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.


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


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.


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.
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