Beyond The Flooding in Trinidad and Tobago

Alien LandscapesThis comes in the way of an apology to readers outside of Trinidad and Tobago: I’ve written more in the past week about Trinidad and Tobago than I typically do and the reason behind that is simple: I felt it needed to be written. And in that, there is no real apology.

There are lessons here, though, when we look at the planet not as we see it, but for what it is – a complex network of networks that has existed before mankind and that will continue after mankind.

We live in an odd alien landscape that our senses can barely discern. We have gotten better at it, and through trial and error – arguably disastrous error – we have learned new things. If Clair Cammerson Patterson hadn’t tried to estimate the age of the Earth, he wouldn’t have ended up leading a campaign against lead poisoning, and leaded fuels. So many who don’t know his name have probably had their lives saved. That’s just one example.

There have been people doing similar things around the world, opening up new perspectives on the planet by daring to look, to ask questions rather than accepting… and we take them for granted. Many of us don’t understand what they do, which makes sense, but many of us don’t try to understand.

The planet doesn’t care about our effective collective apathy.

That we are given pause to consider such things is not enough, that we use the pause for introspection is still not enough. The world doesn’t care about our bureaucracies, or democracies, or our economies.

Humanity, to survive, needs to be more agile in it’s adaptation to the world. The increased population certainly doesn’t help; more humans means more agriculture and farming which we clear more natural land for without truly understanding all the implications. It means increased use of all the nasty -icides we use, it means more transportation using things that cough pollutants. Our medical technology assures we live longer, our business technology allows us to profit or lose from it more rapidly, and the person who works in the hope of retiring finds themselves working longer to retire because of socioeconomic circumstance.

The planet’s governments were not designed for this level of change. They don’t scale as fast as we procreate, a problem that China was quick to deal with, making people shudder at the implementation. In this way, perhaps, the Chinese ‘solution’ kept the population growth to a speed where the governance could adapt fast enough.

I don’t know, and really, I don’t think anyone does. There are opinions, I’m sure, but I’m not sure anyone actually knows. It’s apparent that there are at least some Chinese people who are not pleased with the way things are. In time, history books will tell us the ones that survived were right.

What we do know is that we can see events in our spheres faster than we could have 20 years ago, or 40 years ago. The world is awash with would-be citizen journalists documenting themselves and what they see, interpreting their world on the fly without a few moments introspection.

Governments around the world can’t keep pace with all of this. Trinidad and Tobago, since I have been writing about Trinidad and Tobago, is slow to adapt and change. It didn’t diversify it’s economy when it could have while oil revenues were high. It had brain-drain as oligarchal systems kept people from pushing things forward, forcing them to other places to become what they would become. Corruption that paid well came from such things, creating it’s own sub-economy while effectively stalling progress.

In this, there are parallels with other developing nations. There is nothing significantly different in the corruption aspects of developing nations, but where Trinidad and Tobago is different is that it could have been developed much further along with the oil revenues it once had. Instead, politics divided and conquered as politics typically does.

Whenever administrations change, we get reorganization.  Reorganization within the same cavern of methodologies doesn’t actually change as much as politicians would have people believe, largely because politicians aren’t systems thinkers outside of politics.

We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
 Charlton Ogburn, Jr. (1911-1998), in Harper’s Magazine, “Merrill’s Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure” (Jan 1957)

So how do we get real change? It’s simple, really – we stop playing politics. We push on fixing the things we need to – foresight – rather than getting wrapped up in a blame game that politicians play so that they can be elected or re-elected.

And when they fail, we criticize by creating.

Many individuals have thoughts on how to do things. Being an expert on something limits what can be thought of within a narrow field when all too often innovation comes from intersections across fields.

Stop wasting time on politicians. Start using time productively toward solutions. When someone has an idea, challenge it – and if it passes, share it so others can challenge it and better shape a solution.

Or you can go on depending on politics. How’s that working for you?

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Trinidad and Tobago Flooding 2018: Observations on Government (Pt 2)

800px-Flag_of_Trinidad_and_Tobago.svgIn Part I related to the 2018 flooding in Trinidad and Tobago, I was very upbeat about how the community was handling things, and here, now, I will be less upbeat – but not as a matter of politics. The government response is a symptom of a lack of preparedness for a disaster at this scale.

