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How Goal uses technology to help vulnerable communities

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From drones that detect landslides to prepay tech for water pumps, Goal Global’s CTO talks about how tech is deployed to advance humanitarian efforts around the world.

Janet Humphreys is the chief technology officer of international humanitarian response agency Goal Global.

Having started her career in finance and treasury roles in the private sector with Xerox, Humphreys moved to the humanitarian sector in 2008. She has worked in overseas and finance management roles, gaining significant experience in operations, financial management and training.

She became a member of Goal’s leadership team in 2018 and is currently responsible for the company’s technology, risk and compliance, and logistics and procurement functions.

‘The digitalisation of cash is a game changer for the humanitarian and development sector’
– JANET HUMPHREYS

Describe your role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy. 

As Goal’s chief technology officer, I lead a dedicated team working hard to ensure that the 2,500 employees in our 14 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America have the technical infrastructure and skills needed to support implementation of our programmes.

We currently have more than 110 programmes being rolled out across health, nutrition, livelihoods and emergency response. The integration of technology is vital in allowing us to be agile, efficient and accountable.

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about? 

We have some exciting technology initiatives which are impacting on our work. In Uganda, Goal is piloting a new pre-payment technology, Susteq, which is being applied to handpumps in rural villages.

This allows community members to pay a small amount proportional to the water they use before they collect it. In this way there is money in the account if the handpump breaks down for quick repairs. Without a fresh water supply, people are in danger of picking up diseases and infections.

In Zimbabwe, we are partnering with UNICEF and mobile marketing company Promobile to provide communities with Wi-Fi access from vans. This enables people to download videos and information on better nutrition and recipes using locally available foods. Messages on Covid-19 preventions are also available to download.

In Honduras, we are using drones to do surveys of landslide-prone areas in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Drone surveys are also used to assess mangrove coverage along the north coast of Honduras to calculate carbon stock.

And in Ethiopia, where more than 11m households depend on livestock for economic and food security, we are using AfriScout, a tool developed by our US partners PCI, to help farmers get intelligence on disease, conflict, forbidden grazing, predators and water issues.

We need to ensure we optimise technology so global teams stay connected and safe. This is not straightforward given the infrastructure and connectivity challenges we face in the remote locations we operate in, and with increased remote working due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We have a comprehensive programme of work underway in these areas, which includes upgrading infrastructure, strengthening cybersecurity resilience, cloud migration and digital skills training for our staff.

How big is your team?

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As a charity, we are always conscious of ensuring we are as lean as possible and to focus on expenditure that will impact on beneficiaries. So, we are a relatively small team – but highly effective! We have a core team of nine in our HQ in Dublin, Ireland, working on the service desk, infrastructure, solutions and business analysis.

Globally, each Goal country has an IT helpdesk and staff to support the programmes relative to the size of the operation. We are also very fortunate to work with some fantastic external partners including Dell, Microsoft and Dimagi, our technology advisory board. These connections provide a great opportunity to learn from experts and to share best practice.

As members of NetHope, a consortium of international NGOs, we are also harnessing our global impact, working closely with major technology companies on productive collaboration, innovation and problem-solving to reimagine how technology can improve our world.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how are you addressing it? 

Embracing digital transformation is core to our business and to allowing us to improve our impact and the numbers of people we reach every day. We are integrating digital technology into all areas of our operations and this will fundamentally change how we operate and deliver value to the vulnerable communities we support.

Digital transformation also involves a cultural change, and this requires us continually training and supporting our staff. As an organisation, we are approaching this together. It is not an IT responsibility, but it is the responsibility of all from the top management down. We need to think digital and embed it in our strategy.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically? 

The digitalisation of cash is a game changer for the humanitarian and development sector. This transformation will not just be from an administrative perspective but will provide more accountability and security.

In north-west Syria, where Goal has its biggest programme supporting more than 1m displaced people every year, we have introduced an electronic voucher system to increase food security. In 2021, 52,000 extremely vulnerable households will be transitioned to this e-voucher system, which has many benefits when compared to paper-based vouchers.

