to build up a local information industry (and the various stumbles of previous efforts) and the hope and very real opportunities underlying the ongoing work, Zachary also lists concrete proposals for making development work in Ghana. Aimed at international investors and states, local businesses, and the government of Ghana, these suggestions are plausible and well-thought-out. Few of them are truly unique to Ghana's situation; while Black Star focuses on a single Central African nation, its lessons are applicable throughout the developing world.

Black Star is a long piece, and is written in a direct, clear style that is quite informative (although not particularly entertaining). With that in mind, if you have an interest in how information technologies can aid in the developing world -- and the real world issues such aid will confront -- I strongly suggest taking the time to read this article. In the extended entry, you'll find a number of excerpts which will give you a sense of the arguments and discussions Zachary makes.

(Thanks, Monty Zukowski for the link)

Continue reading "Black Star: Ghana" »

March 20, 2004

The Bogotá Experiment

What happens when you elect a mathematics and philosophy professor mayor? You get mimes on the street. And, it turns out, that's a good thing.

The Harvard University Gazette recently ran a lengthy article about Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, after his visit to the campus. If you're not familiar with Mockus, you should definitely read the piece; as mayor, he actively sought out unconventional approaches to solving Bogotá's enormous social problems, and, to a surprising degree, he actually succeeded. (The Atlantic Monthly had a good article about him in late 2001, which is also worth checking out.)

During his two terms as mayor (from 1995 to 1997, when he dropped out to run for Vice President, and then from 2000 to 2004), Mockus's initiatives focused both on the standard of living and sanctity of life. He used creativity, art, and humor as his tools for getting his messages out. He's infamous for hiring mimes to work street corners, gently mocking and parodying those who break traffic laws. But not all of his approaches were satirical:

"In a society where human life has lost value," he said, "there cannot be another priority than re-establishing respect for life as the main right and duty of citizens." Mockus sees the reduction of homicides from 80 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003 as a major achievement, noting also that traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600. Contributing to this success was the mayor's inspired decision to paint stars on the spots where pedestrians (1,500 of them) had been killed in traffic accidents.

He also sought ways to improve Bogotá's environment, including a drive to reduce water consumption during a shortage (water use is now 40% less than before the shortage) and the encouragement of car-free days in the city to encourage the use of public transit and bicycles. He also championed efforts to bring drinking water and sewage services into every home in Bogotá; sewer hookups went from 70.8% in 1993 to 94.9% in 2003, and water provision went from 78.7% to 100% in the same period.

Mimes on streetcorners and occasional men-only curfews may not work in every city, but Mockus's success in Bogotá is a good example of the value of trying innovative approaches to solving seemingly intractible problems. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome. It's a good thing, then, to try something new, even if it looks a little crazy.

(Thanks, gmoke!)

March 23, 2004

Growing, But Growing More Slowly

According to the US Census Bureau, population on Earth is still growing at a heady pace -- 74 million more people were born than died in 2002 -- but the pace of growth is slowing. In 1990, the average woman gave birth to 3.3 children over her lifetime; by 2002, that rate had dropped to 2.6 children, slightly above replacement level. The Census Bureau believes that this rate will drop below replacement by 2050, at which point the planet will hold just over 9 billion people, 17% of which will be over 65.

Sadly, this is only partially due to women choosing to have fewer children; much of the decline comes from the effect of AIDS in Africa. But even if a freely-available cure were developed tomorrow, these projections wouldn't really change. Population is a slow-moving indicator, where results of even big changes can take years, even decades, to appear.

March 30, 2004

Transparent Democracy

Running a political campaign costs money -- lots of it. But where does that cash come from? Many people may presume that the money is the result of backroom deals and the like, or big donations from big organizations. While some of that is undoubtedlly true, a very large part of a candidates funding comes from individual small donations. For the office of president, an individual may donate no more than $2,000 total to a single candidate. But who's giving that money?

Fundrace tells you. Based on information made available by the Federal Election Commission, Fundrace converts lines of data into colorful maps, breaking down contributions by state, by first 3 digits of the zip code, and by county. The top ten donating cities are broken down even further, with maps showing contributions by address.

Yes, by address. And since the data collected on donations (at least those totalling more than $200 per candidate) include names and addresses, Fundrace lets you run searches on those categories as well. Want to know who in your neighborhood has donated to presidential candidates? Easily done (here is a list of people donating in the vicinity of zip code 20500, the White House). Want to know who Bill Gates gave money to? Or Steve Wozniak? Or George Soros?

As cool as Fundrace is, it only tells part of the story, that of individual donations. For institutional donations, you need to dig through the data at the FEC. Here, for example, is the list of political action committees donating to or spending money on behalf of President Bush (fyi, the first section lists those groups spending money explicitly against Bush; bad information design, FEC!). You can see how the various PACs and organizations spent their money, and even find out who donated to the PACs to begin with. The FEC site includes all candidates running for office, as well as historical data. But no cool maps.

