Wednesday, 12 February 2014

How rats save lives around the world ... yes, rats. Big rats !


Now here is something you don't read about every day. Yes, you read that right the first time - Rats can save lives!

Hey mister, did you move my cheese?
Pic - Courtesy of

But it is not just any old rat.... Introducing APOPO's specially trained heroRATs. APOPO is a Belgian NGO currently operating in Tanzania, Mozambique, Thailand, Angola and Cambodia.

As you may have guessed, these are not your run of the barn, common garden variety grey rat. No Sir. These are specially trained African giant pouched rats.

And did I mention that they are huge?

So how do they save lives, you might wonder ...

Detection of land mines

Pic -Courtesy of

The HEROrats have been used with great effect to clear land-mine infected areas in Mozambique , Angola, and areas as far as Cambodia, where many many still un-exploded landmines, bombs and other devices remain as potentially fatal reminders of the wars thought in these countries in years gone by.

This short video clip below explains how the rats are trained to detect land mines:

Some of the statistics to date indicated below. These stats from the APOPO website pretty much speak for themselves:



If you think about the fact that each of the landmines detected (if still active), and each weapon and each item of ammunition detected through this process, are theoretically capable of killing or harming many, many individuals and or livestock, the number of human lives potentially saved through this intervention are enormous.

Now think of the amount of economic activity (farming, manufacturing, businesses) that now can use the newly reclaimed land for economic activity to operate on, creating jobs, supporting families, - think of the multiplier effect this could have on an economy.

At least 11 scientific papers have been published on the use of rats to clear explosives to date.

Detection of Tuberculosis

But wait, there's more -  the HEROrats can also sniff out tuberculosis (TB). You can read more about the TB sniffing process here or watch the short video clip below.

It takes about 9 months to train a rat how to detect TB. But once trained, the rats can assess batches of samples faster than their human lab-assistant counter parts - and in fact they have found that in only 10 min, one trained rat can assess more samples that a human lab-assistant can complete in a day.

To improve the accuracy,  teams of 3 or more rats are used to screen the samples. Positive identification is reward with a sound and food treat - Pavlov would have been so happy. To keep the rats honest, every now and again a known positive sample is slipped in between the other test cases (planted so to speak) to check if they still detect it.

Over the last few years in only 1 country these clever rats have identified almost 3,000 wrongly diagnosed TB patients - not a very high number, but it would surely have made a big difference to those 3,000 people and their families. Added to which, you need to consider how infectious TB is - one person infected with TB can over the course of a year infect 10-15 others, which in turn can infect 10-15 others. Etc.

At least 10 scientific papers have been published on the TB detection process to date.

More about Bart, APOPO and his army of HEROrats

This relatively young organisation was started by Bart Weetjens, who used to keep rats as pets during his early childhood. As a young adult, Bart started investigating the highly problematic issue of landmines in Sub-Saharan Africa, and eventually quit his job to pursue this. There are still currently approximately 66 countries and 7 territories in different parts of the world which are affected by landmines, as well as other types of explosive remnants of war. Not only do these items pose a real risk to human and animal life and limb, but they also pose structural barriers to development and economic growth in the regions and countries where they remain.

During Bart's research he discovered an article written in the 1970's about gerbils, dealing specifically with their’ ability to detect explosives in a laboratory setting. This got him thinking of his ratty childhood friends again. The Belgian Directorate for International Cooperation (DGIS) provided the initial financial support to develop the concept in 1997. In the next year APOPO vzw was registered under Belgian law as a non-profit, and started its first research. 

Bart and his HEROrats have been featured around the world - here he is giving a TED talk.

Want a novel gift for that friend that already has everything?

Give him a rat. Even better, give an APOPO HEROrat.

APOPO is an NGO and will greatfully accept any individual and corporate contributions and donations. They have created an "Adopt a HEROrat" programme which allows interested individuals the opportunity to support the cause and contribute to saving lives by adopting a HEROrat.

Your friend can even pick a name.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

Sochi 2014 - a closer look at the Winter Olympics

Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

Olympics, World Cups, and other large scale projects qualify as mega projects. These projects are huge in scope, have large budgets, and sometimes very complex requirements. They typically impact not only the local community, but have an international reach - as anybody close to a TV or radio over the next couple of days will tell you.

Its that time again - at time of writing this blog, the Sochi Olympics are in full swing. The 22nd Winter Olympics are scheduled to take place from 7 to 23 February 2014, in Sochi, Russia, with some events held in the resort settlement of Krasnaya Polyana.

