The essentials of digital preparedness in the Philippines

More than ten years ago I decided to quit my job as a mobile telecoms consultant to become self-employed (or as some well-meaning relatives told me, self-unemployed). This situation comes with the freedom to work in any way I choose. On the flip side, there is no support structure other than that which I create for myself. Unlike my salaried colleagues, any disruption has a direct impact on earnings: no work means no income. Business continuity planning is therefore a big part of my preps. Being unchained from a formal company also means learning to work in whichever environment I find myself; wherever I lay my laptop, that's my office. Over the years I've managed to find ways to remain productive regardless of the location, whether it's in a serviced office, cruise ship, hotel room or literally in the middle of nowhere. For me—and for many people in this high-tech age—the basic requirements of a computer, electrical power and telecommunications allows us to perform most of the tasks needed to earn a living.
Working remotely in various locations: Baler coast front, London basement, and a Francisco hotel room
Wherever I lay my laptop (That's my office): coast front, basement, hotel room
It recently occurred to me that the same practices for freelance remote working also transfer to business continuity during societal disruptions. However, unlike emergency survival habits where resourcefulness trumps kit, the key lies in having the right equipment and infrastructure; you can't put together an internet connection using duct-tape and paper clips. Before going over kit, I'll first justify why digital preparedness is useful in the first place...because I know what some of you are thinking...

Zombies are coming and you need me to finish this report?

During my discussions about this topic, people often ask why anyone would plan to keep working during a 'disaster'. To properly address this question, we should understand the three main classifications for events and their levels of impact: emergencies, disasters and catastrophes. I've dealt with the terminology in a previous article but in summary: Chart of emergency, disaster and catastrophe event escalation
  • Emergency: An emergency is any expected or unexpected event that puts life or property in danger. It needs immediate response but can be handled using the normal resources and infrastructure of the community.
  • Disaster: When an event is so disruptive that the affected community requires significant outside help, it becomes a disaster. It may be natural or man-made and related to loss of life, deterioration of health, or damage to infrastructure and services.
  • Catastrophe: A catastrophe is the result of a disaster so severe that the community ceases to exist or its continued survival is drawn into question.
When people say 'disaster', they're often using the word as a short-cut for 'all bad scenarios' but in their mind they're imagining a catastrophe. They fail to realize that real catastrophes are rare and the most likely scenarios would be classified as emergencies, involving disruptions of hours, days or weeks at worst. Afterwards, everyone needs to pick up the pieces and return to normal life. Setting yourself up for remote working can help during the event as well as the recovery phase through better communications, business continuity and improved mental health.

Communication

I don't have to elaborate too much on this as there have been many examples on how the Internet and cellphones have helped during disasters and severe break-downs of societies. From the 2010 Haiti earthquake, to the Arab Spring revolts, to Manila's own recent floods, digital communications have proven to be a key resource.

Business continuity

Returning to normal becomes much more difficult if you have the stress of a piled-up workload. For small-business owners and self-employed people like me, prolonged down-time could mean financial ruin. Getting out of the emergency situation is one thing but don't forget the indirect damage to your life: an earthquake may not destroy your house but it's lost anyway if you can no longer pay the mortgage. I know many other Philippine-based freelancers who have clients overseas. During both Ondoy and the floods last August, we still had to find ways to work and communicate with them. For similar circumstances in the future, our clients may be concerned but not concerned enough to stick with us if we continually fail to deliver.

Work and mental health

Amongst the prepper community, discussion about mental health seems to take a back-seat to bandages and antibiotics. In the Philippines especially, it's a topic that's generally not treated with any degree of seriousness. Having personally witnessed the severe nervous breakdown of several close associates and the schizophrenic episodes of a colleague, I realized one thing: nobody is immune. Given enough pressure, everyone will break; the questions are the duration, intensity and nature of the pressure required to make a person lose their mind. The stress, anxiety and boredom during any crisis is a bad mix for mental health. For many, habitual routines of work can be therapeutic and help lessen the impact of a traumatic event. Continuing with some of your familiar day-to-day business gives an feeling of control during a time when the rest of your environment may be descending into chaos. Even if your tasks are relatively unimportant, just being able to occupy your mind with something productive can help keep you sane.

