It-teknoloġija li tagħraf l-uċuħ: perikoluża?

San Francisco hi l-ewwel belt fl-Istati Uniti li pprojibiet l-użu mill-forzi tal-ordni ta’ teknoloġija li tagħraf l-uċuh. Probabbilment li ma jdumx ma jkun hemm bliet oħra fl-Istati Uniti li jagħmlu l-istess.

Id-dibattitu f’ San Francisco ilu għaddej. Dawk li jaqblu mal-projibizzjoni huma tal-fehma li din it-teknoloġija mhux biss hi difettuża imma li hi ukoll ta’ theddida serja għad-drittijiet ċivili.

It-teknoloġija li tagħraf l-uċuħ hi invażiva. Fl-istat attwali tal-iżvilupp tagħha għadha difettuża imma għandha l-potenzjal li tkun preċiża 100%. Imbagħad tkun tista’ tintuża mhux biss biex jingħarfu l-uċuħ imma ukoll biex tkun identifikata informazzjoni oħra dwar dawk li jkunu fil-mira.

Riċerkaturi fl-Università Jiao Tong f’Shanghai iċ-Ċina għamlu żmien jesperimentaw b’ritratti ta’ persuni magħrufa bħala kriminali u oħrajn li m’humiex. Bħala riżultat tar-riċerka tagħhom qed jissuggerixxu li t-teknoloġija użata tista’ tidentifika kriminali minn filmati ġodda b’certezza ta’ kważi 90 fil-mija.

Tal-biża’!

Riċerkaturi fl-Università ta’ Stanford fl-Istati Uniti f’estratt minn studju li ser jippubblikaw dalwaqt, jindikaw, li t-teknoloġija għall-għarfien tal-uċuħ hi iktar preċiża mill-bniedem innifsu biex minn ritratti tagħraf l-orjentazzjoni sesswali ta’ persuna. Fir-riċerka tagħhom jgħidu li użaw il-fuq minn 130,000 ritratt meħud minn siti elettroniċi fejn persuni jitkellmu dwar l-orjentazzjoni sesswali tagħhom. Bħala riżultat ta’ analiżi bijometrika, jgħidu ir-riċerkaturi, t-teknoloġija użata kapaċi tagħraf u tiddistingwi l-orjentazzjoni sesswali ta’ irġiel bi preċiżjoni ta’ 81% minn ritratt wieħed. Jekk ikun hemm aċċess għal ħames ritratti, l-preċiżjoni titla’ għal 91%.

Bla ebda dubju, maż-żmien jiġu identifikati iktar applikazzjonijiet possibli ta’ din it-teknoloġija. Meta tkun ipperfezzjonata din it-teknoloġija tista’ tkun għodda tal-biża’ f’idejn reġim awtoritarju.

Il-pulizija fir-Renju Unit, f’dawn iż-żmienijiet, qed japplikaw it-teknoloġija li tagħraf l-uċuħ għall-ordni pubblika.

Big Brother Watch, NGO li taħdem favur id-drittijiet ċivili fir-Renju Unit identifikat li bl-użu ta’ din it-teknoloġija 9 minn kull 10 persuni arrestati kienu innoċenti għax it-teknoloġija ħadmet ħażin. 90% żbalji mhux ċajta f’materja daqshekk sensittiva. Biż-żmien, bla dubju, dan id-difett ikun irrimedjat u dan għax tkun akkumulata iktar data li tagħmilha possibli li jingħarfu l-uċuħ.

Bi sħab mal-Huawei, il-ġgant Ċiniż fil-qasam tat-telekomunikazzjoni, l-Gvern Malti qed ifassal proġett immirat lejn is-sigurtà tal-lokalitajiet: il-proġett Safe Cities. Tlett lokalitajiet jidher li ġew identifikati għall-proġett pilota f’Malta: l-Marsa, San Pawl il-Baħar u Paceville.