As disconcerting as the easy access to political contribution information may be at first, this is a good development. Transparency is key to combatting corruption; as the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And while being able to peek at your neighbor's political leanings is a fun bit of voyeurism, the real value of this information is in pulling the covers back on the financing of political power. Who watches the watchmen? We all do.

April 10, 2004

Balance the Budget

Speaking of simulations, how about trying your hand at balancing the US federal budget? This simulation lets you go through each departmental category -- defense, non-defense energy, general science, agriculture, transportation, etc. -- and decide which parts to increase and which to decrease. There are two versions; a short version lets you increase/decrease/eliminate by category, while the long version lets you get into the details for each category. It's an incredibly useful -- and sobering -- tool for thinking about how federal budgets work, and what can be done to decrease the deficit while still paying for desired programs.

(Via Boing Boing)

April 12, 2004

American Power, European Power

Henry wrote to tell us about a new article in the Washington Monthly entitled "Euro Brash: Why George W. Bush takes orders from Pascal Lamy." It's an examination of the shifting economic balance of power between the US and Europe -- and what it means for global politics. Increasingly, the European Union is willing to assert a global economic role commensurate with the size of its market, even when its decisions run counter to those made in Washington. From blocking the US-approved merger between General Electric and Honeywell to demanding American software companies strengthen their privacy policies to match European rules (and, most recently, demanding Microsoft alter Windows, after the US Department of Justice backed down), the European Union is showing a growing ability and willingness to say "no" to American decisions.

This article argues that this could lead to a "backdoor Kyoto:"

American consumers may soon have to get used to buying products tailored to the demands of Brussels. The European Union, for example, has long forced U.S. automakers to improve their emissions standards for cars sold in the European market. Might they go a step further, and pressure firms like GM and Ford to improve their records worldwide? It's hypothetical, but Europeans would be thrilled if they could pull off a backdoor Kyoto, declaring that, since pollution is a global issue, only firms whose vehicle fleets meet worldwide standards could sell in the European market.

The US would howl, but the EU has already shown a willingness to hold firm against American demands over steel and hormone-laden American beef. Could Europe force American companies to go green, regardless of policies from Washington?

April 13, 2004

UK Sustainability Report

What can a government do to promote environmentally-friendly development? Quite a bit, according to a just-released report from the UK's Sustainable Development Commission. The report, with the typically understated title of "Shows promise. But must try harder" (also available as PDF), issues 20 "challenges" to the government of the United Kingdom, ranging from strategic national goals to specific recommendations for local councils.

The issue of sustainability is one of the central challenges of our time.

Some people think that the concept of sustainable development is a platitude, no more demanding and no more exciting than apple pie. We think on the contrary that it is one of the most demanding challenges facing humanity today, and also one of the most exciting.

Some of the major changes and trends that are emerging in society today are fundamentally unsustainable. Some of the changes that will need to be made to get onto a more sustainable path run quite contrary to received opinion and may initially be quite unpopular.

[...] But we are acutely conscious of the magnitude of the challenges ahead and of the dangers for the world and for the UK if we do not move more swiftly and firmly towards a radically more sustainable society. The challenges we have made in this report are intended to help shape the debate which is about to be launched, and to give it as much urgency and incisiveness as possible.

In our view, the time for more radical change is right now. We stand ready to elaborate and defend the challenges we have put forward in the great debate which is about to commence.

What's particularly remarkable about this document is that it shows the breadth and depth of what governments can do to help bring about a shift to more environmentally sustainable development. I haven't finished reading it in its entirety, as it's fairly lengthy, but what I have read is clearly a serious and well-thought-out attempt to grapple with how a modern democratic nation can become an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable society. That it comes from Blair's environment advisor and head of the goverment commission, not from an NGO, makes it all the more impressive.

What do you think of the report and its recommendations?

April 14, 2004

Watching Justice

We're definitely admirers of George Soros and the work he does through his Open Society Institute. Emphasizing transparency and accountability, the Open Society Institute works hard to strengthen civil institutions around the world. Historically, they have emphasized Eastern Europe and the developing world; they've now begun to turn their attention to the United States.

Watching Justice is the OSI's new website dedicated to monitoring and analyzing the actions of the US Department of Justice.

Watching Justice is a non-partisan, watchdog website that monitors the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), offering regularly updated and comprehensive information to the public about how the DOJ administers justice in America. The DOJ plays a significant and singular role in shaping and enforcing the nation's policies through litigation, regulation, investigation, and implementation of laws. Watching Justice's mission is to keep a vigilant and long-term eye on Americans' fundamental rights and liberties by providing a forum for analysis, praise, and criticism of the department's actions. Watching Justice also monitors those offices in the Department of Homeland Security that were previously based in the DOJ.

Narrower in scope than the ACLU, the DOJ focus of Watching Justice may allow it to emphasize a "whistle-blower" and media/information-focused role instead of a litigatory one. Although it's ostensibly non-partisan, the positions it takes on most issues do generally align it with the more progressive elements in American culture. It will be interesting to watch how Watching Justice works out over this election year.