It is more secure, as lost vouchers can be deactivated and replaced. And the e-cards can be topped up remotely. This is a distinct advantage when working in fragile and Covid-19 affected contexts.

In general in the countries we work, 5G networks will be transformational in enabling people to engage with technology – be it at home or work. Trends that might not seem major in Ireland have huge impact in the countries we work. For example, the use of mobile messaging.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data? 

Cybersecurity is a threat no matter where you work in the world. We have a phrase in our organisation that our data is only as secure as the weakest link – so we need to continue to ensure that we secure our networks and keep on talking to staff about the importance of cybersecurity and of taking responsibility in protecting data.

For my team, it is important to keep abreast of new trends on managing emerging risks, and we work with many partners to try and keep ahead of this threat and importantly to learn from the corporate sector.

Learning from others is important for us as an agency committed to continuous improvement. Ultimately, everything we do is about improving our world in meaningful ways and that is something worth driving hard to achieve every day.

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Excuse me, what just happened? Resilience is tough when your failure is due to a ‘sequence of events that was almost impossible to foresee’

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Feature When designing systems that our businesses will rely on, we do so with resilience in mind.

Twenty-five years ago, technologies like RAID and server mirroring were novel and, in some ways, non-trivial to implement; today this is no longer the case and it is a reflex action to procure multiple servers, LAN switches, firewalls, and the like to build resilient systems.

This does not, of course, guarantee us 100 per cent uptime. The law of Mr Murphy applies from time to time: if your primary firewall suffers a hardware failure, there is a tiny, but non-zero, chance that the secondary will also collapse before you finish replacing the primary.

If you have a power failure, there is a similarly micro-tangible likelihood that the generator you have tested weekly for years will choose this moment to cough stubbornly rather than roaring into life. Unless you are (or, more accurately, the nature of your business is) so risk-averse that you can justify spending on more levels of resilience to reduce the chance of an outage even further (but never, of course, to nothing).

There are occasions, though, where planning for failure becomes hard.

Let us look at a recent example. In July 2020, the main telco in Jersey had a major outage because of a problem with a device providing time service to the organisation’s network. The kicker in this event was that the failed device did not fail in the way we are all used to – by making a “bang” noise and emitting smoke; had it done so, in fact, all would have been well as the secondary unit would have taken over.

Impossible

No, this was a more devious kind of time server which only part-failed. It kept running but started serving times from about 20 years in the past (by no coincidence at all this was the factory default time setting), thus confusing network infrastructure devices and causing traffic to stop flowing.

Customer dissatisfaction was palpable, of course, but as an IT specialist one does have to feel something for the company’s technical team: how many of us would ever consider, as a possible failure case, something that the technical chief described quite correctly as a “sequence of events that was almost impossible to foresee”?

(Incidentally, in a somewhat more good-news story, stepping back a moment to our point about extra layers of resilience, the same company had previously survived three offshore cables being severed… by having a fourth).

Could monitoring tools have been put in place to see issues like this when they happen? Yes, absolutely, but the point is that to do so one would first need to identify the scenarios as something that could happen. In the sense of risk management, this type of failure – very high impact but infinitesimally unlikely – is the worst possible kind for a risk manager. There are theories and books about how one can contemplate and deal with such risks, the best-known of which is probably Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan, which talks of just this kind of risk, but if you want to try to defend against the unexpected then at the very least you need to sit down with a significant number of people in a highly focused way, preferably with an expert in the field to guide and moderate, and work on identifying such possible “black swan” events.

While the black swan concept is most definitely a thing to bear in mind, there is in fact a far more common problem with systems that we consider resilient – a failure to understand how the resilience works.

One particular installation at a company with an office and two data centres had point-to-point links in a triangle between each premises, and each data centre had an internet connection. The two firewalls, one in each data centre, were configured as a resilient pair, and worked as such for years. One day internet service went down, and investigation showed that the secondary unit had lost track of the primary and had switched itself to become the primary. Having two active primaries caused split traffic flows, and hence an outage.

