Natural Disaster Crises? Technology May be the Answer

Whether it be a tornado, tsunami, earthquake, monsoon, hurricane, flood, or any other natural phenomena, no one person can be fully prepared for the aftermath of such disasters. Even with around-the-clock efforts from dedicated responders, disaster victims most always outnumber the help that is available to them, fostering a sense of unfair importance for which victims are priority versus those who can hold out just a little longer. Luckily, One Concern, Inc.—a startup that earned a coveted spot on GovTech100, the top 100 companies focused on government customers—aims to be one of the first to utilize artificial intelligence to save lives through analytical disaster assessment and calculated damage estimates.

The idea of One Concern was born from CEO and co-founder, Ahmad Wani, whose hometown of Kashmir, India is located in a region that is especially prone to earthquakes and floods. In 2005, Kashmir was hit by an earthquake that took the lives of 70,000 people—one of two disasters that inspired Wani to pursue his graduate level studies in earthquake engineering research at Stanford University. On another occasion in 2014, a large flood engulfed the state of Kashmir while Wani was visiting his parents—a disaster that left eighty percent of Kashmir underwater in a few short minutes. According to Wani, people had to resort to camping out on their rooftops for up to a week without food and clean water while waiting for uncertain rescue by ad hoc response teams.

The infographic below demonstrates the detrimental impact that various natural disasters have on communities in which they occur:

Although Wani is cognizant that his experiences occurred in a developing country, people in both developing and developed countries experience the same difficulty and chaos in the event of a natural disaster. Wani is trying to us his experiences to solve the problem of post-disaster reconnaissance and rescue through artificial intelligence with the intent of saving lives and strengthening communities. Indeed, by using their core product and web platform, “Seismic Concern,” the company is able to alert those located in jurisdictions affected by an earthquake by displaying a color-coded map of the likely structural damage as well as alerting emergency operation centers, which allows them to allocate their limited resources to rescue and recovery. Seismic Concern not only fosters response prioritization, but also recovery operations such as material staging and shelter management by compiling an Initial Damage Estimate (IDE), which is critical for emergency operation centers to request financial assistance from state and federal level institutions.

Furthermore, One Concern is using state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms, stochastic modeling, training modules, as well as geophysical and seismological research to enable emergency operation centers to train based on actual earthquake simulations before an actual earthquake strikes. According to One Concern, this can aid in personnel readiness and planning development, thus making a community more proactive and resilient.

For now, One Concern is relatively unknown to cities and countries that may be interested in adopting the revolutionary technology in which it specializes. Fortunately, Wani’s company is in the business of being ready and able to respond to anything at any time—an industry that spans the globe. By empowering rescuers and first responders with such valuable resources in times of crisis, they will be equipped with the resources necessary to save lives.

Eye-phone: A technology that powers the blind

In the past, visually impaired people had to shell out thousands of dollars for technology that magnified their computer screens, spoke navigation directions, identified their money and recognized the color of their clothes. Today, users only need smartphones and a handful of apps and accessories to help them get through their physical and online worlds. New software is helping people with limited or no sight navigate around town and across the Internet.

Luis Perez carefully frames his photo to get the best shot for Instagram. Gripping his white cane in one hand and his iPhone in the other, Perez squints at the screen and points the display toward the sunset. His iPhone speaks: “One face. Small face. Face near top left edge.”

Perez snaps several photos and then puts his iPhone back in his pocket, with plans to examine the images later. Taking sunset pictures with an iPhone is nothing remarkable — until you consider that Perez, a 44-year-old who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, is legally blind. Not being able to clearly see the photos he’s taking doesn’t slow him down. By using technology built into the iPhone, along with apps from the App Store, Perez has developed quite a photography habit.

“My time with vision is limited,” says Perez, who began losing his sight about 15 years ago from retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease. He now sees only a small circle of what’s directly in front of him, and that will deteriorate over the next few years. “I have to enjoy it as much as I can, and photography is part of that.”

VoiceOver, the screen-reading technology powers this technology.

VoiceOver first turns off the iPhone’s single-tap function on the display. After that, users can move their fingers across the screen to hear what’s on the display. That could be anything from the names of the apps themselves to words in an email, a text message or a social media post. When users turn on the “Speak Hints” function, VoiceOver will say what an app is and then give instructions for using it. Users can even adjust the voice’s speaking rate and pitch.

Lay of the land

By itself, VoiceOver makes it easier for people with limited sight to use their iPhones. But the technology really comes into its own when mobile apps hook into its features. BlindSquare, which talks to users as they walk along crowded city streets and inside busy shopping malls, is a great example.

