March 2011

Watching the evacuation from Libya

I've just got back from a holiday in Malta. It was my first visit to this tiny nation - the total area of its three islands is less than that of the Isle of Wight. And yet whilst we were there it efficiently co-ordinated and handled the evacuation of 4,000 foreign workers from Libya.

HMS Cumberland arriving in Malta from LibyaHMS Cumberland arriving in Malta from LibyaFrom our hotel we had a good view of the entrance to the Grand Harbour at Valletta, and we watched HMS Cumberland and HMS York, as well as several ferries, arrive with evacuees. The hotel had been primed in advance, and as well as filling every empty room they had hastily brought an annexe back into use that had been closed for the winter for maintenance. Every morning there were new groups of men at breakfast, as well as families.

I chatted with one British family with two small children. I don't know how long it took them to get to the port in Libya, but the crossing had taken 24 hours and they were exhausted and traumatised. The husband told me he worked in construction, and that they had left with just the clothes they were wearing. In the circumstances, pointing them towards Marks and Spencers seemed the logical, if rather surreal thing, to do.

Like most of the evacuees, they were hoping to be in Malta for just a day or two before catching a plane back home. But the airport is quite small, with normally only a couple of dozen flights each day, so the pressure there must have been quite intense. More than a dozen military aircraft were deployed to fetch people from Libya to Malta and civilian planes were chartered to take people on to their home countries as well, all running out of the one airport.

In spite of the news stories about delays in mobilising a rescue effort, many Brits got out early in the process. There was a lot of concern for the 10,000 Chinese working in Libya, as China did not appear to have organised any sort of rescue operation. Last week some of them arrived in Malta, although by then the hotels were full and they were accommodated on board the large ferry they had travelled in. Indeed, workers from the poorer nations, especially Bangladesh which did not seem to have any consular presence in Libya, were in a difficult position. Quite a few were brought over to Malta but it was not at all clear who was going to get them home from there.

On Thursday we explored the Sacra Infermeria, a vast hospital built in the 16th century by the Knights of St John - the "Knights Hospitallers". They were highly skillful at tending battle wounds, but they also nurtured a tradition of care for anyone who was sick, military or civilian, rich or poor. The response of the Maltese people to the crisis in Libya derived from the same humanitarian principles that inspired the Order of St John hundreds of years ago.

Huge overcharging on Oyster cards

I was in the local newsagent yesterday, and a customer was getting very angry, swearing at the shopkeeper about her Oyster card. She said she had been overcharged on a journey; the shopkeeper explained that she simply sold them and couldn't deal with any complaints, but showed her the TfL number to call. I tried to back up the shopkeeper and say that it wasn't her fault, and that I'd heard other people had the same problem, but the customer stormed out.

I looked back at the emails I'd received when I was on holiday and saw that Caroline Pigeon, leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group, had challenged the Mayor of London on this. She managed to dig out the figures by which travellers were overcharged on their Oyster cards last year, station by station across London. Travellers arriving at stations in Kingston were overcharged by these staggering amounts:

Kingston - £109,000
Surbiton - £89,000
Norbiton - £41,000
New Malden - £40,000
Tolworth - £9,000

The remaining smaller stations - Chessington North, Chessington South, Malden Manor and Berrylands - racked up £18,000 between them.

In total, travellers ending their journeys in Waterloo from anywhere in London are overcharged on their Oyster cards by a nearly £2.5 million each year. TfL tries to claim that this happens because people don't touch out their cards properly, and they then get charged the maximum amount for the journey, but Caroline thinks it highly unlikely that all the overcharging is due to human error. Faulty machines are a much more plausible explanation.

It is not that easy to claim back either. Tfl really needs to get its act together.

BBC London News put up a detailed item on this while I was away. You can view it here.

Update

You can contribute to the discusssion on the BBC blog if you like.

Who runs the Internet?

At the Lib Dem Conference I spoke at a fringe meeting organised by Liberal Democrat Voice with this challenging title.

This is what I said - and if you like you can listen to the podcast:

I don’t know how Tim Berners-Lee casts his vote. But I do know that he is one of the great liberals, and one of the great democrats, of our age.

Now you may think that I am saying that because Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

And he did indeed do that in 1990, while working as a scientist for CERN.

But he did not pluck the idea of the Web out of thin air. Some of the basic technologies were already in place. The Internet itself had been constructed in 1965. Hypertext, with embedded links to other pages, had its origins back in 1963.