Predictable

In hindsight, this was completely predictable. The way the primary/secondary relationship was maintained between the devices was for the primary to send a “heartbeat” signal to the secondary every few seconds; if the secondary failed to receive the heartbeat three times, it woke up and acted as a primary. Because the devices were in separate data centres, they were connected through various pieces of technology: a LAN patch cord into a switch, into a fibre transceiver, into a telco fibre, then the same in reverse at the other end.

A fault on any one of those elements could cause the network devices to reconfigure their topology to switch data over the other way around the fibre triangle – with the change causing a network blip sufficiently long to drop three heartbeats. In fact, the only approved configuration for the primary/secondary interconnection was a crossover Ethernet cable from one device to the other: the failover code was written with the assumption that, aside perhaps from a highly unlikely sudden patch cord fault, the primary becoming invisible to the secondary meant that the former had died.

Many of us have come across similar instances, where something we expected to fail over has not done so. It’s equally common, too, to come across instances where the failover works OK but then there are issues with the failback, which can be just as problematic. I recall a global WAN I once worked on where, for whatever reason, failovers from primary to secondary were so quick that you didn’t notice any interruption (the only clue was the alert from the monitoring console) but there was a pause of several seconds when failing back.

In the firewall example, even when connectivity was restored the devices would not re-synch without a reboot: remember, the only supported failure scenario was the primary dying completely, which meant that it was only at boot time that it would check to see which role its partner was playing so it could act accordingly. Until someone turned it off and back on again, there was no chance that the problem would go away.

To make our resilient systems truly resilient, then, we need to do three things.

First, we should give some thought to those “black swan” events. It may be that we cannot afford masses of time and effort to consider such low-probability risks, but at the very least we should take a conscious decision on how much or how little we will do in that respect: risk management is all about reasoning and making conscious decisions like that.

Expertise

Second, if we don’t have the knowledge of the precise way our systems and their failover mechanisms work, we must engage people who do and get the benefit of their expertise and experience… and while we’re at it, we should read the manual: nine times out of ten it will tell us how to configure things, even if it doesn’t explain why.

Finally, though, we need to test things – thoroughly and regularly. In our firewall example all potential failure modes should have been considered: if a failure of one of a handful of components could cause an outage, why not test all of them? And when we test, we need to do it for real: we don’t just test failover in the lab and then install the kit in a production cabinet, we test it once it’s in too.

This may need us to persuade the business that we need downtime – or at least potential downtime to cater for the test being unsuccessful – but if management have any sense, they will be persuadable that an approved outage during a predictable time window with the technical team standing by and watching like hawks is far better than an unexpected but entirely foreseeable outage when something breaks for real and the resilience turns out not to work.

Testing

Oh, and when you test failover and failback, run for several days in a failed-over state if you can: many problems don’t manifest instantly, and you will always learn more in a multi-day failover than in one that lasts only a couple of minutes. Bear in mind also the word “regularly” that I used alongside “thoroughly”. Even if we know there has been no change to a particular component, there may well be some knock-on effect from a change to something else. Something that used to be resilient may have become less resilient or even non-resilient because something else changed and we didn’t realise the implication – so regular resilience testing is absolutely key.

Because if something isn’t resilient, this will generally not be because of some esoteric potential failure mode that is next to impossible to anticipate and/or difficult or impossible to test. Most of the time it will because something went wrong – or something was configured wrongly – in a way you could have emulated in a test. ®

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Student entrepreneurs score with AI and haptic device

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A team from Trinity and Queen’s took the top prize at the annual competition for third-level students organised by Enterprise Ireland.

Students who developed a handheld haptic device to help people feel the energy of sports matches have received the top prize at this year’s Student Entrepreneur Awards.

Field of Vision was created by Trinity College Dublin students Tim Farrelly and David Deneher, along with Omar Salem from Queen’s University Belfast.

The device aims to enable people with blindness or visual impairment to better experience sports games. It uses artificial intelligence to analyse live video feeds of games, translating what’s happening on screen to tablet devices through haptic feedback.