April 25, 2004

New Models of Politics

Political parties and political campaigns in coming years will bear little resemblence to the familiar structures of the late 20th century. We've looked at some of the new models being used and debated and where they could go, but two more examples of 21st century politics have shown up on our radar -- and they couldn't be more divergent. The Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign has embraced the information-dense, top-down control of the so-called "multilevel marketing" campaigns; the Green Party of Canada, conversely, in its bid to become a new player in Canadian parliamentary politics, has opened its platform on a Wiki, allowing all members to shape its contents directly. The contrast between these two approaches demonstrates that this new era of networked politics is still very much in its earliest days.

At its core, the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign diverges very little from traditional political campaigns. Field campaigners are given explicit instructions coming down from the top, and their reports filter back up to feed the campaign's growing database. Hierarchical control, established talking points, and registration quotas are all familiar elements to experienced political observers. What makes the campaign's approach different from past efforts is the degree to which dense information flows (albeit one-way) and rich communication media are the fuel for the process, and the explicit adoption of multilevel marketing as a process model. This sort of campaign would have been far more unweildy in the era prior to instant messages, GIS, GPS, email, and ubiquitous mobile phones. In many respects, the Bush-Cheney 2004 exemplifies how a traditional approach can evolve to take advantage of new technologies and systems, without ever changing its underlying nature.

The Green Party of Canada, conversely, is clearly trying something entirely new. The party platform -- its collection of core beliefs, policy agendas, and issue positions -- is editable by all members in a Wiki, and the process is visible to all visitors. By using a Wiki format, all Green Party Canada members have a say in the evolution of the party's approach to Canadian concerns. This will inevitably be somewhat chaotic, as even in a small, activist group, there will be diverging beliefs and ideas; nonetheless, it's the perfect tool for a movement espousing individual empowerment coupled with community collaboration.

It's entirely possible that both of these approaches will suffer setbacks this year, or demonstrate surprising strength. Politics is undergoing a transition, and it's not obvious what new model will come to dominate the next few decades. While we may have a strong bias towards empowered/collaborative approaches, we have to be clear that the tools which make it possible for smaller, disparate groups to come together and function effectively also make it possible for established, large-scale organizations to leverage their depth of resources to build new abilities and power. In the 1990s, it was a consultant mantra that smaller, nimbler new entrants in various industries would devour the older "dinosaur" companies; in reality, the older dinosaurs usually managed to learn from the new models, take advantage of what worked, and happily devoured the little guys. We shouldn't be shocked if we see history repeat itself.

April 28, 2004

Water and Sanitation

What's one of the most cost-efficient ways to improve the lives of people in the developing world? Simply meeting international standards for safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, at least according to the World Health Organization. As written up in the Financial Times:

In a report prepared for the World Health Organisation, the Swiss Tropical Institute estimates that providing 1.5bn people with an improved water supply and 1.9bn people with basic sanitation by 2015 would cost an extra $11.3bn (E9.5bn, £6.3bn) a year over and above current investment.

But the economic benefits, in terms of health and higher productivity, could be as high as $84bn annually, the study says. Further reductions in exposure to contaminated drinking water, for instance by disinfecting water after collection, could produce overall benefits between five and 60 times the amount invested.

2.4 billion people around the world don't have access to basic sanitation, while 1.1 billion don't have safe drinking water. The problem is particularly bad in Africa, where around 40% of the continent has access to neither appropriate sanitation or safe water.

The water study documents are available at the WHO website as PDFs.

(Via World Turning)

May 3, 2004

Conflict Map

The 20th century was bloody, and the 21st century isn't getting off to a very good start itself. We can all name the big wars of the last hundred years, but we all know that the world wars and gulf wars were only the tip of the iceberg, especially when we start counting civil wars. Dry lists of dates and places are useful references, but don't really convey the extent of conflict in the modern era.

Enter the Nobel e-Museum. Among its many exhibits, reference works, and even games is a Shockwave-based map of 20th and early 21st century conflicts. The Conflict Map shows where various wars (listed as "Interstate War," "Colonial War," "Civil War," and World Wars I & II) took place, how long they lasted, and who was involved. The map is interactive, and defaults to a ten year display; you can readily expand the timeline to encompass any period from 1900 to 2001.

As a conceptual counterweight, the map also shows a chart of how many Nobel Peace Prizes were given during your selected period, as well as to which regions of the world the prizes went. Selecting a region shows who received the prizes.

This map is an excellent example of the value of good design as a means of conveying information. The pace and pattern of conflict becomes clear by scanning through the century; particularly notable is the shift from Interstate and Colonial wars dominating the field to the eruption of Civil wars over the latter part of the century. This sort of information design could easily be applied to mapping species extinction, toxic spills, or human rights abuses. Is anyone out there working on interactive maps of environmental or political changes?

June 17, 2004

California's Two-Lane Highway

Jamais' HybridClinton didn't try to get Kyoto passed. Bush's opposition to environmental rules is legendary. And, even if Kerry wins, he'll very likely face a hostile Congress unwilling to give an inch. The willful inability of the American federal government to adopt meaningful carbon emissions reductions is dangerously short-sighted, but it does not necessarily mean that Americans won't be reducing CO2 in the coming years. In the American federal system, state governments also have the power to enact emission regulations, and to encourage the development and implementation of new technologies. California has a long history of being a leader in attacking air pollution. California is now becoming a leader in attacking CO2 emissions from vehicles.