Xi xhur ilu, l-Kummissarju għall-Ħarsien tad-Data f’Malta, meta kien intervistat, emfasizza li meta jkun ikkunsidrat l-użu tat-teknoloġija li tagħraf l-uċuħ tinħtieġ attenzjoni kbira biex ikunu mħarsa drittijiet fundamentali tal-bniedem. Huwa emfasizza li kien obbligu tal-Gvern li jistudja din it-teknoloġija bir-reqqa biex ikun aċċertat l-effettività tagħha fil-ġlieda kontra l-kriminalità.

Il-Kummissarju għall-Ħarsien tad-Data huwa ppreokkupat ukoll dwar id-data akkumulta u l-potenzjal li din tintuża ħażin biex tintraċċa l-movimenti tal-persuni u b’hekk timmina d-dritt tal-privatezza.

It-teknoloġija li tagħraf l-uċuħ, bħal kull teknoloġija oħra, tista’ tintuża tajjeb imma tista’ ukoll tintuża ħażin. Tista’ tgħinna nkunu iktar siguri, imma tista’ tgerrem (bla ma nindunaw) id-drittijiet tagħna. Hemm il-potenzjal, imma hemm ukoll responsabbiltajiet kbar.

Bi storja ta’ istituzzjonijiet ta’ bla utilità li repetutament ma kienux kapaċi jieqfu lil dawk fil-poter, ma tantx qegħdin tajjeb.

It-teknoloġija għall-għarfien tal-uċuħ tista’ tikkonċentra wisq informazzjoni (u poter) f’idejn il-Pulizija. Dan jista’ jkun perikoluż jekk il-kontroll fuq l-informazzjoni miġbura ma tkunx waħda qawwija.

Li ninvestu fis-sigurtà tagħna ma jfissirx li għandna nċedu l-privatezza tagħna.

F’din l-era diġitali hu meħtieġ li s-sorveljanza tkun kontabbli quddiem istituzzjonijiet demokratiċi msaħħa. Kif dan jista’ jsir għadu kmieni imma hu essenzjali għax il-Huawei flimkien mal-pulizija jistgħu jiffurmaw team perikoluz għad-demokrazija tagħna. Is-soluzzjoni addottata minn San Fransisco tista’ tkun meqjusa bħala radikali wisq. Imma sakemm ikun assigurat li s-sorveljanza tkun soġġetta għal kontabilità demokratika, ma tantx jidher li hemm soluzzjonijiet.

ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 19 ta’ Mejju 2019

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Facial recognition technology : as creepy as it gets

San Francisco is the first city in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition technology for law enforcement purposes and other US cities may follow suit. The San Francisco debate has been ongoing for quite some time. Those supporting the ban underline that facial recognition technology is flawed and a serious threat to civil liberties.

Facial technology is an invasive technology. In its present state of development, it is weak, but it has the potential to be 100 per cent accurate. It can then be used not just for recognition purposes but also for the profiling of those it is aimed at.

Researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China have been experimenting with photographs of criminals and non-criminals. It is being suggested by these researchers that the technology they used can identify criminals from new images with an accuracy of 89.5%. It gets creepier and creepier.

Researchers at Stanford University in the United States have indicated in a preview of a Paper they will be publishing shortly that facial recognition technology “is more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation from pictures of people.” In their research, they made use of over 130,000 images taken from dating sites on which people give their sexual orientation. On the basis of the biometric analysis made, it is being claimed that the technology in use can distinguish between gay and heterosexual men in 81 per cent of cases from just one photograph. If the number of photographs increases to five, the accuracy jumps to 91 per cent.

Without any shadow of doubt, many more applications of facial recognition technology will be identified and, when perfected, this technology would be the perfect tool for authoritarian regimes.

Currently, the police in various parts of the United Kingdom are using facial recognition technology for law and order purposes. Civil Liberties NGO Big Brother Watch has identified that in nine out of every 10 cases the wrong person was identified. This resulted in 90 per cent of people being arrested as a result of being wrongly identified. Over time, this would be remedied through the use of a larger database which would be accumulated and available for use with the facial recognition technology.

The issues resulting are manifold. In conjunction with Chinese telecom giant Huawei, the government is planning a Safe Cities project. Three areas have apparently been identified for a pilot project: Marsa, St Paul’s Bay and Paceville.