Field of Vision was one of 10 finalists in the competition, which is organised annually by Enterprise Ireland. The student team has won a €10,000 prize and will receive mentoring from Enterprise Ireland to develop the commercial viability of the device.

But there were several other winners at the awards ceremony, which took place virtually today (11 June).

Marion Cantillon of University College Cork won a €5,000 high-achieving merit award for her biofilm that eliminates the need for farmers to use plastic or tyres to seal pits and reduces methane emissions.

Dublin City University’s Peter Timlin and University of Limerick’s Richard Grimes also won a high-achieving merit award for their socially responsible clothing brand, Pure Clothing.

Diglot, a language learning book company founded by Trinity College Dublin students Cian Mcnally and Evan Mcgloughlin, took home a €5,000 prize. This company, which has achieved sales in 19 countries to date, weaves foreign words into English sentences in classic novels, allowing the reader to absorb new vocabulary gradually.

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Ivan McPhillips, a lecturer in entrepreneurship, innovation and rural development at GMIT, won the Enterprise Ireland Academic Award.

Along with the prize money, the winners will also share a €30,000 consultancy fund to help them to turn their ideas into a commercial reality. Merit awards were given to the remaining six finalists, along with €1,500 per team.

‘Springboard for tomorrow’s business leaders’

This is the 40th year of Enterprise Ireland’s Student Entrepreneur Awards, a competition that is open to students from all third-level institutions across the country.

The winner of last year’s competition was Mark O’Sullivan of University College Cork, who developed a device to help detect brain injuries in newborns.

Leo Clancy, CEO of Enterprise Ireland, said the competition provides a platform for students to showcase their business ideas and acts as a “springboard for tomorrow’s business leaders”.

“Previous winners and finalists have gone on to achieve success both nationally and internationally,” he added.

“We’ve had over 250 entries for this year’s awards, with applicants demonstrating ingenuity in their approach to solving real-world problems across a range of sectors.”

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, congratulated the winners. “I’m really impressed by the calibre and ingenuity of the ideas put forward, especially given the significant challenges that came with this unprecedented year,” he said.

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Rocket men: Bezos, Musk and Branson scramble for space supremacy | Space

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It was a week in which two space-faring billionaires tussled again in their futuristic game of cosmic oneupmanship. And this time, for once, Elon Musk was not at the party.

The declaration that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and world’s richest man, was heading into space next month on the first crewed launch of his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket was followed quickly by an apparent leak from within Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic empire that the British tycoon might look to upstage him with a Fourth of July Independence Day spectacular of his own.

Branson’s team was quick to downplay the possibility, insisting a date for his first spaceflight had yet to be determined. But beyond what some might see as vain billionaires using real-life rockets as playthings, the episode underscores how close the lucrative yet still fledgling commercial space industry has come to routinely launching paying passengers into outer space and achieving a goal two decades in the making.

On Saturday, the winner of an auction for a seat to accompany Bezos and his brother Mark on next month’s big space adventure will be announced on the Blue Origin website. On Thursday, the bidding reached $4.2m for the 11-minute round trip.

“Many congratulations to Jeff Bezos & his brother Mark on announcing spaceflight plans,” Branson said in a tweet directed at his rival. “Jeff started building @blueorigin in 2000, we started building @virgingalactic in 2004 & now both are opening up access to Space – how extraordinary! Watch this space … ”

Absent from Branson’s tweet was any mention of Musk, whose nonconformist Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – better known as SpaceX – has grown from a shaky start in 2002 to become the dominant player in the commercial space sector, and a key partner of the US space agency, Nasa. The company is already regularly flying astronauts to the international space station, and is renting out its Dragon space capsule this fall for its first private spaceflight, taking a crew of four on a three-day orbital odyssey.

With differing longer-term ambitions and goals, the three billionaires have collectively upended the traditional government-funded and directed model for human spaceflight and are shaping a thriving new commercial space era, according to Matthew Weinzierl, a Harvard Business School professor and an expert in the economics of space.