What Tim Berners-Lee did was to build on this and add some extra features that made it very easy to publish and share information over the Internet. He devised standards for coding pages, for naming pages, and for transmitting pages through the Internet. And he created the first browser. It was a masterly piece of work.

But if he hadn’t done all this himself, sooner or later someone else would have produced something very similar. We are very fortunate that it was invented by him and not by some employee of Murdoch.

I say that Tim Berners-Lee is a great liberal, not because he invented the Web, but because of his deep commitment, in the academic tradition, to open information on the Web. He laid down the principles under which the Web should operate. The standards that he developed were designed to support openness.
Moreover, he believed that an open Internet is essential to maintain democracy in an open society.

Last December, he published an essay in Scientific American to mark the 20th anniversary of his invention. It was entitled “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality”

He writes: “The Web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles.”

But he fears that the twin principles of universality and net neutrality are being threatened.

Universality means that you can put anything on the Web, any type of data, any content, any language, and you can access anything on the Web.

Tim Berners-Lee claims that universality is being undermined by a number of sites that do not use the Web’s open standards.
He cites social networking sites which capture your data but make them available only within their sites. “Each site is a silo” he says” walled off from the others. The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the Web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.”

The other principle he writes about is net neutrality, which is fundamental to the survival of the Web.
Net neutrality is the idea that all Web traffic should be treated equally. It could be violated if, for example, an ISP made it easier for you to connect to some websites rather than others, or to download some materials more quickly than others.

He says: “A neutral communications medium is the basis of a fair, competitive market economy, of democracy, and of science. Debate has risen again in the past year about whether government legislation is needed to protect net neutrality. It is. Although the Internet and Web generally thrive on lack of regulation, some basic values have to be legally preserved.”

I’ll end with Tim Berners-Lee’s own words:

“Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.”

That's a liberal talking.

Kingston Council Lib Dems win awards!

The Liberal Democrat councillors on Kingston Council won TWO awards at the Party Conference in Sheffield, and I was very proud to receive the certificates on their behalf.

Every year the London Government Association announces the Council Group of the Year - Kingston didn't get that, but we were given the award for Excellent services for Children and Young People. (I was really pleased about that having done the job as Executive member for Children and Young People some years ago).

The Kingston Group was also given the Vice Chair's Award which is for sustained achievement over a long period of time.

So - many congratulations to them!

The rather fuzzy photo (my fault as I had set it for outdoors) shows me with Tim Farron MP, our delightful new President of the Liberal Democrats.

Baldrick gets excited

Being neighbourly in Christchurch

After the earthquake - the one in New Zealand, not the one on Japan - e-Democracy.org set up 25 neighbourhood forums in Christchurch. The idea was to create online spaces where people could give and offer support to each other. The forums were designed to work at a very local level, and very quickly reached hundreds of people.

Some of the forums have recruited quite a lot of members via a traditional names-on-a-clipboard approach, and all are only just starting up actively online. The most active one so far is in the Sumner district, where amongst other things they have been discussing community events (with someone offering to provide sound systems) and residents meetings.

I haven't written much about e-Democracy.org on my blog, but it is a significant part of my life. Since last summer I have been the Chair of the Board of this international non-profit organisation. Chairing a phone conference meeting, with members in four different countries and five time zones, has been a new experience for me! It was particularly confusing this week when I realised that the US had already changed to Dallight Saving Time, whereas Europe wasn't doing it until next weekend.

e-Democracy.org was set up in 1994 by Steven Clift, and claims to be the first user of the term 'e-democracy'. Steve is well known in e-democracy circles, not just for this organisation, but also for his DoWire newsletter and discussion groups which involve hundreds of people from all over the world, and for his encyclopedic knowledge of the field which makes him a sought-after speaker at conferences across the globe.

I'm following the Christchurch initiative with a lot of interest. It will be good to review it in a year or so to see whether it did make a difference to the lives of people in the earthquake zone, and whether it did play a part in the rebuilding of the city.

'Crime Research UK' shut down today - but will that put an end to the scam?

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My post last month about the similar sounding 'Crime Prevention UK' has attracted more comments than any other in the last five years.

Someone today has left a link to this article in the Mirror. I hope this means the end to the saga, which has so far netted £18 million for SAS Fire and Security, but somehow I don't think so, as they seem to be carrying out their unscrupulous activities under a different name.

I'd be interested to hear from you if you do get a phone call from them after today's news. Do read the comments in the previous post and then contact your local police.

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