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CyberUK, bees and datacentres, Red Cross digital mapping – Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna are joined by Alex Scroxton, security editor, to discuss CyberUK, bees and datacentres, and the British Red Cross’ use of digital mapping to combat Covid-19

In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna are joined by Alex Scroxton, security editor, to discuss the recent CyberUK conference, bees and datacentres, and the British Red Cross and its partners’ use of data sharing and digital mapping to combat the Covid-19 pandemic social and medical crisis.

After some chat about Alex’s theatre and art plans post-lockdown, the conversation begins with cyber.

There has been a host of attacks of major significance in recent months, with US government and critical national infrastructure in the sights of hacker groups identified by names like CozyBear and DarkSide, emanating, it seems, from the former Soviet Union. The SolarWinds and Colonial Pipeline attacks loom large and formed part of the backcloth to last week’s CyberUK conference, upon which Alex reported, and which he talks about in the episode.

Alex pulls out big themes from CyberUK around collaboration and information sharing, highlighting the thoughts of some of the speakers, taking in SolarWinds, the Cyber Security Council’s call for collaboration and Dominic Raab’s pledge to support developing country Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRTs).

SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna has, recounts, Alex, revealed he is looking to form an alliance of mid-sized companies to act in unison against nation state-backed malicious actors, such as Russia’s APT29, or Cozy Bear, the group that broke into SolarWinds’ network management platform to attack US government agencies and other organisations.

Alex also refers to Joe Biden’s Executive Order which mandates better information sharing between public and private security organisations. “Where goes the US, we will follow,” says Alex.

At the conference, UK Foreign secretary Dominic Raab committed to investing £22m in establishing cyber capacity in the Global South. Alex describes this as a bid for intellectual leadership among poorer countries, and against adversary nations. However, he said the government was now seeking to “bridge old geopolitical dividing lines” between rich Western countries and the G77 group of 134 developing nations that form the Global South.

Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack

The Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack may have acted as a wake-up call on the need to collaborate better, with threat researchers from across the cyber community swapping information on the DarkSide ransomware gang behind it.

“We don’t want to cause problems, we just want money” is, remarks Alex, DarkSide’s defence of its activities. The group also lays claim to a Robin Hood-like mission, and we can all make of that what we will.

Collaboration will also be critical in meeting the goals of the UK’s new Cyber Security Council, according to its founders, who formally launched the initiative at the end of March 2021. Claudia Natanson, the inaugural chair of the council’s board of trustees said the formation of the council was a “truly historic” moment. Alex will be interviewing her.

DCs for bees

Caroline then takes the podcast into a genteel chat about bees, where she describes how Ireland is making a concerted biodiversity push to support a country-wide campaign to reverse the decline in the country’s native bee population.

This is an initiative overseen by Host In Ireland as a show of its support for the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s five-year All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, aimed at encouraging bees and other natural pollinators to thrive.

Host In Ireland has published a 20-page DCs for Bees Pollinator Plan, which outlines steps that datacentres can take to make their sites more hospitable for pollinators.

Caroline remarks that whereas we often come across stories about IT being used to analyse bees, this is an unusual case of datacentres boosting bee numbers and promoting their health and general “well-beeing” by encouraging a spot of re-wilding.

It’s also another twist on the datacentre industry efforts to make their server farms more energy efficient and be more environmentally friendly. And, in an Irish context, Apple’s abortive attempt to build a datacentre in County Galway is part of the historical context.

And Host in Ireland is also drawing other businesses, so it goes beyond the datacentre industry, Caroline relates.

This episode’s guest Alex is also a bee fan, and has written for CW about bees, for instance a story about an internet of things project dedicated to saving the honeybee from extinction.

Digital mapping

He’s map enthusiast, too, taking Brian into his digital mapping tale. He discusses how the British Red Cross has been working with the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP) and its network of over 250 organisations throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Brian interviewed Adam Rowlands, director of digital at the British Red Cross and Alexei Schwab, senior information manager, at the VCSEP for the story.

The British Red Cross has been drawing on digital mapping expertise partly developed in emergencies in other countries, using mapping software provided by Esri. It also draws on a well of experience of collaboration and data sharing with other emergency organisations, such as Médécins sans Frontières.

Brian says that, according to Adam and Alexei, the Covid-19 pandemic crisis has acted as a catalyst for collaboration and data sharing in a manner similar to how crises function in disaster situations abroad, in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Sierra Leone, where Ebola has wrought havoc.

The VCSEP has its origins in improving the co-ordination of emergency response in the Grenfell Tower disaster and the terrorist attacks on Manchester and London in 2017. The Covid crisis has caused it to scale up, and it extends to the Salvation Army and St John Ambulance, as well as councils and charities.

Response map

Brian talks about the two maps the British Red Cross and the VCSEP have deployed in the Covid crisis, a VCSEP Covid-19 response map and a British Red Cross Covid-19 vulnerability index map. These have, among other things, helped volunteers deliver food parcels, Covid-19 tests in nursing homes and laptops to schoolchildren during the crisis.

On the podcast, Brian also mentions how the organisation supports geographic open source initiatives Missing Maps, which maps areas where people live at risk of disasters and crises, by contributing to OpenStreetMap, and MapSwipe, which aims to provide better maps for NGOs by capturing information on the ground on an app.

It also supports the Humanitarian Data Exchange, which collates nearly 20,000 humanitarian datasets from over 250 locations.

All in all, examples of digital being used for good. And, as with Alex’s and Caroline’s stories, examples of the value of sharing and collaboration.

Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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