Brief comment provided to Daily Mirror newspaper, Sri Lanka, on 20 January 2017:
‘Eyes in the Sky’ need ethical and careful ‘pilots’
By Nalaka Gunawardene
For some, drones conjure images of death and destruction – military applications have been their most widely reported application. But unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are increasingly being used for many peaceful purposes. That poses a host of ethical and legal challenges we must confront to get the best of this new technology while minimizing potential harms.
In the past few years, the cost of drones came down (an entry level unit sells for around LKR 35,000 in Colombo) as their versatility increased. This spurred many uses from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.
In Sri Lanka, surveyors, photographers, TV journalists and political parties were among the early civilian users of drones. They all grasped the value of the ‘bigger picture’ perspective such aerial photos or videos can provide. Until recently, accessing that vantage point was possible only through helicopters or fixed wing aircraft – a facility few could afford.
Having the bird’s eye view helps journalists and their audiences to make sense of complex situations like climate change impacts, conflicts over resources or political agitations. We certainly need more field-based and investigative reporting that goes beyond press releases and press conferences. Drones are fast joining the journalists’ toolkit — but what matters is their imaginative and responsible use.
Here, we have both good news and bad news. On the positive side, over two dozen journalists and photojournalists have been trained in drone-assisted journalism during 2016 by drone journalism enthusiast (and drone pilot) Sanjana Hattotuwa and journalist Amantha Perera. Some trainees have since done good stories with drone-gathered images. Examples include probing the drought’s impacts in the dry zone, rising garbage crisis in Kattankudy on the east coast, and taking a close look at land use patterns in Hambantota.
Internews Sri Lanka: Drone gathered footage supporting journalism
The downside is that some news organisations are deploying drones without due regard for public safety or existing codes of media ethics. A drone hovered over the Colombo general cemetery as slain editor Lasantha Wickremetunge’s body was exhumed in September 2016. That disregarded a family request for privacy.
The end never justifies the means in good journalism. If some media groups continue to operate drones in such reckless manner, they risk discrediting the new technology and attracting excessive regulations.
Drones or any other new technologies need to be anchored in the basic ethics of journalism. Each new tool would also bring along its own layer of ethics. Where drone use is concerned, respecting privacy and considering the safety of others is far more important than, say, when using a handheld camera.
In February 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) published regulations for drone operation which apply to all users including journalists. This has been updated in January 2017. The Information Department, in a recent release, says it is working with CAASL to simplify these rules and streamline approval processes. That is a welcome move.
The question has come up again after Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Lankan government’s Department of Information, wanted the media to give preeminence to its watchdog function and pull back from supplying relief in the aftermath of disasters.
As Dr Rohan Samarajiva, who was present at the event, noted, “Some of his comments could even be interpreted as suggestive of a need to prohibit aid caravans being organized by the media. But I do not think this will happen. The risks of being seen as stifling the natural charitable urges of the people and delaying supplies to those who need help are too high…”
Ranga raised a valid concern. In the aftermath of recent disasters in Sri Lanka, private broadcast media houses have been competing with each other to raise and deliver disaster relief. All well and good – except that coverage for their own relief work often eclipsed the journalistic coverage of the disaster response in general. In such a situation, where does corporate social responsibility and charity work end and opportunistic brand promotion begin?
For simply raising this concern in public, some broadcast houses have started attacking Ranga personally. In my latest Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 2 October 2016), I discuss the role and priorities of media at times of disaster. I also remind Sirasa TV (the most vocal critic of Ranga Kalansooriya) that ‘shooting the messenger’ carrying unpalatable truths is not in anybody’s interest.
For some, drones still conjure images of death and destruction – that has been their most widely reported use. But that reality is fast changing. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used for many peaceful purposes, from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.
Drones come in various shapes and sizes: as miniature fixed-wing airplanes or, more commonly, quadcopters and other multi-bladed small helicopters. All types are getting simpler, cheaper and more versatile.
Unlike radio-controlled model aircraft, which aviation hobbyists have used for decades, UAVs are equipped with an autopilot using GPS and a camera controlled by the autopilot. These battery operated flying machines can be manually controlled or pre-programmed for an entire, low altitude flight.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 25 Sep 2016), I survey the many civilian applications of drones – and the legal, ethical and technical challenges they pose.
Drones are already being used in Sri Lanka by photographers, TV journalists and political parties but few seem to respect public safety or privacy of individuals.
I quote Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher and activist on ICTs, who in August 2016 conducted Sri Lanka’s first workshop on drone journalism which I attended. I agree with his view: drones are here to stay, and are going to be used in many applications. So the sooner we sort out public safety and privacy concerns, the better for all.