What makes the California approach particularly notable is that it is pushing for change in two seemingly very different ways: a near-to-mid term set of specific changes to standard automobile (and light-duty truck, including SUV) designs explicitly intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and a mid-to-long term initiative to kick-start a transition to hydrogen-based vehicles by supporting the installation of H2 fueling stations throughout the state, the so-called "Hydrogen Highway" plan. In the extended entry, I'll take a closer look at both of these approaches, and what they mean for the nation as a whole. Pardon the length, but this is important.

Continue reading "California's Two-Lane Highway" »

June 25, 2004


We love sites which help visualize information here at WC central, especially those which can put into context otherwise dry statistics. NationMaster, though, takes the prize. Combining data from the UN, the CIA, the WHO, the World Bank, the World Resources Institute, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the OECD, NationMaster lets you generate maps and graphs on an enormous variety of subjects. They claim to have over 4,000 different datasets at present, and the number is growing.

While the latest set of statistics (on mortality) is getting a bit of blog play today, WC readers may find the statistics on the environment, internet use, and energy a bit more of interest. One of the most provocative aspects of NationMaster is the correlations system, which lets you compare a given stat to other statistics, even seemingly unrelated ones. Correlations are only available to "supporters" who subscribe to the site -- a small fee which I expect to be coughing up soon.

Update: Boingboing claims that the site might cause problems for Mozilla-based browsers. For whatever it's worth, I browsed it without difficulty using Firefox/Mac

July 2, 2004

Check the Florida Felon List

Are you a felon in Florida, and therefore unable to legally vote? Don't be so quick to say no. In the 2000 presidential vote, mistakes in the Florida list of ineligible-to-vote felons barred thousands of people from voting who shouldn't have been prohibited, either because they were felons whose voting rights had been legally restored or because they had been punished only for misdemeanors, not felonies, and should never have had their voting rights removed to begin with. Reports came in of people barred from voting because they had the same name as a felon, or a name added to the list because it was similar to that of a felon. It was, in a word, ugly, and not the best day for American democracy. In 2000, the only way to find out if you were barred from voting in Florida was to go to the polls on election day and hope you were permitted to vote.

That's not the case today. In a perfect example of the proper role for the Internet in a modern democracy, the group People for the American Way is making available on the web the list of more than 47,000 registered Florida voters who the Florida Division of Elections believes should be ineligible. Given the mistakes last time around, all voters in Florida should check to make sure that their names aren't improperly on the list. The PFAW page includes what to do -- and who to call -- if you do find your name on the list. The only drawback to the listing is that it's only available as PDF, not in HTML; I suspect a conversion to HTML will be done by one of the civic-minded folks on the web any day now -- do tell us if you find one out there.

July 27, 2004

Conservatives for Conservation?

Conservatives for conservation? In the US, despite the historical embrace of conservationism by Republicans and a growing right-leaning environmental movement (see first comment, from Emily), the Vice President notoriously referred to electricity conservation as little more than "a sign of personal virtue." But the Tories in the United Kingdom, certainly no slouches when it comes to conservatism, seem to be taking a very different path. The Guardian reports that the Tories had this to say in opposition to the Labour government's push for wind power:

The shadow environment secretary, Tim Yeo, said "ministers have bet everything" on land-based wind farms.

Conservatives would produce a "more balanced" policy later in the year, focusing more heavily on energy efficiency, he said.

"We do not believe that onshore wind should be the only show in town," he said. "We do not want to put all our eggs in one basket.

"We will look at all types of renewable energy in order to find the best long-term solution for Britain. As an island nation, why are we not doing more to harness power from wave and tide?"
(Boldface mine.)

As with all statements from politicians, it's good to be skeptical -- the Tories have signed on with a major advocate of nuclear power in the UK, for example, in the campaign against wind farms -- but I look forward to the day when the default American conservative energy position is to emphasize efficiency and diversity of renewable sources.

August 3, 2004

TechWatch the Vote

With less than three months left before the November 2 election in the United States, it's worth revisiting an issue that will undoubtedly be a key factor in how confident American voters feel about the outcome of the vote: "direct record electronic" (DRE) voting systems. We've touched on this issue several times (at length in January, and more briefly in March, April and June). It's an important problem, but there are solutions, both short-term and long-term. The lengthy extended post covers the details of what we can do to make sure the e-vote in November is fair and honest.

Continue reading "TechWatch the Vote" »

September 4, 2004

140 Million Cars, 16 Years, 2 Scenarios

Green Car Congress found an article in China Daily reporting predictions by Chinese officials that they expect to have 140 million cars on the road by 2020, a number larger than the present American car fleet. China currently operates 20 million cars.

Government statistics show that China produced a record four million autos in 2003, when the number of private cars grew by 80 percent thanks to the country's strong economic advance and growing middle class.

