In the last of our series examining the role technology plays in helping businesses to operate in some of the most testing environments, silicon.com investigates how IT serves those in politically unstable areas.
Iraq and Afghanistan are among the most unpredictable regions in the world, so if you’re planning to do business there, you need to be well prepared.
Companies such as Control Risks provide advice, risk assessment, support and physical security for organisations in the financial services, mining, gas and oil industries, with the aim of allowing them to work in such regions as safely and productively as possible.
Technology plays an important role in Control Risks’ work, according to the company’s CIO Duncan Scott. When helping clients move around in dangerous areas, for example, Control Risks uses business intelligence to plan safe routes, using information that has been gathered about previous incidents to create a picture of situations in different regions that can inform operatives’ travel decisions.
“We have this fantastic data reservoir of incidents and we have now mapped all of those incidents onto a tool. We can project that [information] pictorially through a map, so people driving around in protected vehicles can make decisions about where they go and where they don’t go,” Scott said.
“The database can show you that there’s been quite a lot of mine activity in this region, or this town or this village, [so staff can say] ‘let’s go round it, let’s go another way’. They use the collateral that we have, before they travel, to make plans.”
The tools are built with readily-available software including Microsoft’s SQL database and SharePoint as well as Google Maps. “It’s common IT tools that are being used in a real-world life-saving way,” Scott said.
One of the areas Control Risks works in is hostage negotiation – and business intelligence plays a part in such work too.
“We’ve collected collateral over many, many years around kidnap; we obviously can profile the kind of situations that we find ourselves in. In the more modern world we’re using historical information to help consultants in the field to understand what they have and what their options are,” Scott said.
Satellite communications and 3G
According to Scott, “communications and radio transmissions are vital” for those on the ground.
“If you’re going anywhere, you have to take a…
…satellite phone and they are a standard piece of kit. Even if you’re going to Pakistan where we have an office, which is a more mature environment, we’re very insistent that the country manager has a satellite phone.”
3G signal is surprisingly widespread in the slightly more developed regions and is used wherever possible, according to Scott.
“I was talking to the country manager of Pakistan earlier today and he was saying in all the time he’s been in Pakistan, he’s always managed to get a 3G signal, which is extraordinary. Now he’s not straying off to Afghanistan, he’s probably working mainly in the built-up areas – but that is quite an interesting phenomenon.”
With many of the regions Control Risks operates having very little communications and IT infrastructure until recently, there are opportunities to piggyback on existing developments.
“A lot of these countries are in the fortunate position of having weak IT infrastructure – therefore they can skip generations of infrastructure build. They can put up a high-powered wi-fi network quite quickly without having to dig the ground up,” Scott said.
Working with a fragile tech infrastructure
Although the regions in which the company operates are often dangerous and lawless, there is usually sufficient infrastructure for regional offices to connect to the internet for accessing systems back in the UK.
In Iraq, Control Risks has three offices – in Baghdad, Basra and Irbil – all of which have fairly reliable internet connections.
“There is now acceptance with the authorities that internet access is a key utility.
“We’re working in places where you’d think there’s no way you’d ever get access there and it is being provided – and it’s not by satellite, it is by cable. We’re seeing a strong understanding of the need to do these things as part of any infrastructure construction,” Scott said.
“If you take Basra, which is a pretty hostile place generally, we have an office [there] and if you compared it to…
…the facilities we have in Dubai, they would be broadly similar – you can access all of the normal services and so on,” he added.
It’s when Control Risks clients want to work away from these offices and the larger towns that supporting technology becomes trickier: “If you step out of the ‘office environment’, we don’t have lots of high-technology in the field. You just don’t have a fibre-optic cable running across the desert.”
A more common infrastructure challenge is maintaining simple things like an electricity supply. In Lagos, Nigeria, copper being stolen from cabling is a relatively common occurrence.
“It sounds bonkers but it actually happens. Not only do we have no power so we can’t run our servers but on top of that it’s probably caused a power flux in the server which has caused a fault,” Scott said.
In response to these kinds of challenges the CIO is keen not to deploy heavyweight technology – such as servers – if it can be possibly avoided.
“Our strategy is to not do things if we can get away with it, simply because we end up with a management problem. There’s one thing have a bunch of servers in Kabul but what happens if they go down and there’s no-one there?” he said.
Turning to application virtualisation
Technology such as application virtualisation will increasingly be used in regional offices so that systems run in the UK can be accessed from a device rather than having systems hosted locally in each region the company operates in.
“That takes away this need for this server in Lagos problem because it’s devices in Lagos, with servers somewhere else,” Scott said.
The company is already using application virtualisation to an extent, but is looking at using it more widely to make sure staff can access the same applications wherever they are in the world.
“Essentially you end up needing a device plus an internet connection – that’s kind of where we’re trying to get to.”
Virtualisation will also help ensure the integrity and security of data, as devices hold little data that could be exploited if it fell into the wrong hands.
“We don’t want devices with lots of confidential data on them and the whole concept of using an enhanced desktop or client helps us with the security on that,” Scott said.