Basic kit for the digital prepper in the Philippines

Notice I said 'basic.' It would be nice to email from anywhere in the world via inmarsat but how many of us can afford that setup? Frankly, my business isn't that profitable. These are tips for ordinary people. I also said, 'in the Philippines' so if you're reading this from another country, keep in mind that some of the suggestions here may not work for you.

Cellular network connectivity

Talking to Filipinos about cellphones is like teaching fish to swim. There's not much to recommend as nearly everyone knows how to get connected. The cellular network forms the basis of your communications infrastructure so make sure you have SIM cards for several networks. If you have a pre-paid account, make sure you have spare top-up cards. Say what you like about the state of internet connectivity in the Philippines (expensive, slow and unreliable, whatever) but you can get online in the most unlikely of places. Here's me by the coast in Aurora province which had cellular dead-spots everywhere. A little hunting found cell reception by this one coconut tree. Every day for a week I had to drive to that same spot to email my clients in London but the fact that it was possible to go online is quite amazing.
Looking for internet along the coastline, Aurora, Philippines
The only coconut tree around to offer internet
It's anyone's guess how the Philippines' telecommunications infrastructure would fare after a major disaster such as a powerful West Valley Fault earthquake. If we look to the 2010 Haiti earthquake as a case study, we can reasonably expect severely degraded coverage within Metro Manila. I certainly don't expect people to continue working on their day-jobs in such an eventuality but the advantage of having pockets of surviving communications is that they can be diverted to coordinating relief efforts.

Mobile phones

Phones are phones. They're nothing special these days and are all quite capable. You might prefer the ruggedized type for durability or an iPhone for the software. Some have dual SIM slots so you don't have to carry multiple handsets, although multiple handsets work as backups. Pick your poison based on your own needs but remember that a common brand will help if you need to borrow accessories. Try to keep spare chargers everywhere: wall plug chargers, car chargers, USB chargers, external battery-based backup chargers. Spare batteries are useful too, as are spare handsets.

Portable computer

As with phones, this depends on your preference and the type of work. I use an Apple laptop and an iPad. The laptop lets me get more work done but the iPad is more portable and consumes less energy. Which I use just depends on what's going on at the time. Since computer selection depends heavily on personal needs, the only thing I can suggest is that getting a smaller and cheaper backup device is likely a better investment than buying a more expensive upgraded machine.

Travel router and modem

Now we're getting on to the interesting stuff. For many years I relied on USB modems for cellular network connectivity and an Apple Airport Express for fixed-line broadband. This combination worked fine but manufacturers are now coming up with a superior package: the battery operated WiFi travel router. This one by TP-Link can take broadband via ethernet cable or 3G from a standard USB modem. It can even be configured to try one first and switch over to the other upon failure. You can also use it to add WiFi capabilities to wired-only device and extend the range of another WiFi router or access point.
TP-Link travel router and modem
TP-Link TL-MR3040 travel router with attached Smart USB modem
The router's input voltage is 5 volts and can take power from a removable battery pack, USB socket, or wall plug power adapter. The 5v input is useful as it helps standardize your power requirements along with mobile phones, Global Positioning System devices and tablets. (More about standardizing power requirements in a future article.) Although the travel router can create a WiFi network of up to five devices, I've found that the best use of the wireless connection is simply to get a stronger signal on the USB modem. You can place the router higher up or move it to a better spot without having to worry about a tethered laptop. For those interested in mobile networking, this type of device is exciting because it's a preview of long awaited consumer-grade technology for decentralized wireless ad-hoc networking that has been pioneered by the military. (Without getting to technical, this is a way of creating robust computer networks anywhere, even during a disaster.)