It is estimated that this year's production will top five million units, making China the world's third-largest auto manufacturer after the United States and Japan.


Market analysts cited by Xinhua News Agency said China was in the launch phase of another round of economic growth and the rapid development of the auto industry would be a major driving force.

This number -- 140 million -- will determine the shape of the next decade and a half. (Even if 140 million cars doesn't happen, it's important: since it's unlikely that China will suddenly veer away from private vehicle ownership, a world where it doesn't happen is one where something even bigger has caused a global shift.) As China accelerates the production and consumption of private vehicles, two broad scenarios suggest themselves:

If the Chinese continue to pursue gasoline or (petroleum) diesel-burning cars, they'll be able to take advantage of cheap auto technologies, a global market of vehicles to purchase from, and a global market to sell into. They'll also face rapidly-tightening oil supplies, instability in oil-producing regions, and competition with existing petroleum consumers over access, as well as dumping millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (along with other non-greenhouse but still very dangerous emissions). A shift to alternative energy cars will happen later, potentially putting China behind more forward-looking markets. This is a world of fast vehicle-ownership growth now, big problems by 2020.

If the Chinese opt instead to pursue alternative energy vehicles (biodiesel, hybrids, fuel cells) as quickly as possible, they'll be coming in at a point still high on the price curve for those technologies, a limited number of suppliers of both components and complete vehicles, and few markets outside of China ready for such vehicles (either because the existing infrastructure is heavily weighted towards petroleum cars, or because the economics of the more expensive alternative power vehicles don't work out). They'll also be a market leader when other parts of the world do start large-scale shifts to alt-energy cars (ironically, something which would take longer to happen due to reduced Chinese competition for oil), and will be farther along in their efforts to clean up the national environment. This is a world where vehicle supplies (and cost) don't meet consumer demand early on, but looks more profitable and clean by 2020.

So, which path will China take? Trouble now (but rewards later), or convenience now (but problems later)? The answer to this question is a key driver of how the next 16 years will unfold.

September 15, 2004

Blair's Climate Change Speech

Emily noted yesterday that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was to make a major speech on the subject of climate change today. Well, he did. Here it is.

Some excerpts:

[...] the challenge is complicated politically by two factors. First, its likely effect will not be felt to its full extent until after the time for the political decisions that need to be taken, has passed. In other words, there is a mismatch in timing between the environmental and electoral impact. Secondly, no one nation alone can resolve it. It has no definable boundaries. Short of international action commonly agreed and commonly followed through, it is hard even for a large country to make a difference on its own.

[...] Just as science and technology has given us the evidence to measure the danger of climate change, so it can help us find safety from it. The potential for innovation, for scientific discovery and hence, of course for business investment and growth, is enormous. With the right framework for action, the very act of solving it can unleash a new and benign commercial force to take the action forward, providing jobs, technology spin-offs and new business opportunities as well as protecting the world we live in.

[...] Here it is important to stress the scale of the implications for the developing world. It is far more than an environmental one, massive though that is. It needs little imagination to appreciate the security, stability and health problems that will arise in a world in which there is increasing pressure on water availability; where there is a major loss of arable land for many; and in which there are large-scale displacements of population due to flooding and other climate change effects.

It is the poorest countries in the world that will suffer most from severe weather events, longer and hotter droughts and rising oceans. Yet it is they who have contributed least to the problem. That is why the world's richest nations in the G8 have a responsibility to lead the way: for the strong nations to better help the weak.

[...] Climate change will be a top priority for our G8 Presidency next year.

Most of my friends in the UK aren't terribly impressed with Blair these days, but it's still worth applause when he makes the right call.

September 28, 2004

San Francisco To Cut Greenhouse Gasses

San Francisco today announced a plan to cut greenhouse emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2012. SF government, businesses and residents are currently responsible for 9.7 million tons of CO2 annually, which i left unchecked will likely grow to 10.8 million tons by 2012. This plan will try to bring SF down to 7.2 million tons by 2012, a level below what the Kyoto plan would have required. The "Climate Action Plan" is now online (PDF).

The proposal stops short of declaring San Francisco a global-warming-free zone; it does list several ways to slash the city's greenhouse emissions by 2012 to a target level set at 20 percent below 1990 emissions.

Most steps emphasize voluntary incentives and demonstration projects designed to coax more people out of their cars and onto bicycles or buses; convert as many city buildings and vehicles as possible to green power; expand use of energy-saving construction designs; and reward more recycling efforts.

If San Francisco is alone in this plan, the overall change to the course of global warming will be... not much. But SF isn't alone: 150 cities and counties in the United States are taking part in similar plans, as are 600 local governments around the world. These efforts are coordinated by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) Cities for Climate Protection campaign.

October 6, 2004

red | blue

We pointed long ago to and its excellent sets of data regarding political donations. One of the more interesting -- and, for some, alarming -- aspects of FundRace was its ability to let you type in an address and get back a list of nearby donors. Suddenly you could find out if your neighbors had the same political leanings you had without risking a punch in the nose.