When interviewed some months ago, Malta’s Data Protection Commissioner emphasised that when considering making use of facial recognition technology, great care should be taken in order that fundamental human rights are not infringed. He rightly stated that it was the government’s duty to carefully study the matter in order to ascertain its effectiveness in addressing criminality. He also spoke on the potential misuse of the accumulated data, as this had the potential of tracing the whereabouts of an individual thereby undermining the right to privacy.

Face recognition technology, like any other technology can be used and abused. It can make us feel safer, but it also has the potential to gnaw at our freedoms, without our realising it. There is certainly great potential but there are also enormous responsibilities.

Having a history of practically useless institutions which, time and again, have not been capable of standing up to those in power, is not a good point of departure. Facial recognition technology has the potential of concentrating too much information (and power) in the hands of the police. This may be very dangerous unless data protection oversight is robust. Investing in our security does not require surrendering our privacy.

In this digital age we require our surveillance to be democratically accountable. Whether and how this is done is still to be seen in a public consultation exercise which will hopefully be carried out. It is, however, essential as the Huawei-police tandem can be lethal to our democracy. The San Francisco solution may be seen as being too radical.

However, until such time that surveillance is subject to democratic accountability, there is no other solution.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 19 May 2019

Wiċċ b’ieħor

Safe City Malta, li tifforma parti minn Projects Malta li tippjana proġetti ta’ tisħib mas-settur privat, qed tippjana li jkunu installati cameras CCTV b’kapacità li jidentifikaw l-uċuħ ta’ dawk li x-xbieha tagħhom tinqabad fuq is-CCTV. Qed jingħad li b’dan il-mod ikun possibli li jkunu identifikati persuni li jkunu involuti f’attività kriminali.

Dwar dan ukoll hemm referenza fid-diskors tal-Baġit fejn kien tħabbar li : “Fl-aħħar xhur kienet għaddejja ħidma biex ġie installat l-apparat neċessarju f’data centre għal użu fuq bażi sperimentali u fejn l-apparat ta’ sorveljanza viżiva qiegħed jintuża biss f’ambjent mhux pubbliku u f’rispett sħiħ tal-liġijiet tal-privatezza billi jiġu wżati prattii etiċi internazzjonali.” Ġejna infurmati li Paceville u l-Marsa, probabbilment li jkunu minn tal-ewwel li jospitaw dan l-esperiment. Dan kellu jsir wara li sseħħ konsultazzjoni pubblika.

Imma s’issa ma seħħet l-ebda konsultazzjoni. Nafu iżda li x’aktarx li diġa ġie iffirmat memorandum of understanding mal-Huawei, kumpanija Ċiniża li hi meqjusa ġgant globali fil-qasam tat-teknoloġija tal-komunikazzjoni. Fix-xhur li ġejjin probabbilment tibda l-implementazzjoni. Dan ifisser li jekk il-konsultazzjoni sseħħ ma jkollha tifsira ta’ xejn, għax id-deċiżjonijiet jidher li lesti.

Iktar kmieni din is-sena, Huawei, ftehmu mad-Dipartiment tas-Sigurtà Pubblika tar-reġjun ta’ Xinjiang fil-punent taċ-Ċina. Intefqu flejjes kbar f’dan ir-reġjun biex f’Xinjiang ikun possibli li tkun ippruvata t-teknoloġija għall-għarfien tal-uċuħ, osservazzjoni diġitali u l-applikazzjoni tal-intelliġenza artifijali għal xogħol il-pulizija. Huawei ser jipprovdu lill-pulizija tar-reġjun l-appoġġ tekniku biex ikunu żviluppati l-kapaċitajiet tan-nies involuti u b’hekk tissodisfa l-ħtiġijiet diġitali tal-industrija tas-sigurtà pubblika, ġie rappurtat li qal Fan Lixin, il-Viċi Direttur tad-Dipartiment tas-Sigurtà Pubblika ta’ Xinjiang . Din il-kooperazzjoni kienet meqjusa li tista’ tassigura “l-istabilità soċjali u s-sigurtà fit-tul ta’ Xinjiang”.

