Government, energy & environment

Networked cities

On the face of it, cities seem to run remarkably well considering their complexities. But what if there were a central operating system that could monitor traffic flows, temperature changes, water pump failures, or energy use – and respond to it straightaway? McLaren Electronic Systems has developed the underlying technology for an operating system, called Urban OS, which is being tested in Portugal by Living PlanIT.

The operating system, likened to the nervous system of the body, will place sensors all over the cities to monitor what is happening and allow communication between the sensors. They will give a broader view than is currently available, for example, why traffic flows are suddenly blocked. It will also allow them to take immediate action, for example, changing traffic lights to allow emergency services vehicles to get through the city. The ultimate aim of the Urban OS is to save money, and increase consistency, quality and manageability.

Eventually, smartphones will be able to hook into Urban OS to remotely control their owners’ household appliances or safety equipment. For example, sensors could spot a fire, and direct people to a safe stairwell by making lights flicker – or through their mobile phones. Tech people often talk about connecting devices, and this sounds like a very ambitious attempt to do that. The challenge will be to keep it operating with 100% reliability, as relying on an operating system in your own computer is bad enough when it breaks down.
Ref: BBC (UK), 30 September 2011, Smart cities get their own operating system. K Moskvitch.
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Search words: Urban OS, buildings, traffic, services, sensors, Living PlanIT, network, nervous system, McLaren Electronic Systems, PlaceApps, traffic lights, water pumps, air conditioning, Cisco, Deutsche Telekom, Portugal.
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See also : The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

Climate change matters – or does it?

Climate change was the hottest topic in 2007 and seems to have taken over more newsprint than any other subject since. But since the global collapse in 2008, is there a change, so to speak, in the air? Simon Kuper, of the Financial Times, thinks the topic is losing steam. People are tired of thinking about how many greenhouse gases they are releasing from one moment to the next, whether flying, flushing, or frying. But the main reason is that rich countries think, whatever happens, they will have the money to cope with it.

In some ways it’s like insurance. If you have enough, you can afford to take the risk. But the poorer countries, like Bangladesh or Nigeria, will not have the same luxury. This explains why the Copenhagen global summit on climate change in 2009 was a flop and why more countries are turning to coal, in spite of the prospect for carbon emissions. Meanwhile, there are still people who just don’t believe in climate change, such as Rick Perry, who could win the next US election.

Even so, compilations of mean global temperatures from all over the world, gathered by NASA, NOAA and a collaboration between the UK’s Met Office and Hadley Climate Research Unit, say the land has warmed 0.9 degrees centigrade in the past 50 years. A new study by Berkeley Earth, aims to iron out all the problems and discrepancies in the existing studies, to help convince the skeptics that climate change is real.

The study uses an algorithm to weight each data point according to its consistency with comparable readings, accommodates temporary weather stations, and deals with varying volumes of data, which allows it to begin from 1800. It also estimates the temperature at points between weather stations to provide a more relevant map – many earlier measurements are in built-up areas that tend to be warmer than in less built-up areas.

Unfortunately, we know that skeptics are rarely persuaded by data. So even if the study tends to support the others in its conclusion, it probably won’t convince the likes of Rick Perry. And who cares about 0.9 degrees centigrade in 50 years anyway if you take a perspective of a few million or billion years?
Ref: The Economist (UK), 22 October 2011, The heat is on. Anon.
Financial Times Magazine (UK), 17-18 September 2011, Climate change: who cares anymore? S Kuper.
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Search words: climate change, carbon emissions, Rick Perry, catastrope, money, global warming, studies, Berkeley Earth, land surface, weather stations, data.
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What the hackers cough up

Wherever money can be made from something, there is someone making it illegally. The hyperconnectivity of the internet is a blessing for hackers and a curse for the rest of us. According to the head of the CIA, the next Pearl Harbour may well be a crippling cyber-attack on a nation’s power, financial and government systems. Cybercriminals are out there now, hacking their way into personal, business and government records. Some of them even write books about how and why they do it.