Now a website called "Gravity Monkey" has crafted a tiny application called "red | blue". Written for your Java-enabled mobile device (phone, PDA, panoptiglasses, whatever), red | blue lets you find out whether you're in hostile or friendly territory with a quick web check. If your mobile device includes GPS, you can even track your surroundings as you move.

red | blue is available for free. Although the Gravity Monkey page describing the software claims that the work has a "creative commons" license, the app does not appear to be free/open source.

(Via Engadget)

October 20, 2004

We're Number 17!

Transparency International released its Corruption Perceptions Index today. Finland once again topped the list of transparent, non-corrupt countries, with New Zealand, Denmark and Iceland close behind. The UK was #11, Canada #12, and the United States an also-ran at #17 (along with Belgium and Ireland), just behind Hong Kong and a bit ahead of France & Spain (at #20). As disappointing as those results are, they are only the tip of the corruption iceberg:

A total of 106 out of 146 countries score less than 5 against a clean score of 10, according to the new index, published today by Transparency International, the leading non-governmental organisation fighting corruption worldwide. Sixty countries score less than 3 out of 10, indicating rampant corruption. Corruption is perceived to be most acute in Bangladesh, Haiti, Nigeria, Chad, Myanmar, Azerbaijan and Paraguay, all of which have a score of less than 2.

“Corruption robs countries of their potential,” said Eigen. “As the Corruption Perceptions Index 2004 shows, oil-rich Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen all have extremely low scores. In these countries, public contracting in the oil sector is plagued by revenues vanishing into the pockets of western oil executives, middlemen and local officials.”

The Frequently Asked Questions page lays out the CPI's definition of corruption:

The CPI focuses on corruption in the public sector and defines corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain. The surveys used in compiling the CPI ask questions that relate to the misuse of public power for private benefit, with a focus, for example, on bribe-taking by public officials in public procurement. The sources do not distinguish between administrative and political corruption or between petty and grand corruption.

We've written about corruption and transparency before -- they were the subject of one of our first posts, in fact -- and for good reason. Corruption is one of the key stumbling blocks to building a better world. Efforts like the CPI to bring data about corruption into the open are extremely valuable: as the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

October 23, 2004

Think of it as Insurance

While there is a global consensus of climate scientists on the reality of human-induced climate disruption, the details remain a bit fuzzy. Questions remain about how the process is unfolding, and the recent news that atmospheric CO2 concentrations are growing faster than models had predicted is disturbing (to say the least). There's still some uncertainty about the speed with which climate change is unfolding (although "slowly" may no longer be a credible scenario), and the scale of the disruption ("bad", "very bad", or "call Roland Emmerich").

But what does a reasonable person do when faced with the uncertain scale of quite likely disaster? Buy insurance.

Dr. Michael Schlesinger and Dr. Natalia Andronova at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the October 15 edition of Science, argue that an "insurance policy" approach is the best way to handle the likely need for mitigation of climate disruption and the uncertainty about its unfolding effects. They examined a number of possible scenarios, from "do nothing now" to "do everything now" against different scales of atmospheric sensitivity to greenhouse gases in order to determine the optimal approach. What they found is that the best combination of effectiveness and flexibility is to implement a gradually-rising carbon tax, starting at $10 per ton, climbing to $33 per ton in 30 years. $10/ton would amount to 5 cents per gallon of gasoline.

“It’s really a cost-minimization problem, given that we will eventually have to set a policy target sometime in the future,” Schlesinger said.

“The idea is to search for the tax that provides the least cost over the whole period. If the tax is too low, you do too little in the beginning, then after 30 years you have to do a lot. On the other hand, if the tax is too high, you spend too much now, and you may have to do only a little later.”

The least cost, the researchers found, is to implement a carbon tax that starts out at $10 per ton of carbon (about five cents per gallon of gasoline) and then gradually climbs to $33 per ton in 30 years. Such hedging effectively “buys insurance” against future adjustment costs and is extremely robust, especially when compared with a wait-and-see strategy.

“It would be much less expensive to buy low-cost, climate-change insurance now, than it would be to wait and act later,” Schlesinger said. People voluntarily purchase insurance as protection from extreme events when the risks are private, he said, but societies can require insurance when potential losses are distributed across a population. In the past, risk has influenced policies where voluntary action could prove insufficient.

The article is available at the Science website for subscribers, but the supporting material -- including many pages of the calculations that went into the scenarios -- can be downloaded for free (PDF).

November 8, 2004

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

I'm pleased to be able to announce the formation of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a new organization dedicated to the responsible, constructive examination of "human enhancement technologies" -- the biological, informational, and social technologies allowing us to live happier, healthier lives. From the official announcement:

We believe that technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development so long as we ensure that technologies are safe and equitably distributed.

As yet there has been no institutional home for the consideration of the ethical challenges of emerging human enhancement technologies free from both anti-regulatory dogmas that deny the legitimacy of democratic public policy, and technophobic red herrings such as anxieties about transgressing the boundaries of humanness. The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies intends to fill that gap.