In addition to VoiceOver, the mobile app taps into the iPhone’s built-in GPS, FourSquare — which knows local landmarks and surrounding areas — and a crowdsourced map of the world. That combination allows BlindSquare to speak names of landmarks, such as cafes, shops and libraries, as the user walks by. Shaking the iPhone prompts BlindSquare to say the current address and nearest intersection. It will even, for example, tell the user that the entry to her destination has “four doors, two of which are automated, and there’s a second set of doors after the vestibule.”

“Twenty years ago, there’s no way we’d be able to walk on our own to find a restaurant,” says Kevin Satizabal, a blind musician and an online communities assistant for the Royal London Society for Blind People. “That’s the great thing about technology. It’s letting people blend in and do everyday tasks with a lot greater ease.”

 

This is the best time in history to be blind. – Luis Perez

Voice Dream reads out text from Web pages, PDFs, PowerPoint presentations and other files. The Be My Eyes app lets blind users video-chat with sighted volunteers for things like distinguishing between two cans of soup. KNFB Reader pulls text from photos taken with the iPhone.

But it’s not just purpose-built apps for the blind that tap into the iPhone’s assistive technology. Many people say some mainstream apps, such as Twitter and Periscope for social media and Uber and Lyft for ride-booking services, have well-designed accessibility, too.

“What I really get excited about are all these mainstream apps,” says Blanks. “That’s what really makes me feel part of society.” Blanks’ sentiment would likely have pleased Apple’s late co-founder, Steve Jobs, who famously said “it just works” when talking about his company’s products.

“We consider accessibility an integral part of what we build into our technology, not an add-on,” says Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s senior manager for global accessibility policy and initiatives. “It’s a basic human right.”

Almost there

Apple’s device isn’t the only smartphone to have accessibility features. Google’s Android software also has text-to-speech and screen-reading features for phone makers to use. Microsoft, working with Guide Dogs UK, has developed a wearable system that creates a “3D soundscape” similar to BlindSquare.

But not all apps are created equal. Some lose their assistive benefits after being updated. Others add the features as an afterthought, instead of from the get-go.

Lisamaria Martinez, a blind woman who lives in Union City, California, likes a parenting app that explains her baby’s milestones. But the app presents the information in an image of text, not text on its own. That means VoiceOver doesn’t work. To get around it, Martinez takes a screenshot of the images, uses another app to pull the text out of the image and then translates the text into speech.

“It’s super annoying,” says Martinez, who works with Blanks at LightHouse. “The problem is people don’t think about accessibility from the design stage.” That’s what LightHouse and other advocacy groups want to change. “With the right support, we can do a lot of things that people didn’t think we could do,” says Perez, the avid photographer who also teaches people to use technology.

 


Shara Tibken. “Seeing Eye phone: Giving independence to the blind– c|net.”

c|net. N.p., Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

How Telework May be Bad for Business

Living in the information age and the world of technology provides employees with 24-hour access to work-related material and information, which is often convenient when working outside of the office, working after office hours, or working from home entirely. Though this convenience can help business staff to be available and responsive at any time, telework may be bad for business. Indeed, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) suggests that employees who access work content on their personal computers, smartphones, and tablet devices may make companies more vulnerable to hackers and breaches in network security because attackers are more able to steal confidential information from a network by first hacking devices used for telework as opposed to technologies accessed from inside the organization.

For several business organizations, their employees, contractors, business partners, vendors, and other users may find it more convenient and more preferable to work from home for a plethora of reasons. With this in mind, NIST is currently drafting new security related recommendations for both businesses and employees, which include suggestions to create separate and external networks for personal devices. Furthermore, NIST suggests organizations that already have agreements with employees and third parties requiring client devices to be secure generally fail to account for potential use of unsecured, malware-infected, and/or otherwise compromised devices may already be connected to confidential company-related material (NIST).

One draft of a March 2016 publication by NIST made a rather pragmatic suggestion to “plan their remote access security on the assumption that the networks between the telework client device and the organization cannot be trusted” (United States Department of Commerce). Businesses and organizations are urged to heed these suggestions because having a secure network is just as imperative as it is for employees to be productive as they engage in telework.

The infographic below highlights the growing trend and benefits of teleworking among various companies around the globe. While employee productivity may be higher and even preferred for individuals who engage in telework, NIST evidence suggests that companies have thus far been reluctant to insure critical network security as a necessary precaution for those who perform telework.