One of the books, DarkMarket: CyberThieves, CyberCops and You, describes the lengths to which people go to commit credit card fraud and how they employ hackers to spend countless hours constructing sites and links and interpreting code. The hackers themselves are paid well, but seem more motivated by competing with their peers than by fraud itself. Meanwhile, Kevin Mitnick’s memoir, Ghost in the Wires, describes his brilliance as a top hacker, and how even being arrested did not stop him. Finally, he ended up in prison and has re-emerged as a valued consultant on cybersecurity. There is a fine line, it seems, between being clever and being criminal.

What does this tell us? The internet will continue to be fertile ground for hackers and, while these books imply a certain glamour (as many crime books do), to be on the end of a fine hacking job is always devastating. Fraud, identity stealing, and information loss are terrible for an individual or a business. It seems many of us do not take cybersecurity seriously enough. Like anything virtual, it doesn’t seem quite real until something physical happens to you.
Ref: The Financial Times (UK), 1-2 October 2011, The antisocial network. J Lloyd.
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Search words: cybercrime, security, hackers, cyberspace, spies, networks.
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DarkMarket: CyberThieves, CyberCops and You by Misha Glenny, Bodley Head, 2011.
Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick, Little, Brown, 2011.

Business steps in where governments step out

We are familiar with the idea of government cutbacks, and how they invariably fall on those who can’t or won’t protest. Yet businesses often have unused resources that they could legitimately use to provide those services – without charging for them. In the same way, they can improve their reputations in the social sphere.

One company is John Lewis, which was founded with the intention to work “in a responsible way with suppliers” and is known for its philanthropic stance through the John Lewis Foundation. Its latest contribution to the community is to provide a space where local groups and charities can go for their meetings. Local authorities have been cutting back on meeting spaces so John Lewis has provided rooms for this purpose in Glasgow, Newcastle, Cardiff and Watford. Groups can book these rooms for free, and receive the full benefit of conference facilities and audio-visual equipment.

Andy Street, MD of John Lewis, believes the private sector has a duty to do what it can. The benefit for the company is that people view it more favourably and, if they have limited funds, shoppers will probably go to the retail brand with the halo effect. It begs the question what other government-funded services could easily take up some of the slack in businesses. Local libraries perhaps, meals-on-wheels, scout halls?
Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 11 July 2011, John Lewis fills gap left by cuts in public sector. J Hall.
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Search words: public sector, private sector, John Lewis, meeting spaces, community groups, voluntary sector, Big Society.
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Why crowds aren’t all bad

There is a lot of talk today about the wisdom of crowds, crowd sourcing, and open source collaborations. In the internet age, this seems to be a positive, mature and rational trend. But in the physical world, crowds do not always bring out the best in people. During and after the riots in England this year, the press used some very emotive language to describe crowd behaviour, along the lines of “animal”, “barbaric”, and “primitive”.

Was this view of crowds justified? One commentator believes it was over done, as there are many strong examples of crowds behaving in a mature and powerful way, without becoming out of control. He includes the Egyptian protestors at Tahrir Square, the majority of football matches and rock concerts, and even the Hillsborough disaster in Liverpool. People are quick to assume the worst, particularly if they can’t see the purpose.

It is true that people behave differently in crowds than they do alone. There is also a difference between an accidental crowd (at a railway station) and a crowd with a shared purpose (rock concert). But even when people become more vocal or excited in a crowd, it doesn’t mean they are giving up their identity for the crowd. They are just excited by that shared purpose.

The commentator does not say this, but we believe crowds simply accentuate whatever is the underlying belief or feeling. If the people in the crowd are feeling passionate about their team, then the crowd accelerates that passion. If the people are starving, rioting in a group intensifies that feeling of indignation at being hungry. On the internet, crowd sourcing helps to identify the optimum solution to a problem. So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a crowd – only perhaps, its purpose.
Ref: Intelligent Life (UK), November/December 2011, Crowds R Us. I Leslie.
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Search words: crowds, riots, Tahrir Square, Gustave Le Bon, violence, food riots, concerts, sport.
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