When I write of ‘this scale’, too, this is not as large a disaster as we have seen in the past internationally with earthquakes or hurricanes or tsunamis or typhoons or… and yet, the reality is that for anyone affected or responding to any disaster, it’s huge. It’s emotional, it’s frustrating, and well intentioned people want to do more and expect governments to do more.

It’s clear that the government of Trinidad and Tobago is overwhelmed at this time. While many people only heard a part of what the Prime Minister of Grenada commented on the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago’s statement that Trinidad and Tobago was not accepting aid at this time, they did not hear the key to it all: Logistics. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago cannot handle the logistics of disbursing more aid at this time according to Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley.

In essence, a flood of aid might be wasted, and the sane thing to do is to hold off on asking for assistance until what is needed is actually identified. This is common sense, but it’s common sense that leaves people when they are flooded with imagery of homes underwater, of people who have lost all but the love of their brothers and sisters.

In the end, while unpopular, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago was honest about the capacity of government to handle the situation – something which has been neglected for decades. People have been uttering, “God is a Trini” for as long as I can remember, a testament to faith that Trinidad and Tobago alone had some form of relationship with a superior being. God simply doesn’t handle logistics when the… water… hits the fan.

Flash Flood South of Couva
Flash flood on the highway near Couva, Trinidad, 2008

I’m critical of government, apolitically. I have been publicly critical of one Minister flying around in an airplane instead of being at his desk, among others, and I have been critical of the Trinidad and Tobago Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) for years.

It was only a year ago when we had to deal with Tropical Storm Brett and it’s fallout – and I wrote some things in that context a year ago that have apparently not been addressed. Flash flooding is not new in Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s getting worse – scientists agree on climate change though politicians do not; the complexity of climate change is lost on many. Sea levels are rising. We’ve been seeing increased rainfall in parts of the world, droughts in others.

red-house---colourSystems do not change quickly. When I wrote about Brett last year in Trinidad and Tobago, I didn’t expect an immediate change – but I did expect at least a few things to change. The ODPM still has a useless app, it’s still ponderously slow to respond for such a small organization in a small country… it’s a bit like a mouse that lacks agility, slamming into walls with the precision of a meteorite. And it’s a symptom of larger issues that plague Trinidad and Tobago.

So no, the government of Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t get a free pass, but the present government needs to turn decades of lack of exercise of this arm of government to deal with things – as well as other things, which I’ll get to in a later post.

The global economy isn’t waiting for Trinidad and Tobago.

Neither is nature.

Crisis Informatics

DisasterPeople who have known me over the years know I’ve always had a passion for responding to disasters. I can’t tell you why it is that when most people are running away, I have a tendency to run in – something I did before I became a Navy Corpsman (and learned how to do better because of). Later became a stab on what this is about by first enabling the capture of the data itself by enabling the communication. I even worked a year at a company that does weather warnings and other emergency communication, and was disappointed at how little analysis was being done on the data.

Years later, I now read ‘The Data of Disasters‘. Some folks have been working on some of the things that I had been thinking about and working on as I had time, and they seem to have gotten further. I’m excited about since the Alert Retrieval Cache was necessarily closed and didn’t gain the traction I would have liked – and open systems present issues with:

  • Context: A post may be about something mentioned prior (a.k.a. ibid) but not tagged as such because of size limitations.
  • Legitimacy: Whether a source is trustworthy or not, and how many independent sources are reporting on something.
  • Timeliness: Rebuilding a timeline in a network full of shares/retweets can pose a problem because not everyone credits a source. If you go by brute force to find source date and times, you can pull on threads – but you’re not guaranteed of their legitimacy in unit time.
  • Perspectives: GIS allows for multiple perspectives on the same event in unit time.
  • Reactions: When possible, seeing when something at a site changes when all of the above can change in unit time.

It gets a bit more complicated from there – for example, languages can be difficult particularly with dialects and various mixes of languages (such as patois in the Caribbean, where I got into all of this). There’s also a LOT of data involved (big, quick and dirty data) that needs to be cleaned before any analysis can happen.

This is all why I envisioned it all to be a closed system, but the world believes differently, interjecting pictures of food with actual information of use. Like it or not, there’s data out there.

The expansion of data from a source over unit time, as mentioned in their paper on Crisis Informatics , is not something  I had thought of. I imagine they’re doing great work up there at the Department of Information Science in the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder.

I’ll be keeping an eye out on what else they publish. Might be fun to toss a beowulf cluster at some data.