“SpaceX’s recent achievements, as well as upcoming efforts by Boeing, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to put people in space sustainably and at scale, mark the opening of a new chapter of spaceflight led by private firms,” he said.

Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center in January 2020. ‘Musk is totally about Mars.’
Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center in January 2020. ‘Musk is totally about Mars.’ Photograph: Joe Skipper/Reuters

“They have both the intention and capability to bring private citizens to space as passengers, tourists and eventually settlers, opening the door for businesses to start meeting the demand those people create over the next several decades.”

Weinzierl expects there to be a gradual shift from money spent in space to benefit Earth, such as investments in telecommunications and internet satellites and infrastructure, to the so-called space-for-space economy, including mining asteroids or the moon for materials that will be necessary to support human habitat and fuel deeper-space missions to Mars or beyond.

Bezos and Musk always had loftier goals in mind, even as they were taking their first tentative steps in the space industry, experts say. But their visions diverge beyond flying humans in low Earth orbit, or even suborbital flight, as Bezos’s brief July venture will be.

“Musk is totally about Mars. His passion is to get people to Mars as a backup plan to Earth, and to make humanity a multi-planet species,” said Marcia Smith, founder and senior analyst of spacepolicyonline.com.

“Bezos is interested in the moon, and in the space between Earth and the moon. He wants to move all of the heavy industry off Earth and into cislunar space. He talks about rezoning Earth for light industry and habitation.

“So they both are interested in trying to save Earth because of all the problems Earth is having, but they have very different visions as to how that’s going to happen.”

Nasa has embraced both billionaires as it pursues its own exploration programs. In April, the agency chose SpaceX to build the spacecraft to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972, a decision Blue Origin has challenged. The enigmatic Musk reacted in typically bellicose fashion, tweeting: “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol” in reference to Bezos’s so far unsuccessful efforts to launch a crew into space.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, is developing a separate, reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle, New Glenn, under a Nasa contract to supply satellite delivery capability, although the project has stalled.

The operations of both companies have the potential to attract billions of dollars of investment to the US through commercial clients, and Weinzierl sees space as the “ultimate industry of the future”, though he says it may take longer than this century to reach its potential.

“The sector has changed a great deal over the last two decades, largely in that there are new competitors seeking to serve private customers in addition to governments,” he said.

“At the same time, Nasa and other public agencies are still the dominant sources of funding and specific plans for space beyond low Earth orbit, where the private satellite market has long been active. Even SpaceX, for all its success, wouldn’t be where it is without Nasa’s partnership.”

Smith argues that Musk has created his own luck to position SpaceX as the leading pioneer in the new private space market.

Richard Branson on the floor of the New York stock exchange after Virgin Galactic went public in October 2019.
Richard Branson on the floor of the New York stock exchange after Virgin Galactic went public in October 2019. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Musk has really transformed the business, and brought commercial business back to the United States, by lower prices and reusability. He has really made a change,” she said.

“Bezos is trying to build this New Glenn rocket and is having setbacks with the engine.”

John Logsdon, the respected professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, phrased the differences between the two tycoons another way, in a 2018 interview with the Guardian.

“Musk’s style is to brag about things and then do them. Bezos’s style is to do things and then brag about them,” he said.

“I’d call it competition, and competition is the American way of life.”

As for Branson, the Virgin founder scored a major success last month when his SpaceShipTwo rocketplane reached an altitude of 55.4 miles, either in space or at the edge of it, depending on which calculation of the Karman Line, the perceived boundary of outer space, is being used. It brings his long-awaited but much-delayed aspiration of a profitable space tourism business a significant step closer to realization.

How relevant the Bezos brothers’ flight aboard New Shepard, his rocket named as a tribute to Alan Shepard, the first American in space, will be to Blue Origin’s wider ambitions is open to question, although Weinzierl, the Harvard professor, sees it as more than a publicity stunt.

“It’s about demonstrating in the most powerful way he can that he trusts in the technology,” he said.



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