Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cyclone Nargis -- How Not to Respond to a Disaster

There has been a lot of stuff written about the cyclone Nargis that hit Burma last week. Probably the best coverage has been the BBC.

I will not go into details here, but here are some highlights (or should that be lowlights):

  • The damage was very severe, mostly due to the tidal surge and flooding. The satellite photos from NASA are stunning, showing the vast amount of flooded areas in the Irrawaddy Delta and near Rangoon.
  • A quote from a Rangoon resident - "When there were protests the army was everywhere, now they are nowhere to be found".
  • The military government refused to allow disaster response teams from the UN into the country.
  • They would allow aid, but only the Burmese military could distribute it (with what they said were their seven helicopters!).
  • Even Burmese citizens have been stopped from giving out food and other relief aid to other Burmese.
  • There were reports where aid received from outside was printed with the Burmese generals names in order for them to get credit.

A country not wishing to have outside help or aid is not unprecedented. In fact, India did almost the same thing with the 2004 tsunami. But to not allow outside help AND not do anything themselves is what is very distressing.

Essentially all of those who were affected by Cyclone Nargis were pawns in a high stakes political game. The whole thing was about control -- control at any cost.

We can do all we want into terms of disaster preparedness, with the Hyogo framework and all, but when politics interfere all of that goes out the window. Disaster response must be immediate - indeed the first few hours are the most important. Maybe the international community should start to concentrate on access (1). Burmese actions must be condemned at the highest levels and steps taken to prevent they time of behavior from occurring. Access to disaster relief must be made a human right. Should denial of these rights be considered "war crimes"?

This was absolutely the worst response there has ever been to a natural disaster, and let us hope that it never happens again.

NOTE: (1) I was disappointed that after the cyclone the only statement (pdf) from the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction concerned early warning.

PS. It was interesting to see the difference between the government reactions to Cyclone Nargis and to the 7.8 earthquake in China.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


I was wondering the other day what was knowledge management. So I typed in "knowledge management" in Google and looked at the first entry. In it was the following definition.

Knowledge Management is a new branch of management for achieving breakthrough business performance through the synergy of people, processes, and technology. Its focus is on the management of change, uncertainty, and complexity. It evolved from the need for advancing beyond the failing paradigm of Information Technology Management that accounts for 70%-80% system failures. As 'IT' becomes more of a commodity and endowed with more complex 'potential' capabilities, there is need for re-focusing on strategic execution. As we transition from an era of information scarcity to information glut, there is need for re-focusing on human sense-making processes underlying decisions, choices, and performance. In this new paradigm for increasingly uncertain and complex business environments, dynamically evolving performance outcomes are the key drivers of how 'smart minds' use 'smart technologies' to leverage strategic opportunities and challenges.",

Will somebody translate that into English?

To be honest, I am getting tired of "x management" Today we have risk management, consumer relations management, human resources management, knowledge management, ... I am waiting for "manager management".

I see two big problems with all of these. First is why should these things be managed in the first place. For example, the field I am most familiar with is risk management (as related with safety/environment, not financial risk). In my opinion risk is something to be avoided, not managed.

Secondly, all of the x management really is directed to one goal: money management (or should that be profit management?). All x management is really done to either increase revenue or decrease costs. Risk management is done to reduce the cost of building control equipment, doing mitigation measures, or retooling current equipment.

Let us get back to knowledge management. Often in the discussion of knowledge management, the question is asked "can knowledge be managed?". I really think that question is irrelevant. The real question is should it be managed? We should encourage knowledge and the use of it, not manage it.

In fact, I would go further. The for-profit corporation as it is today actually discourages the acquirement and use of knowledge. It tells its employees to be innovative and then demands that it keeps the patent rights. Why should the employees be innovative when they get no benefits, while the company and its directors get the money and the credit.

Then what really is knowledge management?? To begin with, it is another buzz word for consultants and academics to use. It (and all their other x management buzz words) justifies their existence and gives them something else in which to make money.

But it is mostly an excuse for a company implement policies to maximize profits while protecting its(?!) "intellectual property". When I say intellectual property(1) of course I am referring to the collective of all its employees. Hence knowledge management is all about control.

It is interesting that all the knowledge management "gurus" never mention the free/open source software development model. As one business academic said "it is management as we have never seen". In the open source world, developers are mostly unpaid and do it either as fun or to fulfill a niche. They will usually respond to request for additional features, make security fixes as soon as possible (usually within days), and then provide their work free under the GPL (GNU Public License (2)).

If companies could emulate this style we might have better workers and more intellectual freedom. Indeed intellectual freedom is to me much more important than knowledge management or the profit line.

NOTES: (1) Actually intellectual property is a misnomer. It includes patents, copyrights, and trademarks, which are three different things. See

(2) For information on free source software, including the GPL look at the Free Software Foundation website.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

PLoS and Open Access

Previously, I have referenced the Public Library of Science (PLoS). See for example, my recent blog on biodiversity. Also see the link on the right.

PLoS is an organization which publishes a number of online journals with the standards of peer review and cutting edge science you find in Nature or Science. However, it is a radical departure from most academic journals. The PLoS journals are what are called open access (OA) journals.

Open access journals are based on two criteria: no price barriers and no permission barriers. For a detailed explanation see Peter Suber's Open Access Overview

No price barriers means that it free to view the journal. Most journals have subscriptions, most are huge. For an amusing look at this serious topic see Sticker Shock 2 from Cornell University.

The major problem with this is that access to journals is extremely difficult, especially in developing countries. I am a scientist/engineer living in Thailand and it is extremely difficult to get academic articles. Libraries here do not have the budget to pay for journals and, of course, the journals are available online for subscribers only. How can we have technology transfer when there is restricted access to the information?

The second criteria for open access is no permission barriers. Most journals require that you sign away the copyright to your article. That is, the publishing company, not the author, owns the copyright. As an author, I find it disturbing that some else gets the rights to what I write.

For articles in PLoS the author keeps the copyright using the Creative Commons license. This license allows people to copy the article provided they credit the original author. (This blog is also under the Creative Commons license, click on the link at the bottom for more information.)

The open access "movement" is growing, as is the number of open access journals. This is despite opposition from publishers who do not want their revenue stream damaged.

Write academic articles for PLoS or other OA journals (for a list see the Directory of Open Access Journals, become a member of PLoS, or simply publicize open access. (For a more complete list of things to do see here).