Backup power

Electrical power failure is the most obvious weak-point for any digital prepper. In a previous article I described building a backup power pack for emergencies. As the title implied, this is not an off-grid solution and intended for short-term disruptions only. Grid power is still needed to charge the battery due to the limitations mentioned in the article. However, it can easily be upgraded for solar charging using inexpensive panels that are starting to appear in main-stream hardware stores. I keep my power pack in a box with all the necessary components so that it's ready for use. It's compact enough to put into a vehicle should we need electrical power outdoors. Adding photovoltaics will make it a completely off-grid mini power generator
Emergency power pack in storage box
Emergency power pack in storage box
The image below shows the system hooked up to my laptop, giving me a few extra hours of work time. It can also be used to charge or power other devices like mobile phones and LED lamps
Emergency power pack in storage box
The 12v battery gives my laptop some extra run-time during a brown-out
For a ready-made solution, you can try one of the many solar chargers and back-up power packs on the market. CD-R King have quite a few models and you can find both generic and branded items in computer stores. Personally, I haven't been satisfied with any of these offerings because they're usually made for smaller electronic devices like phones and tablets. The Solargorilla and Powergorilla combination has enough juice to power a laptop like my old 15" Mac Book Pro. However, it's quite expensive and hard to find in the Philippines. It's also designed for electronics and I'm not keen on hacking up the cables to connect to low-tech devices like emergency lights and electric fans.
Solar Gorilla and Power Gorilla
The Powergorilla can power a 15" Mac Book Pro

File backups and online storage

In the firearms world, there's the saying, "Two is one and one is none." This is especially relevant in the electronic world where data is notoriously fragile and having file backups is the most basic form of digital preparedness. I've discussed this in a previous post so rather than me re-hashing the information, just go over to Creating emergency-resilient electronic file backups.

Physical and data locks

As we saw from the British riots in 2011, there is a subset of society who loot just because they can. A physical lock, such as laptop security cable or Pacsafe anti-theft bag will help deter thefts of opportunity. They won't stop a committed attack but all you want is for your stuff to look more trouble to steal than the other guy's. Criminals tend to be lazy so most will take the easier route. Data locks comprise of strong passwords and disk encryption. Long random passwords are difficult to remember so a password manager will keep them organized. Making sure that your data remains inaccessible in case your equipment is stolen or ditched helps avoid identity theft, which in many countries is the fastest growing crime. You may not think this will be a problem for you but remember that internet scams will rise in times of chaos and disorder. For example, a strong earthquake will no doubt knock out communications in Manila areas but scammers can use the opportunity to extract money from your loved-ones abroad. They do this by sending emails or Facebook messages claiming to be from you and asking for emergency money.

Digital preparedness case study: Greece

The theory of using remote working practices for digital prepping is all well and good but how does it stack up to reality? Is the idea just a pipe-dream that will collapse with society during an upheaval? I once had a colleague who after a time was called home to Greece for his military service. As luck would have it, the Greek protests broke out soon after enlisting. He told me that things got so bad that he didn't know whether to shoot the protesters or join them. After his military service, he still had to find a job to earn a living. If I recall his stories correctly, at one point someone broke into his car and started living in it. Another time he caught someone in his balcony tying to break through the window. We communicated every once-in-a-while and if he hadn't told me, I would have never guessed that his society was falling apart.
Greek protest riots
Greek protests (sources clockwise from left: Wikipedia, Reuters, AP Photo/Dimitri Messinis)

Life goes on and you'll still need to make a living

The essence of this article is that even during a severe disruption, life still goes on. We may prepare for a catastrophic event where society resets. All of a sudden, our technology could become useless and we are forced to live in the wilderness, reverting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But what if it doesn't happen like that? What if you still need to finish the report while the zombies are beating at the door? Continue Reading

Building a homebrew backup power pack for electricity supply disruptions

My clients are based overseas so for me, an important part of preparedness is making sure I have backup power and communications to keep working during power outages. As you'd expect in a country like the Philippines where power-cuts are commonplace, backup lighting and even battery-powered electric fans can be found in any hardware store. (I covered my observations on emergency lighting in a previous article.) However, there doesn't seem to be much available for other appliances. Of course, larger businesses and commercial buildings have this covered but the equipment tends to be outside the price range for most individual residences, freelancers and home-based workers. For a long time I'd simply relied on my laptop's battery and a USB modem to keep working. Last year I discovered and purchased a product called Powergorilla which allowed me to extend work time for a few more hours. The combination has been fine for our usual brown-outs and in normal situations, it's feasible to simply move on to a cafe or mall with internet if you need to leech a little more electricity. However, this set-up is inadequate for more serious disruptions and our series of big floods forced me to re-evaluate the available options. One solution would be to simply buy more Powergorilla units but they're expensive, hard to find locally (mine was purchased overseas) and intended for electronic gadgets. I wanted something with a bit more flexibility, was readily available and wouldn't break the bank to upgrade. After a long time searching and finding nothing suitable, I decided to put my long neglected electronics studies to some practical use by building my own. Fortunately I'm a bit of a geek so had lots of parts lying around that could be scavenged.
Emergency 12 volt batteries charging
Emergency power pack components and battery on maintenance charge during the August 2012 Manila floods