Dan jikkuntrasta ma dak li nsibu fir-rapport annwali ta’ Huawei għas-sena 2017 li jwassal messaġġ ċar: Huawei jimpurtha ħafna mill-privatezza. Jgħidulna li fl-2017 “Huawei continued to strengthen compliance in multiple business domains, including trade, cyber security, and data and privacy protection.” Jgħidulna ukoll dwar “il-ħsiebijiet ta’ Huawei dwar is-sigurtà elettronika – li tissaħħaħ bl-innovazzjoni, bil-kollaborazzjoni u bl-iżvilupp tal-fiduċja fid-dinja diġitali.” Probabbilment li dan il-kuntrast jirriżulta minħabba li l-messaġġi huma indirizzati lejn udjenzi differenti!

Iktar viċin tagħna, l-pulizija fir-Renju Unit ilhom ftit taż-żmien jesperimentaw bit-teknoliġija li tirrikonoxxi l-uċuħ. Big Brother Watch, grupp li jikkampanja favur id-drittijiet ċivili fir-Renju Unit jirrapporta li s-sistemi użati jagħtu riżultati żbaljati 9 darbiet minn 10. F’rapport twil 56 paġna, li kien ippubblikat f’Mejju li għadda bit-titlu Face Off. The lawless growth of facial recognition in UK policing. kien konkluż li 95 fil-mija tal-uċuħ identifikati mis-sistema kienu żbaljati: kienu wiċċ b’ieħor. Identifikaw uċuħ ta’persuni innoċenti. Dan apparti li r-ritratti biometriċi ta’ persuni innoċenti inżammu u nħażnu mill-Pulizija b’mod sfaċċat kontra kull regola bażika tal-ħarsien tad-data.

L-użu tat-teknoloġija biex jingħarfu l-uċuħ tan-nies bħala għodda ta’ l-ordni pubbliku hi għall-qalb il-pulizija, li fuq il-karta jistgħu jgħidu li qed isaħħu l-kapaċitajiet tagħhom fil-ġlieda kontra l-kriminalità. Għall-bqija imma, dan hu ħmar-il lejl u dan billi jekk it-teknoloġija ma tintużax fil-parametri tar-regoli bażiċi tal-ħarsien tad-data tkun invażjoni tal-privatezza li kull wieħed u waħda minna aħna intitolati għaliha.

Il-Kummissarju għall-Ħarsien tad-Data u l-Informazzjoni Saviour Cachia, f’intervista mal-Orizzont iktar kmieni din il-ġimgha qal li kien jistenna li l-awtoritajiet jagħmlu analiżi addattata qabel ma jagħmlu użu ta’ teknoloġija li kapaċi tagħraf l-uċuħ. Is-Sur Cachia emfasizza li għad baqa’ ħafna xi jsir qabel ma nistgħu nikkunsidraw meta u kif it-teknoloġija għall-għarfien tal-uċuħ tista’ tuntuża fil-qasam tas-sigurtà. Ħadd ma jaf jekk l-analiżi li ġibed l-attenzjoni għaliha s-Sur Cachia saritx, jew jekk tal-inqas inbdietx. Din it-teknoloġija tinvadi l-privatezza ta’ kulħadd b’sogru li tikser d-drittijiet fundamentali tagħna lkoll.

Meta jkun eżaminat dettaljatament kif l-użu ta’ din it-teknoloġija jista’ jkollha effett fuq l-attività kriminali inkunu f’posizzjoni aħjar biex niddeċiedu x’sens jagħmel li nissagrifikaw il-privatezza tagħna, anke jekk b’mod limitat, biex l-istat jissorvelja u sa ċertu punt jikkontrolla parti minn ħajjitna. L-esperjenza tal-użu ta’ din it-teknoloġija fir-Renju Unit għandha twassalna għall-konklużjoni waħda: għandna nsemmgħu leħinna u nieqfu lill-istat li jrid jissorvelja ħajjitna.

Il-Gvern għandu l-obbligu li jibda konsultazzjoni pubblika immedjatament u jpoġġi l-pjanijiet tiegħu taħt il-lenti tal-iskrutinjun pubbliku.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 11 ta’ Novembru 2018

Standing up to the surveillance state

Safe City Malta, part of the government’s public-private partnership arm Projects Malta, is planning to deploy high-definition CCTV cameras with facial recognition software. It is claimed that these cameras can identify those involved in criminal activity. The subject was referred to in the budget speech in which it was announced that, after adequate public consultation, such technology will be introduced in a number of areas. Paceville and Marsa are the prime candidates for this technology.