The Institute will organize several events per year in Europe and North America. In July 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference in Caracas Venezuela, focusing on human enhancement technologies and the developing world, with the World Transhumanist Association. [...] In September 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference on Human Rights and Human Enhancement with the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics.

I was asked to serve as Global Health and Development Policy Fellow for IEET, and have happily accepted. Other IEET Fellows familiar to WorldChanging readers include Emerging Technologies Fellow Mike Treder and Human Rights Fellow Dale Carrico.

The Institute argues that the global discussion we must have about the use of human enhancement technologies is not just between those who would forbid them entirely and those who demand unrestricted proliferation. We must also hear from those who argue for socially responsible development, which seeks to match human desire for knowledge and improvement with society's need for equity and democracy. WorldChanging readers (and contributors!) may not agree with some of the positions and arguments adopted by IEET, but should appreciate its purpose: to promote the ethical use of technologies to expand human capabilities.

November 15, 2004

Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

A recurring theme in recent WorldChanging posts is the argument that state governments can play an important role in fighting global warming-induced climate disruption. Jer posted about the West Coast Governors' Global Warming Initiative earlier this month; now it's time for the East Coast to be in the (green)house.

Future Now points us to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which describes itself as "a cooperative effort by Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions." Initiated in 2003 by New York governor George Pataki, RGGI combines the efforts of nine states (New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont), along with representatives from Eastern Canadian Provinces Secretariat and the Province of New Brunswick, to develop a regional cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The program is set to be unveiled by April of 2005.

And it may not stop with just those nine states and a province. The British newspaper The Independent reports:

The scheme could even link up with the emissions controls and trading system being established by the European Union next year, allowing emission allowances to be traded across the Atlantic. It is understood that informal talks have taken place between environmental officials of the US states and their European Commission counterparts.

If you (like me) hadn't heard of RGGI before, it's not surprising. The RGGI website is filled with the flat language of policy, not flashy graphics and exciting prose -- which is how it should be. Dealing with climate disruption is as much an issue of good governance as it is media relations, and it's nice to see some websites emphasizing the former over the latter.

November 16, 2004

Political Rights and Terrorism

Rights vs. TerrorMuch of the conversation about the roots of terrorism assumes that terrorism comes from economic dislocation and degradation, that the poorer a nation is, the more likely it will be a well-spring of terrorist movements. But that assumption doesn't match reality. While there are certainly examples of groups using terror as a tactic emerging from the most down-trodden parts of the world, there are also plenty of examples of terrorists coming from relatively well-off nations.

Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, examined statistics for both domestic and transnational terror groups around the world and correlated them to other characteristics such as per-capita income, education levels, religious and ethnic fractures, and economic development. As it turned out, there was no statistical correlation between economics and terrorism, or between education and terrorism. Nor was there a correlation with any of the other characteristics, save one: political freedom, as measured by Freedom House's Index of Political Rights.

But the connection wasn't straightforward:

Continue reading "Political Rights and Terrorism" »

December 7, 2004

Fixing The Power Grid

distelec.jpgYesterday we posted about the Physics Today article covering the current status of hydrogen fuel technology. The same issue of Physics Today has another article of interest to worldchangers, this one covering the history and potential evolution of the electrical power grid. While it focuses on the grid in the United States, most of the observations are applicable across the developed world, and give some hints for leapfrogging directions.

The North American power grid is truly an astounding feat of engineering, but it has seen better days. Investment in infrastructure upgrades and repair in the 1990s was as low a percentage of industry revenues as it was in the days of the Great Depression and World War II. The system was built to handle the kinds of varying analog loads typical of the 1950s and 1960s; the need for constant clean power characterizing digital technology is more taxing to the system than many of us are aware. Policies to introduce greater market competition, open access to providers, and even environmental regulations have added uncertainty and stress to the creaking infrastructure. The 2002 blackout in the northeast, while a sign that the emergency systems operated properly (if they hadn't, the blackout would have been far larger and much longer-lasting), was also a harbinger of failures to come.

But there are solutions at hand, and some are ideas we've talked about here on WorldChanging. They include:

  • Advanced Conductors, using carbon fiber cores;
  • Distributed Energy Generation, increasing the resilience and reliability of the infrastructure;
  • Computer Modeling of Markets, for better planning; and
  • "Energy Portals", two-way communication between consumers/consumer devices and the provider(s).

    The article suggests a number of other solutions, as well.

    Adding distributed energy and "energy portals" (a term which smacks of late 90s dot-com jargon to me) has the potential to make the electricity network run in a way approximating the Internet, with a greater diversity of both providers and consumers -- and, when you add home generation via solar, wind, fuel cells or plug-in hybrids -- nodes which do both. Following this line of thought, an Internet tool which could lead to a provocative future for the power grid is BitTorrent: a Free/Open Source system of distributed file sharing, where a downloader doesn't get the entire file from any one source, but from all BitTorrent users with the file currently online. Moreover, once the downloader starts to receive the file, s/he becomes an upload source as well. I can imagine a system where instead of sharing files, a Free/Open Source Power network of homes share electricity, both "uploading" and "downloading" as needed, using the BitTorrent model.