For the fans, here is a link to their official website.

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics has not really been the media darling in the last couple of months. Quite far from it actually. Sochi has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons - really not what you expect from an Olympic Games.

  • Firstly it has been slated and tarred for perceived, and actual legislated discrimination. This topic was the cause of quite a lot of public debate and negative feedback. But this is an article about mega projects, so that part of the discussion will have to wait for another day. 
  • Secondly, the press has been abuzz with news that the facilities will not be complete. This picture of surprisingly social toilet facilities went around the world on Twitter. The Olympics are known for breaking down borders (literally) - maybe they intended to create new opportunities for bi-lateral discussion ? 

Originally 1 more pic included but it turned out to be a fake, so I removed it
  • This type of negative commentary is sadly quite normal, as the hosting country and host city or cities are put under a microscope in full public view with a spot light like never before. And, journalists are out in full force to create stories - that's their job. 
    • Yes, it does happen that not everything might not be 100% finished. It might even be that due to shortage in resources, the project teams had to prioritize and decided to rather install the curtain rail in a hotel room before installing the man-hole cover on the pavement. I am not saying that that is the way it should be, but give credit where it is due.  
    • Even the smallest item gets blown out of perspective and becomes an international media feeding frenzy. Everybody seems to find sadistic joy (schadenfreude) in downplaying the hosts' ability to successfully deliver the event. 
  • When comparing against other events, the state of preparedness is not necessarily far off.  
    • For the Greece Athens Olympics in 2004,  there was huge public hysteria, wet paint and work done up to the day of the event. About 3 years after being awarded, the IOC had to reprimand Greece for the lack of progress and they had to call in international assistance. To catch up and save money they e.g. abandoned the construction of the roof over the Olympic swimming pool, cancelled landscaping of certain public areas
    • Even in Germany, the pinnacle of efficiency, there were challenges during the 2006 World Cup, with the Organizing Committee only getting access to their offices in the main stadium in as little as days or hours before the opening event. 
    • South Africa risked a so-called "Plan B" in the event of not being ready for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but still managed to complete stadium and other preparations months in advance.
So yes, it is possible to run slightly late or re-prioritize certain parts of the infrastructure planning. Normally the event is an enormous success regardless.

The problem is not with either of the above issues, but rather clearly with the following:
  • Thirdly, and most importantly - cost. "According to an analysis by Bent Flyvbjerg, chair of major project management at the University of Oxford, and his colleague Allison Stewart, all Olympic games since 1960 have had a cost overrun. On average, they cost nearly three times the initial budget. " - read Akshat Rathi's full article here
    • So what happened in Sochi? Well they decided to use a resort town that did not have sufficient or appropriate type of facilities to host the Winter Olympics. Fortunately this is a winter Olympics and not the summer event, so it only has to host about one third of the number of events. This might be where you can expect a saving, right ?
    • Surprisingly not so. Despite having to host a smaller number of events, on average, then, each Winter Olympic event will cost +- $520m. Bargain. But wait, there is more .... 
    • The Sochi Olympics originally proposed a budget of around $12 billion during the bidding stage. This has since mushroomed to an eye-watering $ 50 billion - making Sochi the most expensive Olympic event ever. MOST EXPENSIVE EVER...

  • No detail breakdown of expenses has been made publicly available to date, and I doubt that it it will. So it is not clear what type of expenses have been included and or excluded from this total cost of $ 50 billion. What is known is that Stochi required quite a bit of work in the line of new venue infrastructure, hotels, and similar to be ready for the various events. 

Closing thoughts

As I have said above, some of the bad press is due to journalists doing their jobs perhaps a bit too well. However, the flip side is that most people would be fired for blowing a budget by more than $ 10, or 20, or 30 billion ...

Direct comparison is always difficult. Montreal paid off their Olympic stadium only in 2006, 30 years later. Wonder how long the Russian people will have to pay tax to pay this off? 

I have no doubt that the Sochi Olympics will be a tremendous success and wish them all the luck. For anybody who has ever been involved in something like this, it takes a tremendous lot of planning and intensely hard work to make an event of this size work.  And even more effort to make it a success. I therefore wish to congratulate everybody that put their hearts and souls into planning and operations of the event, as well as those athletes who reached this level where they compete internationally - I take my hat off to you.

But maybe we need to reconsider what the modern Olympics symbolize in terms of human endeavor - after all, the Olympic motto is Citius—Altius—Fortius, which is Latin for "faster, higher, stronger."

It is not supposed to be a competition where construction companies and politicians compete for gold.


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