Managing disaster early warnings is both a science and an art. When done well, it literally saves lives — but only if the word quickly reaches all those at risk, and they know how to react.
We have come a long way since the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of December 2004 caught Indian Ocean countries by surprise. Many of the over 230,000 people killed that day could have been saved by timely coastal evacuations.
Early warnings work best when adequate technological capability is combined with streamlined decision-making, multiple dissemination systems and well prepared communities.
Rapid onset disasters — such as tsunamis and flash floods — allow only a tight window from detection to impact, typically 15 to 90 minutes. When it comes to tsunamis, it is a real race against time. Effective tsunami warnings require very rapid evaluation of undersea earthquakes and resulting sea level changes, followed by equally rapid dissemination of that assessment.
Following the 2004 disaster, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS) was set up in 2005 under UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. It is a regional collaboration that brings together three regional tsunami service providers – scientific facilities operated by the governments of Australia, India and Indonesia — and over a dozen national tsunami centres. The latter are state agencies designated by governments to handle in-country warnings and other mitigation activities.
The partnership with Google Project Loon is for setting up a network of 13 high-tech balloons strategically positioned some 20 km above the island. These helium-filled and solar-powered balloons will act as ‘floating cell towers’ that distribute 3G mobile signals wider than ground-based towers can.
When commissioned in early 2016, this system would “make Sri Lanka potentially the first country in the world to have universal Internet access”, according to news reports.
This deal with Google was brokered by Lankan-born Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya. The government’s Information and Communications Technology Agency (ICTA) hailed it as a major accomplishment.
Is it really so? What exactly does this deal bring us, and at what apparent or hidden costs? How will the average Internet user benefit?
Going by generic information available online, Loon partnership seems a useful first step forward in enhancing Internet access in Sri Lanka. But it cannot work by itself. Other factors must fall into place.
According to Google, Project Loon (www.google.com/loon/) is “a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters”.
Sri Lanka’s Project Loon partnership promises to substantially extend the mobile broadband signal coverage of our existing Internet Service Providers, or ISPs.
Airtel, Dialog, Etisalat, Hutch and Mobitel all use what is popularly known as Third Generation (3G) mobile broadband technologies. Some have also ventured into 4G.
Right now operators rely on their own networks of terrestrial towers for signal coverage. This naturally concentrates on where more people, businesses and offices are located. Thus, the south-western quadrant of the island enjoys much better signal coverage than many other areas. There are gaps that the market alone would probably never fill.
If we look at publicly available signal coverage maps on http://opensignal.com, for example, we see plenty of areas in Sri Lanka not yet covered by 3G from any telecom network.
In theory, Google Loon’s 13 balloons over Lanka should extend our ISPs’ mobile broadband coverage to the whole land area of 65,610 sq km (25,332 square miles). Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter using a wireless communications technology called LTE.
“To use LTE, Project Loon partners with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum so that people will be able to access the Internet everywhere directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. Balloons relay wireless traffic from cell phones and other devices back to the global Internet using high-speed links,” says the project’s website.
There is one clear benefit of extra-terrestrial telecom towers: they are beyond the reach of geological and hydro-meteorological disasters that can knock out terrestrial ones. As a back-up system in the sky, well above most atmospheric turbulence, Loon can be invaluable in disaster communications.
But it’s important to remember that universal signal coverage does not necessarily mean universal access or universal use.
It is now two decades since Sri Lanka became the first in South Asia to introduce commercial Internet services. By end 2014, there were some 3.3 million Internet subscriptions in Sri Lanka, most of them (82%) were mobile subscriptions, says the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC).
Internet subscriptions are often shared among family members or co-workers so the number of users is higher. The Internet Society – a global association of technical professionals – estimated last year that 22% of Sri Lanka’s population regularly uses the Internet. So almost one in four Lankans gets online.
What about the rest? There can be different reasons why the rest is not connected – such as the lack of need, non-availability of service, affordability, and absence of skill.
I can think of three other important factors for successful Internet use:
COST: Contrary to some media reports, Project Loon by itself does not provide free wireless Internet or WiFi. Existing rates and packages of mobile operators would continue to apply. We already have some of the lowest data communication rates in Asia, so how much lower can these drop?
QUALITY of service: Mobile companies must ensure that broadband speeds don’t drop drastically as more users sign up. Such increase of backhaul capacity hasn’t always happened, leading to complaints that we get FRAUDBAND in the name of broadband!