While the agency is collecting public comment on its drafts until April 15 2016, it currently recommends that employees practice network safety by creating unique security access codes and passwords for personal devices, setting automatic locks when devices are idle, and disabling Bluetooth and Near Field Communication features except when necessary in order to protect their organization’s network security and overall bottom-line (www.nextgov.com).

Ear authentication; a new security recipe?

We’ve had our fingers, voices and irises scanned, but there’s now a new biometric en vogue – ears.

NEC, the inventor of this new personal identification technology, says it has an accuracy rating of 99%.

It measures the unique effect your ears have on sound. By identifying how sound resonation is changed by the unique pattern of each person’s ears, security systems can now distinguish accurately between millions of individuals.

In case you’re wondering what the effect of modifications to your ear shape are, don’t worry. Those over sized ear rings and studs and the severe boxing ring pummelings you’ve imposed on yourself won’t affect the accuracy of the system. The new system works by measuring how sound is determined by the shape of human ear cavities to distinguish individuals.

The advantages of the new system are that it is more natural. It does not require particular actions, such as scanning a part of the body over an authentication device, which makes it easier to conduct continuous authentication, according to a statement from Shigeki Yamagata, general manager, Information and Media Processing Laboratories, NEC Corporation.

The system works everywhere, even when the user is moving and working.

For those not already sold on the idea, here’s the technical details of how it works. For a few hundred milliseconds, an earphone with a built-in microphone generates acoustic signals from the earphone speaker.

It then receives the signals transmitted within the ear through the microphone. During this process, the soundwaves transmitted are changed by the time they are received back. This varies from ear to ear. The data on the measurement of those changes created by each ear gives every person their unique digital signature.

authenticati

The change measurement is made using a synchronous addition method, which adds and obtains the average of the waveforms of the multiple signals received. This is used to eliminate noise from the received signals. The system then calculates how the sound resonates within the ear – i.e. the acoustics of each ear.

All this happens within a second.

NEC tests have shown that there are two main sets of sound data that can be used for recognition. Firstly, there are the signal components that travel through the external ear canal and are reflected by the tympanic membrane. Secondly, there are signal components that pass through the tympanic membrane and are reflected within the inner parts of the ear.

NEC plans to commercialise the technology around 2018.

A wide range of applications is planned, including fraud and identity theft prevention. It will help to secure critical infrastructure and take the risk out of wireless communications and telephone calls, NEC says.

 

Editor’s Note: Ideas inspired from;


Nick Booth. “Forget fingerprints, ears are so next season in biometrics– NakedSecurity by Sophos.”

N.p., Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

And the Award Goes to…Women-Owned Businesses!

Women-owned businesses can now count another victory as the federal government has reached its goal of awarding five percent of the money spent on contractors to businesses owned by women. The government defines a women-owned businesses as those that are at least 51 percent controlled by women. In 1994, the federal government set a goal of awarding five percent of the money it spent on contractors to businesses owned by women (www.nytimes.com). Twenty-two years later, the federal government has for the first time finally met its goal.

According to the Small Business Administration (SBA), small businesses earned nearly 29 percent or $90.7 billion of the government’s contracting dollars during the 2015 fiscal year, which ended on September 30th, 2015. Out of that $90.7 billion earned by small businesses, women-owned businesses captured nearly $18 billion of those dollars. The government set this goal as companies owned by women tend to be younger and smaller than other businesses. Although women-owned businesses may be young and fewer in number, analysis by the department of commerce shows that women-owned business are indeed 21 percent less likely to be awarded government contracts than small businesses that are not women-owned.

The infographic below explains the growth and importance of women-owned businesses in America:

This goal was achieved mostly as a result of rules that were implemented by the government five years ago in 2011, which mandated that agencies set aside specific contracts allowing bids from only women-owned businesses as well as rules making them eligible for no-bid contracts—ultimately permitting women-owned businesses to not only gain experience, but to also provide them with the past performance necessary to win other competitive projects. Another reason why the government was able to meet its goal can be attributed to the Small Business Administration, which increased its outreach efforts over the past several years to teach women entrepreneurs about federal procurement opportunities—guiding them through the often complex process of preparing bids. Maria Contreras-Sweet, the 24th Administrator of the Small Business Administration, also made the recent achievement a top priority.

While five percent may seem like a small number, it is a significant achievement for women in the federal marketplace who have long been underrepresented. With this milestone, Washington has shown all Americans that if the government is determined enough, it can produce positive and impactful outcomes.