HAMNET Report 20th September 2020

Since the 15th September, Tropical Cyclone Noul has been threatening the East coast of Vietnam, with wind-speeds up to 120km/h threatening at least 3.3 million people. Forecasts predicted the storm would hit the coast on Friday, and then proceed in a westerly direction to involve Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. These storms tend to weaken once they cross over land, so the worst damage is always near the coast. However, first reports indicate the death of seven people in Cambodia, struck by lightning during the storm, while they were sheltering in a stilt house.

The Vietnam Red Cross Society has strengthened its preparedness for the Typhoon, by increasing its stock of emergency supplies, the VNRC Central Committee said on Friday. By the time the eye of the storm crosses into Thailand, it should have weakened considerably.

Protecting citizens in the face of disaster often requires far-reaching decisions to be made. Any assistance is welcome—including from Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Wildfires are increasingly getting out of control, as shown by recent events in California and Australia. Yet firefighters continue to battle tirelessly against the flames—and nowadays they have more at their disposal than just water and controlled burns. Digitisation has long been part of their arsenal in the form of geo-information systems, webcams and drones. These have become key tools in predicting and controlling wildfires, yet the huge quantities of data they produce quickly pushes human expertise to its limits. “AI is always useful when you’re dealing with masses of data,” says Benjamin Scharte, who heads the Risk and Resilience Research Team at the ETH Centre for Security Studies (CSS). Recently, he and his colleague Kevin Kohler teamed up to analyse the use of AI in civil protection.

“Being able to use algorithms to make predictions is pretty exciting,” says Kohler. Which direction is the fire front heading? Where should we set the next controlled burns? By crunching all the available data, AI-based modelling tools can help answer these questions. This data might include weather forecasts, drought duration, wind direction—and even the potential amount of fuel available to the fire. The resulting predictions can make disaster response more efficient. In the best-case scenario, they can even act as a form of prevention.

Civil protection is particularly responsive to the use of AI because, all too often, it is a matter of life and death—and every minute counts. Experts are often expected to make snap decisions with far-reaching consequences, so they are grateful for any assistance that can underpin those decisions with more robust data. Ultimately, however, the quality of a decision always depends on the quality of the data. “However smart my algorithm may be, it will be of little use in an emergency if I can’t supply it with the right data for the disaster,” Kohler cautions.

Even the highest quality data can never fully replace the experience gained by experts over many years, so the question of whether a human or a machine should make the final decision is highly complex. Taken as a whole, the algorithm might conceivably produce a lower economic loss or fewer casualties than its human counterpart, but it may also make decisions in individual cases that we find unacceptable.

So at what point might we be willing to let a machine make its own decisions? Scharte and Kohler agree that this depends on the context: “Civil protection is sometimes a matter of life or death. Humans should play a part in making those decisions—it’s not the place for machines to make fully autonomous decisions.”

A crucial factor is how much faith people have in the algorithm. Trust paves the way for acceptance, and both are enhanced when we are able to clearly follow what an algorithm is doing. Trust takes time to be built up, so progress will be slow.

A sad reflection on us old fogies involved in this wonderful hobby of ours comes from Frank Kemmerer AB1OC, member of the Nashua Area Radio Society. He says that lack of mentorship can prevent some hams from getting on the air. In a free QST article Frank looks at one club’s approach to the problem. For the last 5 years, the Nashua Area Radio Society (NARS) in Nashua, New Hampshire, has been actively providing licensing classes and training to help new amateur radio operators develop their skills. Their club has helped over 420 people earn or upgrade their licenses.

The Nashua Area Radio Society has spent quite a bit of time trying to understand why so many of the people who earn a license or an upgrade don’t get on the air. The number one reason they discovered is that the amateur radio community isn’t providing the mentoring that many hams need to get active. This is a bit of an indictment on all of us already licensed individuals, and I hope it doesn’t mean the dreaded apathy is creeping into our lives too. So do try to grab that new ham near you, and make sure he has the advice and skillset necessary to become a useful radio operator who enjoys his hobby.

As an example of the value of amateur radio, Jaime Stathis, writing in WIRED, says there’s no better time to be an Amateur Radio Geek.

“The most important component of staying safe during an emergency is the ability to give and receive information. When the power goes out—which it often does, not only during wildfires but also during hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, and tornados—the internet doesn’t work and cellular networks crash with increased demand. In Northern California, she says they often have their electricity cut to prevent fire during high-risk times, leaving millions of customers in both metaphorical and actual dark.”

“Although I spent most of my life thinking amateur radio was for geeks and grandparents, I now sit with [my partner] for twice-weekly check-ins with the local amateur radio club. It’s a way for ham radio operators not only to touch base with each other, but also to test their equipment. Amateur radio operators not only help themselves, but in emergencies they deploy to assist organizations, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Red Cross, and local public safety offices, to communicate and coordinate with the public, and with each other.”

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.