Environmental limitations

Those of us who live in houses have quite a few options ranging from installing a backup generator to using solar and wind power. On the other hand, condo-dwellers like myself mostly rely on the building to supply backup power. Higher-end condos often provide a few outlets in each unit that are hooked up to the building generator. Unfortunately, in our building only essential services such as the elevator and emergency lights remain powered. This means that during a brown-out, we either have to wait it out or go elsewhere to scrounge some element of civilization. To a large extent, tenants who live in rented housing and homeowners in the tighter subdivisions of Metro Manila face similar problems to condo-dwellers. First of all, space is a premium and storing hazardous substances like liquid fuel is unwise. We also can't simply bolt equipment, such as photovoltaics and wind turbines, to the outside walls. Thus, I needed to find a way to safely store backup-power whilst keeping the package small and unobtrusive. The answer was in the tried-and-trusted friend of the RV (recreational vehicle) enthusiast: the 12-volt lead acid battery. More specifically, the VRLA (valve-regulated lead–acid) battery.

Backup power pack components

The ugly mess you see above is the result of my experimentations. I'll document what I did here for those of you who are inclined to give it a try. Note that while this project is fairly straightforward, it should only be undertaken by someone with some experience working with electrical components. Don't blame me if you end up burning down your home or electrocuting yourself!

Lead–acid battery

The lead acid battery is the heart of this system. Some people have used car batteries—which will work—but these are designed to provide huge amounts of power for a short time (e.g. to start your car engine). Continuously discharging car batteries to power appliances will quickly kill them. What's really needed is a deep-cycle battery, such as those used in golf carts, boats and RVs. Be warned, though: many types of deep-cycle battery contain acid that is easily spilt, thus causing a potential hazard. For the home and office environment, the safer choice is a valve-regulated lead–acid battery (VRLA), otherwise known as a sealed battery. VRLAs are the type you can find in emergency lights and usually come in 4, 6 or 12 volts. As the name implies, they are sealed to prevent acid spillage.
12 volt alve-regulated lead–acid battery
12 volt VRLA battery
Pictured is a 20AH (amp-hour) battery which I chose as it was easiest to find and not too expensive (truth be told, the deciding factor was that this one was on sale for about P2,000). Ideally it would be 40AH or 65AH for longer run time but VRLAs are amongst the most expensive lead acid batteries. (At the time of writing, a Motololite 38AH is P5,950 while the 65AH is P9,759!).

Battery charger (repurposed UPS)

Warning: incorrectly charging or in any way mishandling lead acid batteries can be very dangerous. They're not called lead ACID batteries because they contain marshmallows and rainbows. They contain ACID, the kind that melts your eyes out. If you're going to perform a hack like this, do lots of research first.
Lead acid batteries should be put through specific charging cycles to keep them in good condition. This process requires microprocessor-controlled 'smart' chargers that run through three or four stage regulated charging. For our purposes of a back-up power system, an important part is the float stage where you can have the battery connected indefinitely to keep it at a fully charged state. It seemed, though, that every hardware store assistant I spoke with had no idea where I could find a smart charger. Also, none of those available on the store display seemed to fit the bill. Being a computer geek, I had some UPS (uninterruptible power supply) units lying around which served as a catalyst for an idea.
APC uninterruptible power supply
APC uninterruptible power supply
A UPS device is intended to provide a few minutes of extra power to safely shut down your computer in the event of a power cut. Theoretically it has all the components you need to power appliances: a lead acid battery, a battery charger, and an inverter to convert the stored DC (direct current) from the battery to AC (alternating current) needed by most appliances. In practice, it's designed to do so only for a few minutes and using it continuously could cause the components to overheat or even meltdown, which is not very useful. Nevertheless, it should at least be able to maintain a battery at full charge. A few technical support emails with APC confirmed that my model had the circuitry for over-charge and discharge protection. This means that it would keep a battery topped up while preventing it from getting over-charged. For my needs this is good enough and after a quick hack of extending the battery leads, it was good to go.
Modified uninterruptible power supply
UPS modified to extend the battery connectors