So far, no consultation has taken place, but a Memorandum of Understanding has apparently already been signed with the Chinese global communication technology giant Huawei, and implementation could begin in the coming months. So, the consultation, if carried out, will serve no purpose because the decisions have already been made.

Earlier this year, Huawei entered into an agreement with the Public Security Bureau in Xinjiang, China’s largest province. The Chinese authorities have spent heavily on making Xinjiang a testing ground for the use of facial recognition, digital monitoring and artificial intelligence in policing.

Huawei will provide the region’s police with technical support, help build up human technical expertise and “meet the digitization requirements of the public security industry”. A local government website paraphrased Fan Lixin, Xinjiang Public Security Bureau’s deputy director, as saying that such co-operation would guarantee “Xinjiang’s social stability and long-term security.”

The above quote is in contrast to the contents of Huawei’s Annual Report for 2017,  which drives home the message that Huawei cares a great deal about privacy. We are told that, in 2017, “Huawei continued to strengthen compliance in multiple business domains, including trade, cyber security and data and privacy protection.” We are furthermore informed of the “Huawei’s cyber security concepts – building security through innovation, enhancing security through collaboration and jointly building trust in a digital world.”

The contrast is probably the result of the messages being directed towards different audiences!

Closer to home, police in the United Kingdom have been experimenting with facial recognition technology for some time. Big Brother Watch, a UK based civil liberties group, reports that the systems in use are on average, incorrect nine times out of ten. A 56-page report published in May, entitled Face Off: the lawless growth of facial recognition in UK policing. concluded that “a staggering 95 per cent of matches wrongly identified innocent people”. To add insult to injury, innocent people’s biometric photographs were taken and stored without their knowledge in blatant disregard of basic data protection norms.

The use of facial recognition technology as a law and order tool has been welcomed by the police, as it can theoretically enhance their capabilities in the fight against crime. The proposal, however, is a nightmare for the rest of us because if it is not used within the parameters of data protection legislation, facial recognition technology will be an unacceptable invasion of the basic norms of privacy to which each one of us is entitled to.

The Commissioner for Information and Data Protection Saviour Cachia, interviewed by the GWU’s daily newspaper earlier this week emphasised that he expected that a proper assessment to be carried out by the authorities prior to the use of facial recognition technology. Mr Cachia emphasised the fact much more needs to be done before considering when and how facial recognition technology is used for security purposes. No one is aware whether or not the required assessment indicated by Mr Cachia has, in fact, been done or even if work on it has commenced.

This technology invades our privacy in an indiscriminate manner and our fundamental human rights are at risk of being breeched left , right and centre.

Examining in detail the impacts that this technology could have on criminal activity would help us determine whether it makes any sense to sacrifice our privacy (even minutely) in order for the surveillance state to take over and control segments of our life. If the UK experience is anything to go by, there is one logical conclusion: we should stand up to the surveillance state.

The Government should initiate a public consultation at the earliest opportunity and lay all its cards on the table for public scrutiny.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 November 2018

The Environment Authority is becoming a sick joke

The current public debate about fuel stations is a wake-up call.

Earlier this week, the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) produced a (sick) joke of a proposal which could reduce the maximum permissible size of a “new fuel station” to 2000 square metres from the current 3000 square metres.

The joke becomes a fully-fledged farce when Environment Minister Josè Herrera declared that the 14 pending applications for fuel stations will not be subject to the amended policy.

The ERA should have objected to the Fuel Stations Policy in principle, and come up with a proposal for a no-nonsense moratorium as, at this point in time, we do not need any more fuel stations. We have had more than enough compromise with only one net result: the further accelerated rape of the environment in Malta. With its proposal, the ERA has joined the queue of boot-lickers justifying the unjustifiable.