USER CAPACITY: The Census and Statistics Department’s latest (2014) survey found basic computer literacy in Sri Lanka has reached 25%. Since the survey covered only desk top computers and laptops, this figure could be under-estimating the digital skills of our young people who quickly master smartphones and other digital devices. But then, most are not careful with privacy and data protection.
So beyond Project Loon, we have much more to do on the ground to reach a knowledge based economy and inclusive information society.
Finally, what is in it for Google? Why are they giving this facility to our telecom companies apparently for free?
The information and media giant is investing millions of US Dollars for research, development and launching the service. Yes Google has deep pockets, but it is not a charity. So what do they gain?
For one thing, the Sri Lanka experience will produce proof of concept for Loon in a relatively small sized market. To operate, Google Loon balloons need permission to hover over Lankan airspace – this concession can inspire confidence in other governments to also agree.
In the long term, more people going online will generate more users for Google, which already dominates search engines globally (over 85%) and offers a growing range of other services. The company can then market its myriad eyeballs to advertisers…
There is no such thing as a free lunch. But as long as we engage Google without illusions, it can be a win-win partnership.
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and analysing the rise of new media in Sri Lanka since the early 1990s. He is active on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com
Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, May 2015 issue
Black Swans, White Lies and the Rise of ‘Info-Doers’
By Nalaka Gunawardene
The Global Village is a pretty noisy place. In today’s networked society, information can spread at the speed of light. Fabrications, half-truths and myriad interpretations compete with evidence-based analyses and official positions. Trust is being redefined.
How can the formal structures of power – whether government, academic, military or corporate – engage in public communication in effective ways? Should they ignore what I call the Global Cacophony and limit themselves to formal statements made at their own bureaucratic pace?
Consider a recent scenario. A controversy erupts over how the Central Bank of Sri Lanka handles the latest Treasury Bond issue, but the government takes several days to respond. The Prime Minister makes a detailed statement in Parliament on March 17, which he opens saying: “I felt my first statement with regard to the so-called controversy over Treasury bonds should be made to this House.”
He offers a characteristically good analysis. But in the meantime, many speculations had circulated, some questioning the new administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability. Political detractors had had a field day.
Could it have been handled differently? Should government spokespersons have turned defensive or combative? Is maintaining a stoic silence until full clarity emerges realistic when governments no longer have a monopoly over information dissemination? What then happens to public trust in governments?
Some information managers still invoke an old adage: this too shall pass. The digitally empowered citizens may descend on an issue with gusto, they contend, but attention spans are short. ‘Smart-mobs’ tend to move on to the next breaking topic within days if not hours…
But how reliable is that as a strategy? And what happens when, once in a while, ‘Black Swan events’ occur disrupting everything?
It was the Lebanese-American scholar, statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb who proposed the theory of Black Swan events. He used it as a metaphor to describe an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalised afterwards with the benefit of hindsight.
The idea, first introduced in his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness, was initially limited to financial events. In a follow-up book The Black Swan (2007), he extended it to other events as well.
According to Taleb, almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events and artistic accomplishments are “Black Swans” — undirected and unpredicted. Examples include the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, World War I, dissolution of the Soviet Union and the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001.
I recently had a fascinating conversation with its author Nik Gowing, a senior British television journalist with 40 years of experience in news and current affairs. Before he stepped down in 2014, he was main anchor for much of BBC’s coverage of major international events including Kosovo in 1999, the Iraq war in 2003, the global financial meltdown of 2007 and Mumbai attack in 2008. On 9/11, he was on air for six hours leading the coverage.
“In a moment of major and unexpected crisis, the institutions of power – whether political, governmental, military or corporate – face a new, acute vulnerability of both their influence and effectiveness,” Nik says summing up the study’s findings.
He analysed the new fragility and brittleness of those institutions, and the profound impact upon them from a fast proliferating and almost ubiquitous breed of what he calls ‘information doers’.
‘Info-doer’ seems more inclusive than the contested term ‘citizen journalist’. Such ‘info-doers’ are empowered by cheap, lightweight, go-anywhere technologies. That trend, already evident in 2009, has gained further momentum since.
“They have an unprecedented mass ability to bear witness. The result is a matrix of real-time information flows that challenges the inadequacy of the structures of power to respond both with effective impact and in a timely way,” the study says.
Nik adds: “Increasingly routinely, a cheap, ‘go-anywhere’ camera or mobile phone challenges the credibility of the massive human and financial resources of a government or corporation in an acute crisis. The long-held conventional wisdom of a gulf in time and quality between the news that signals an event and the whole truth eventually emerging is fast being eliminated.”