Inverter

An inverter turns DC battery power into AC power needed by most appliances. For me, a Belkin 150W AC Anywhere inverter works well enough for the set-up in my condo unit, allowing me to power a few devices such as a laptop, modem router, electric fan, and small battery chargers. The correct choice of inverter is quite a detailed topic so make sure you do some research before purchasing one for your own needs as the wrong model could damage your equipment. In the picture of power pack components above, you'll see a Panther 500W inverter. This is bigger than necessary for my condo battery so its main purpose is for use with a vehicle in a separate location. (More about this in a future article.)

Multi-socket car adapter

Inverters introduce inefficiencies so it's best to run directly from DC whenever possible. A multi-socket car adapter for cigarette lighter receptacles provides a convenient way to connect your DC gadgets to the power pack. The adapter pictured is a CDR King product from which I removed the cigarette lighter plug. In its place I soldered some ring connectors and a fuse holder. The ring connectors will then attach to the battery terminals during usage. You'll notice that the CDR King adapter, as with many commonly available, has quite thin wiring. It's only rated to take a maximum of 5 amps. Eventually I'll upgrade it to use heavier gauge wire but for now it'll do as my pack currently does not take much load. Aside from providing 12 volts, this model also has a USB port for 5 volt devices such as iPhones and phone chargers.
Multi-socket car adapter  and DC-DC converter
Modified multi-socket car adapter and DC-DC converter

DC-DC converter

Inspect the commonly available emergency appliances sold in Philippine-based hardware stores and you'll find that many use 6 volts DC. A DC-DC converter provides me with 6 volts for extended run time on my emergency lights, radios and fans if their internal batteries become depleted. Previous experience tells me that my 20AH battery will run down long before the LED emergency lights. However, it's nice to have the option for flexibility.

Multimeter

The multimeter is valuable for checking the battery state and general troubleshooting.

Actual usage and planned upgrades

From some not-so-scientific trial usage, this set-up lasts about a day intermittently running a range of devices such as a laptop, travel router, fans and mobile phone chargers. If I'm frugal with the consumption, work from my iPad, and bring in the Powergorilla, I can reasonably expect to hold out for several days during an emergency situation. (This is an estimate since my workload hasn't allowed me to do a real-life multi-day test.) Some improvements are certainly in order:
  • A higher capacity battery, or several lower capacity ones connected in parallel, is definitely necessary.
  • Off-grid charging, such as solar or wind. As mentioned earlier, this may not be feasible when holed-up in a condo but it will be a useful upgrade nevertheless.
  • Easy connectors for hooking up to 6 volt emergency appliances. Right now I'm relying on alligator clips and spade connectors which are workable but not ideal.
Emergency power pack in storage box
The 12v battery gives my laptop some extra run-time during a brown-out
I'd consider my set-up a bare-bones capacity. It isn't great but certainly several steps above the original 2 hours or so laptop battery run-time. Still, my plan was to assemble the necessary components and improve as budget allows. What I currently have gives me something usable in the meantime with room to grow. With a few upgrades, it could potentially provide power for other luxuries like a mini fridge, toaster oven, TV and DVD player.
This article is the first in a series where I'll document my experiments with small-scale alternative power. In the next part I'll describe the power pack in use with my everyday work equipment.
Continue Reading

Paracetamol and a digital thermometer for those little emergencies with your little ones