    There are undoubtedly many problems with this idea, but at it's an intriguing possibility.

  • December 30, 2004

    Disaster-Secure Design

    WorldChanging ally W. David Stephenson, who specializes in distributed security strategies, crafted a list of what he would consider the ten key elements of an effective security model. It struck me as I read his list that most of these are precisely what would be needed for a distributed, reliable warning and response system for any kind of emergency, including natural disasters.

    In Stephenson's model, the system elements should:

  • Also have day-in-day-out applications so that they will both be familiar in an emergency (i.e., not requiring users to have to learn something new when they're already stressed) and will have economic and/or social benefits so their purchase and deployment are more easily justified.
  • Be decentralized, so they are less likely to be rendered inoperative by attacks on a centralized switching facility, etc.
  • Be in the hands of the general public, so they leverage technology that is already in use (and, given the inevitable cost and procurement limits of government technology, more current) and that people are likely to have with them when disaster strikes, so they can get up-to-the minute information.
  • Be location-based, so that we can get away from lowest-common denominator evacuation and response plans that are likely to cause their own problems such as traffic jams.
  • Empower the public, because authorities may themselves be incapacitated and our fate will be in our own hands, and because we may be more likely to listen to trusted friends and/or neighbors than distant authorities.
  • Be two-way, so that the general public and/or responders who may be the first to come upon an emerging problem can feed information back to authorities.
  • Be redundant, because various technologies have distinctive strengths and liabilities that may render them unusable, or, make them crucial fall-back options.
  • Allow dissemination of information in advance, so they can be quickly activated and/or customized in an emergency (instead of requiring massive data-dumps in the midst of a crisis).
  • Be IP based, because packet-based information will require less bandwidth in a situation where conserving it is crucial.
  • Foster collaboration, because multiple agencies and jurisdictions may be involved and will need to share information from a wide range of sources on a real-time basis.
  • If you replace the word "attacks on" in the second item with the more general "damage to," you have an excellent starting checklist for what a disaster response system would need. The emphasis on the empowerment of the public as both users of and contributors to the workings of the system is particularly important. We all have a responsibility to look out for each other, and -- as examples from open source to election protection show -- informed, aware groups can often do what centralized authorities cannot.

    As nice as a 10 point list is, however, it's missing a few important elements; design needs don't always fit into nice round numbers. We've frequently discussed ideas and models of sustainable, long-term, functional design here. Drawing from some of them, we can flesh out some of the other points a smart, modern disaster-secure system would need to cover.

    Continue reading "Disaster-Secure Design" »

    January 14, 2005

    Humanitarian Use of Satellite Information

    Satellites gave us some of the most powerful images of the tsunami, showing the scope of the disaster and the scale of the damage, and have proven crucial in the recovery and reconstruction process. Some of the satellite photos came from government agencies, while others came from commercial outfits. They are not a replacement for on-the-ground work, but are terrific information resources for those trying to carry out humanitarian relief in times of crisis.

    Satellite information is available for humanitarian efforts in part due to an international agreement specifically calling on nations operating satellites to help in the case of an event such as the December 26 tsunami. The agreement is the "Charter On Cooperation To Achieve The Coordinated Use Of Space Facilities In The Event Of Natural Or Technological Disasters," more generally known as the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters (ICSMD). A "natural or technological disaster" -- defined in the charter as a situation of great distress involving loss of human life or large-scale damage to property, caused by a natural phenomenon, such as a cyclone, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood or forest fire, or by a technological accident, such as pollution by hydrocarbons, toxic or radioactive substances -- allows signatory countries to request special access to relevant satellite information archives, live data, telecommunications, and broadcast facilities from other signatory nations.

    While the December 26 tsunami was by far its most visible activation, the charter has been triggered numerous times in recent years, and as recently as yesterday due to hurricane-force winds hitting Sweden. Six space agencies currently offer their resources through the charter: the European Space Agency (ESA), the separate French space agency (CNES), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), and Argentina's Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE). Russia, China, Japan and Brazil are notably absent.

    The Charter website has a nicely-produced pamphlet (PDF) describing the organization and its function.

    But satellite information shouldn't just be available in times of disaster. UNOSAT, formed in 2002, is a UN consortium of governments and private companies working with ICSMD to provide broader availability of satellite images and data for humanitarian purposes. (This ReliefWeb newsletter from March of 2003 goes over some of the rationales and applications of UNOSAT.)

    Outside of UN auspices, Respond is a newly-formed European consortium of government and private organizations offering global mapping services, from satellites to GIS data, for use by humanitarian agencies dealing with crises ranging from slow-moving famines to sudden earthquakes. Respond intends to provide maps of all sorts as well as alert and communication services. Although Respond is still in its early stages, it is already actively providing extensive mapping and GIS data for tsunami reconstruction efforts and (as we mentioned in December) humanitarian relief in Darfur.

    About Big Systems - Global Institutions, Governance and History

    This page contains an archive of all entries posted to WC Archive in the Big Systems - Global Institutions, Governance and History category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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