He describes how, in the most remote and hostile locations of the globe, hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears are creating a capacity for scrutiny and new demands for accountability. “It is way beyond the assumed power and influence of the traditional media. This global electronic reach catches institutions unaware and surprises with what it reveals.”
The phenomenon is globalised. Info-doers, with a range of motivations, are everywhere from the financial capitals like London and New York to crisis locations in Iraq, China’s Tibet plateau, Burma, the flooded heart of New Orleans or the mountains of Afghanistan. Censorship and crackdowns can’t stop them.
How to respond?
So what is to be done?
The instinct of many authorities is still to deny inconvenient truths and blame “the damn media” in times of crisis. This no longer works (if it ever did).
“Too often, the knee-jerk institutional response continues to be one of denial as if this new broader, fragmented, redefined media landscape does not exist. Yet within minutes the new, almost infinite media dynamic of images, video, texts and social media mean the public rapidly has vivid, accurate impressions of what is unravelling.”
For example, during Burma’s ill-fated Saffron Revolution of September 2007, video footage and images of protests rapidly spread online and through mainstream broadcast media. Most had been captured using mobile phones and sent out through internet cafes despite attempts to block their flow. The junta later dismissed such coverage as a “skyful of lies”, convincing no one.
The immediate policy challenge is to enter the information space with self-confidence and assertiveness as the media do, however incomplete the official understanding of the enormity of what is unfolding.
After a major crisis hits, both the mainstream media and policy makers face what Nik Gowing defines as the F3 dilemma. The F3 options are:
Should they be the first to enter the info-space?
How fast should they do it?
But how flawed might their remarks and first positions turn out to be in ways that could undermine public perceptions and institutional credibility?
Using many examples, the study has analysed the typical institutional response: to hesitate and lose initiative. This is because wielders of power still don’t appreciate dramatic changes in the real-time new media environment. Nik has included a few enlightened policy responses – “too few to suggest any sign of a fundamental shift in understanding and attitudes”.
The study ends with recommendations for how various institutions of political and corporate power can respond to the new challenges.
“The new real-time media realities are harsh. But once understood, embraced and acted upon, the proposed solutions are compelling. They represent a path to institutional effectiveness and credibility when these are currently lacking.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, published in issue of 10 May 2015), I explore the aftermath of the major earthquake that hit Nepal on 25 April 2015, causing widespread damage. I quote Nepali experts and activists on how the lack of preparedness aggravated impact, and the challenge of recovery that now faces Nepali society.
I quote my journalist and activist friend Kanak Mani Dixit, who wrote on May 1: “There’s nothing to do but to try to convert the Great Nepal Earthquake of 2015 into an opportunity to transform the conduct of politics and in the process lift up Nepal at least from the status of a ‘least developed nation’ to that of a ‘developing nation’. For a beginning to be made in that direction, the polity must be jolted out of its stupor. Only then can the advantages Nepal has—of nature, history and demography—be fully realised.”
I also comment on outrageous claim by some religious nuts who make a bizarre claim that Nepal’s earthquake was “karmic justice” for the sacrifice of some 5,000 buffaloes for a religious festival held last year. I paraphrase in Sinhala these words by young Lankan blogger Yudhanjaya Wijeratne.
On the same day, Reuters news agency reported: “India could also sell light small-scale nuclear reactors to Sri Lanka which wants to establish 600 megawatts of nuclear capacity by 2030”. Sri Lanka has no nuclear reactors, even though the option has been under discussion for some years.
The full text of the Indo-Lanka nuclear agreement has not been made public. Sri Lanka’s minister of power and energy clarified that it does not allow India to unload any radioactive wastes in Sri Lanka. He also assured that all joint activities will comply with standards and guidelines set by the IAEA.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, published in issue of 29 March 2015), I look at nuclear power generation and nuclear technologies used in medicine, agriculture, industry and construction, etc. I advocate moving away from shrilly rhetoric and call for an informed discussion and debate on nuclear related issues.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), published on 9 November 2014, I reflect on the recent landslide in Meeriyabedda, Koslanda, Sri Lanka on 29 October. The disaster wiped out an entire settlement of plantation workers whose houses were built on a hill already identified as prone to landslide hazards.
I discuss landslide hazard mapping being done for two decades by National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) and ask what failures in risk communication led to this preventable tragedy. I also quote NBRO scientists as saying how climate change and resulting increase in extreme rainfall events can trigger more landslides.