Earlier this week, my infant daughter got sick and by the middle of the night had a worryingly high fever. Fortunately we'd stocked up on Calpol (paracetamol) so were quickly able to bring her temperature down to acceptable levels. Two things were indispensable over the following days:
  1. Calpol: this is a brand name for children's paracetamol. There are others available on the market but I stocked up on this one since it's a name I recognize and used as a child.
  2. Digital (scan type) thermometer: regular bulb thermometers that need to be inserted into the mouth, armpit or backside are a nightmare with young children; little kids just struggle and won't sit still for long enough! With this thermometer you just hover the device over the child's forehead to take a reading.
Image of paracetamol and digital thermometer for medical supplies
Calpol (Paracetamol) and digital thermometer
I'd gone to the range with friends a few days prior so the incident reminded me of a comment made by one of our Facebook group members a little while ago: "I pity the guy who spends all his money on guns and ammo, but doesn't buy food and medical preps for his family." The range trip cost approx. P1,500 for ammo but a bottle of Calpol was only P49. None of my guns or ammunition were any help that night but I'm pretty sure the Calpol saved us a trip to the ER. This is just a quick reminder to us all that while we're preparing for the big things, let's not forget the little emergencies. To paraphrase something told to me by Pinoy Prepper: "The best way to avoid disasters is to prepare for emergencies." So, for those of us with young children, why not take a quick look now in your medical supplies to check that you have the basics covered? This goes for new parents especially who may not yet have updated the stock to cover new family members. Continue Reading

Rainwater catchment techniques used in Hawaii

With so many techniques and case-studies for building rainwater catchment systems available, it's a wonder why we have to suffer water shortages in the Philippines. The University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources has detailed guidelines on building a rainwater catchment system. Since the Philippines faces similar environmental challenges, many of the recommendations can apply to us. The document covers practical areas such as:
  • Design and building materials to be used
  • Types of water tanks
  • Placement of water runoff to avoid undermining foundations
  • Dealing with water contamination from dead animals, organic decomposition and acid rain
  • Water treatment and testing
You can download the document from their website.
Image of homestead in Hawaii with rainwater catchment system

Preventing mosquito infestation

Mosquito breeding and infestation is a major concern in tropical climates like the Philippines. Nonoy Oplas commented on our Prepare Manila Facebook group, "Some [Philippine] households use the basic tech--which are huge drums storing rain water. Problem is that after just a few days, mosquitoes invade these drums, and thousands of new mosquitoes will come out a few days after, and malaria, dengue, other mosquito-borne diseases can expand." The first-flush diverters, screens and gutter guards detailed in the document are supposed to help prevent mosquito infestation. Philippine versions are probably prone to mosquito breeding because they rarely use these additions. Also, local maintainers may lack basic education and housekeeping practices. In almost any city, town and village, I see many sources of standing water where people don't bother to clear up buckets and junk like tires, old plastic containers and boxes. According to my research, there are some simple practices for preventing mosquitoes from breeding:
  1. Emptying any water holding containers
  2. Regularly cleaning gutters
  3. Fitting rain heads, flap valves and mesh gutter guards
  4. Installing a first flush water diverter to help prevent particles, eggs and larvae from reaching the main system
  5. Using mesh screens and ensuring they're in good repair
  6. Using mosquito repellants such as citronella grass
This video from Rainharvesting.com gives an overview of these practices. Continue Reading

Creating emergency-resilient electronic file backups

In a previous article, I wrote about keeping a document pack in your bug-out-bag. Aside from physical documentation, many households and businesses now have large amounts of electronic assets like digital photos, files, and emails. Most computer users know about the importance of backups as it's all too common to have years worth of information and memories wiped out by a computer crash. Generally though, the average backup strategy involves copying files into some sort of device in your home or office. This may be of little use if the building is destroyed. Furthermore, fragile electronics may not survive an evacuation should you need to leave your home in an emergency. The key to creating emergency-resilient electronic backups is to have both local and remote copies to create several layers of redundancy.
  • Local backups (or on-site backups) are kept in your primary location, such as at home or the office. These are for convenience since it's usually easier to make more frequent and larger backups. Should you need to restore, they are easily accessible.
  • Remote backups (or off-site backups) stored at another location are for redundancy in case your local ones are destroyed. These are likely to be the ones you'll fall back on after a large-scale emergency.

