Twitter Clone Hunts Down Somali Pirates

John Konrad
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March 16, 2009

Twitter Used Against Somali Pirates

We have already seen how the Red Cross and United States Coast Guard has successfully implemented Twitter in their effort to dissimenate information and update participants during times of emergency. Has the US Navy joined the social media revolution to help combat piracy in Somali waters?  Well in it’s own way (of course). Bloomberg Tells us:

In the command room of the Psara, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek officers watched a computer screen updating the positions of 17 warships. Another computer showed the location of 300 merchant ships, potential prey spread over 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers).

The tracking is done with a mix of Global Positioning System navigation and Centrix, a military-communication system developed by NATO, as well as a Web site specially developed for the mission on which commercial ships enter their positions.

Since late January, Papaioannou also has had a new tool: a third computer in the command room carries an Internet chat channel. On a recent visit, sailors from the Psara, two U.S. warships and the Spanish frigate SPS Victoria were exchanging instant messages in English about their positions and about unconfirmed reports of a fire on board a boat in Somalia’s Mogadishu harbor.

In a corner of the room, which bristled with radar and radio equipment, hung a Jolly Roger flag. Black-and-white photos of suspected pirate ships were tacked to the wall.

The EU formed the Atalanta mission after Somali pirates in September seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and, in November, a Saudi tanker carrying fuel. Task Force 151 will grow to six this month with the arrival of frigates from Singapore and Turkey.

The coordination paid off on March 3, when the freighter MV Courier, operated by German shipping company Gebrueder Winter, sent a distress signal at 10:12 a.m. local time as it came under grenade fire from a skiff. Read More…

While the implementation of Automated Identification System (AIS) has been revolutionary in its ability to track and communicate with ships, AIS gives us only a small peak into the capabilities Information Technology has to change the way we operate ships. By integrating real time chat, the multinational forces in the area suddenly are able to coordinate their efforts, a powerful tool previously not available to them. Here’s an example of the problems they faced:

“When I arrived here in December we exchanged a daily intention message with the Americans, but that was about it,” said Papaioannou, 51. “Then one day we had two helicopters patrolling the same area, which is a waste. I sent three of my officers to the U.S. command ship and we worked it out.”

Now the revolution behind twitter is it’s ability to combine the real time, short message, capabilities of chat with communities of members that share common interests. Twitter is also set up like a blog recording historical data that is search able by both Google and its own internal engine. We do not know specific of the Navy’s system but, if twitter were used in the Gulf Of Aden, daily information reports, problems and intelligence could be pushed out to vessels and military assets in real time.  By recording the information and allowing it to be searched (by authorized users!) you bring new functionality to the war on pirates including:

1) Trend Analysis – Mapping problem areas, times of day, ship characteristics, etc… trends will emerge that will enable the forces to become better prepared

2) Historic Data – Each time a ship returns to the area you have historic data on their last transit. Valubale information in predicting strenghts and weaknesses.

3) Evidence – The primary reason hijackings occur in Somalia is lack of accountability. The pirates know the chances of getting caught and serving jail time are low. Plans are underway to convict pirates in a court of law and for that to happen evidence is required. A twitter like program would allow ships, navy assets and private security firms to photograph, upload and archive photos and other evidence of the pirates. Tying this system into aerial feeds from UAV’s, ground intelligence and emerging systems would give you a robust data platform.

With both Twitter and the Navy’s pirate chat software getting high marks from users the question remains… how can these systems be integrated into maritime safety initiatives? One idea is to have a twitter like system for each port which gives pilots, VTS, ship agents and vessels access to live data and the opportunity to discuss issues of concerns in real time. Would the Cosco Busan have gotten underway if the pilots were all chatting with VTS and NOAA about the fog conditions or would a mutual consensus have changed the mind of her captain and Pilot?

What are your thoughts? Is a maritime version of twitter realistic or is there a better platform for opening dialogue between individual ship captain and port athourities? What are road blocks for wide scale implementation?

-John ( )

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