Local backups

Your local backup storage options include CDs, DVDs, external hard-drives or memory sticks. Since they can be connected directly to your computer, you can quickly backup and restore large files. Unfortunately, they're also the ones most likely to be lost in the event of a house fire, earthquake, flood or any number of emergencies. To help protect them, these should ideally be stored in a strong, waterproof and fire resistant container. There are commercially available data safes that are rated to protect your backup media from fire, water and theft but these are expensive. A cheaper but still pricey alternative would be to use professional waterproof hard cases from Pelican or Wonderful. Those on a very tight budget can simply try putting the backups in a sealed plastic food container such as those from Lock & Lock or Tupperware. However, the biggest drawback with these local backups is that you are faced with a dilemma:
  • You can keep your backup media stored in the protective case and schedule regular backups. They'll have some protection in the event of an emergency but it's easy to postpone or forget about making the backups. You also won't have a copy of any files that have been edited between the backups; or
  • You can make frequent backups to a constantly attached drive, usually automatically through backup software. This makes your backup process more reliable but leaves the media at risk since they're left out.
Image of laptops and hard-drives in temporary office space during an emergency
A make-shift office of laptops and backup drives laid out on the dining room table

Remote backups

The most convenient way to keep remote backups is to use an online service like the following: By far the easiest to use are Dropbox and Carbonite but the most secure are rsync, SpiderOak and JungleDisk. (There are many more services available but these are the ones that I've personally tried.) *SpiderOak and Dropbox have a free option. If you want to try one of these, use my referrer code and we'll both get free extra space. These types of services host their servers in business-grade data centers; your data will be housed in a secure facility with its own disaster recovery systems. In other words, they do the job of keeping your data safe for you. (Of course, you should never give full trust to a third-party so local backups are still important.) Keep in mind that due to storage fees or internet speed limitations, some types of data, such as a large music or video library, may not be practical to store online. You should also expect your first backup to take a while since you'll need to copy everything onto the remote server. For example, the first time I used SpiderOak, it took several days to backup almost 30GB of data. Fortunately, subsequent backups are quicker as most services copy over only the changes. A solution to keeping remote backups of large files is to create a 'backup-ring' with friends and relatives from out-of-town. The principle behind this is quite simple: make backups and then swap disks when you visit your out-of-town friends; you keep their drive and they keep yours.

Synchronization

File synchronization is a technology that's matured over the past few years and combines benefits of local and remote storage. It works by copying files from your computer onto online storage and when any changes are made, the older file is automatically updated with the new version. Most services also allow you to synchronize several computers so if you have a laptop, desktop and office computer, they can all be updated with the latest changes. This feature alone can greatly simplify your backup and restore process; if one computer is unusable, you simply log in to another, synchronize then pick up where you left off. The same process applies when buying a new computer. Just install the synchronization software and your files will be copied over from the servers. Some even offer web and mobile device access so in an emergency, you don't even need your own computer to get hold of your files. Dropbox, JungleDisk and SpiderOak offer computer synchronization. Note that these services require an internet connection to synchronize. During a wide scale emergency, internet links may be down or unreliable so it's a good idea to ensure that your computers regularly go online to get updates.

Other tips

  • If your email provider supports it, try using the IMAP protocol for your emails. This essentially keeps your mail server synchronized with your computer's mailbox changes. Even if your computer is destroyed, you can still connect to the server and have your emails in the same state of your last access: new, read, saved and deleted emails will appear as they did on the destroyed computer. Those who use web-based email, like Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo won't need to worry about this.
  • Remember that your backups may contain confidential files. For privacy, make sure that all backups are encrypted. Your backup software may have this feature built-in. If not, you might want to try TrueCrypt which is well-known and trusted encryption software.
  • Some files use special formats so make sure you also backup any software you need to access your files. As much as possible, try to save or export files into a widely used format. For example, PDF files can usually be opened in pretty much any operating system and most devices come with some sort of PDF reader.
  • Don't forget to run a test restore. You may be diligently making backups but they're useless if some error in your process means that you can't retrieve the files when needed.

It's all about continuity

While keeping your data safe might seem like a low priority in comparison to other preparedness tasks, the purpose behind creating emergency-resilient electronic file backups is continuity. Crises always pass and life eventually returns to normal. Since a large part of our assets, both business and personal, are now electronic, rescuing your data files will speed up your recovery. More than anything, having data backups provide emotional security. Knowing that your digital archive of family photos or vital business documents are safe can help you focus on the immediate needs of getting through an emergency. Continue Reading

Presentation & Forum: how an earthquake may affect you

Prepare Manila will be holding a presentation giving an overview of the Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study (MMEIRS) and how an earthquake may affect you. We will focus on why you should start preparing and hold an open forum to swap tips and share experiences.
  • Intended audience: the general public, preppers and emergency managers.
  • Time: Thursday, September 29 · 6:00pm - 9:00pm
  • Location: Manila Tytana Colleges, Metropolitan Park, Pres. Diosdado Macapagal Blvd., Pasay City
If you'd like to attend, please fill out the registration form. If you're on Facebook, you can RSVP here: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=216628038395526

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Include a document pack in your bug-out-bag

If your home is severely damaged after an earthquake or waterlogged from a flood, all your identity, insurance and asset documents could be lost. Even if your home stays intact, there may not have time to gather these should you have to evacuate for any reason. One often overlooked item of a emergency kit or bug-out-bag is a document pack. This is where you can keep copies of all your important documents, along with contact numbers and photographs of your family. Remember to place these in a waterproof bag. (If possible, they should also be in a fireproof bag but unfortunately, I have not seen these for sale in the Philippines. If anyone knows where these can be purchased, please let me know.)
Image of an emergency document pack for your bug-out-bag
Emergency document pack containing important documents
Example contents for your emergency document pack include:
  • Passports and ID cards
  • Medical history, immunization records and list of medications
  • Photographs of each family member with names
  • Birth, baptismal and marriage certificates
  • Social Security and TIN numbers
  • Property deeds
  • Insurance documents
  • Bank account, financial details and investments
  • Wills and trusts
  • Emergency plan
  • Address and telephone number listing
  • City map and route to your bug-out location
  • Cash in large and small notes
Remember that this pack will contain confidential information. If lost, these could be used for identity theft or fraud. One way to protect against this is to write certain things in code. For example, you can include dummy numbers to obscure your real bank account number or code words for important locations. This way, even if Manila is faced with a complete disaster or catastrophe, you can at least make it easier to rebuild your life. You will have less difficulty proving who you are to the authorities and you'll have a record of your assets. Continue Reading

Prepare for emergencies to avoid disasters

Chart of emergency, disaster and catastrophe event escalation The other week, Pinoy Prepper and I were discussing the overuse of the word 'disaster' within our circles. We concluded that the reasons range from an unfamiliarity with definitions to a purposeful attempt to 'upgrade' the event. It turns out that when a situation is classed as a disaster, more funding is made available to local government and relief organizations. For those who are unaware, the security, risk and emergency management professions have three main classifications for events, each with specific meanings and escalating levels of impact: emergency, disaster and catastrophe. I used these terms interchangeably before getting involved in this field but soon found out that they have different implications.
  • Emergency: An emergency is any expected or unexpected event that puts life or property in danger. It needs immediate response but can be handled using the normal resources and infrastructure of the community.
  • Disaster: When an event is so disruptive that the affected community requires significant outside help, it becomes a disaster. It may be natural or man-made and related to loss of life, deterioration of health, or damage to infrastructure and services.
  • Catastrophe: A catastrophe is the result of a disaster so severe that the community ceases to exist or its continued survival is drawn into question.
As the severity of an event escalates, its classification is also upgraded. Generally, individuals, households and communities can deal with emergencies themselves. Disasters and catastrophes, on the other hand, require national governmental and international aid.

Focus on emergencies

Pinoy Prepper commented that the emphasis on disasters and disaster preparedness implies a more reactive mindset. It's far better, he said, to focus on emergency preparedness. When you look back and review the definitions, you'll find that this makes a great deal of sense. While emergencies are sometimes unavoidable, being prepared can prevent them from turning into full-blown disasters. Furthermore, even during what would be called a disaster for your neighbors or community, you may merely have to deal with an emergency. I'll give you an example to clarify this. Let's say that a huge earthquake strikes Manila. It devastates the city, knocking out utilities and paralyzing every-day services. For those who had been diligent in their preparations, the event may be limited to an emergency situation that can be managed until things return to normal; perhaps the have supplies to last or the means to evacuate to another location. Furthermore, if enough people in Manila had prepared, then a potential disaster can be averted by preventing the situation from escalating. The situation becomes manageable for the city as a whole because fewer people need assistance. Thus, the best way to avoid disasters is to prepare for emergencies. Continue Reading