If, at some point in time, flesh is put on the bare-bones of the government declared policy of doing away with cars running on an internal combustion engine, we will need even fewer fuel stations – and eventually we will not need even one. So why does the ERA not take the bull by the horns and confront head-on the never-ending compromise that always finds some form of excuse in order to justify the rape of our environment?

For some that may be wishful thinking but it is, however, the only way forward.

Once upon a time we had a National Sustainable Development Strategy. It was drafted after an extensive exercise in public consultation and carried out after considerable in-depth discussions between all the relevant stakeholders. The public sector and the private sector, as well as the voluntary sector, were all involved.

This strategy produced a blueprint for action which was, unfortunately, generally ignored.

Among the issues addressed in the National Sustainable Development Strategy was that of sustainable mobility: an integrated transport strategy encompassing sustainable mobility is required that takes into consideration efficiency in transporting people, the protection of the environment, the promotion of public health and safety, and social inclusion.

What does ‘sustainable mobility’ mean? Put simply, it is the model that enables movement with minimal territorial and environmental impact: planning our mobility requirements such that negative impacts are the least possible.

We need to address the causes of the current transport policy mess and not tinker with the effects. Rather then playing about with fly-overs and tunnels, the Ministry for Transport needs to address the issue of car-ownership: the cause of the mess. Instead of initiating measures to reduce the number of cars on Malta’s roads from the current staggering figure, Malta’s Ministry of Transport is determined to make it easier for cars to keep increasing their dominance of those roads.

The infrastructural projects to ease traffic congestion at Kappara and Marsa, or the proposed Santa Luċija tunnels, for example, will only serve to increase the capacity of our roads – which means more cars on our roads. Traffic congestion may be addressed in the short term by these infrastructural projects, but they will, however, also increase the traffic on our roads, until another flyover or another tunnel is deemed necessary!

This shifts the problem to the future, when it will be much worse and more difficult to address.

The government is acting like an overweight individual who ‘solves’ the problem of his expanding wasteline by changing his wardrobe instead of going on a painful but necessary diet.

Within this context the Fuel Stations Policy serves the purpose of ensuring the servicing of an ever-increasing number of cars on our roads. Who is benefitting from such a policy? If this madness is not stopped, there is no way we will – as a country – be in a position to implement the declared policy of reducing from our roads vehicles running on internal combustion engines.

As a result, we will not be honouring our commitment to decarbonise the economy.

The Planning Authority has lost sight of its mission statement long ago. Unfortunately, the Environment and Resources Authority has followed in its footsteps.

 

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 15 April 2018

Iż-żamma tal-ordni pubbliku fil-Marsa

L-ordni pubbliku nassoċjawh mal-Pulizija. Għax normalment hu xogħol il-Pulizija li żżomm l-ordni pubbliku. Ikun hemm mumenti straordinarji li l-pulizija jkollhom bżonn l-għajnuna. F’dawn iċ-ċirkustanzi ħafna drabi l-pulizja jingħataw l-għajnuna tal-armata.

M’hiex sitwazzjoni normali li l-armata tkun iddur fit-toroq biex iżżomm l-ordni pubbliku. Dan iseħħ jew f’mumenti ta’ emergenza inkella meta d-demokrazija tkun taħt theddida. Hekk isir fid-dinja kollha.

Huwa f’dan il-kuntest li wieħed għandu jqis id-dikjarazzjoni tal-Prim Ministru nhar l-Ħadd li għadda f’Santa Luċija dwar il-presenza tal-armata fit-toroq tal-Marsa biex tgħin lill-Pulizija fiż-żamma tal-ordni pubbliku. Iktar kmieni tkellem ukoll il-Ministru tal-Intern fuq l-istess punt.

Irrid ngħid li m’huwiex xogħol l-armata li tinżel fit-toroq. L-armata m’hiex imħarrġa għal hekk. It-taħriġ tagħha huwa biex tiddefendi lil pajjiż fil-konfront ta’ perikli ġejjin minn barra xtutna. Biż-żmien l-armata ngħata ukoll it-taħriġ biex tintervjeni f’każ ta’ diżastri naturali, bħal għargħar, kif ġieli fil-fatt tagħmel meta tgħin lid-Dipartiment tal-Protezzjoni Civili. Dan hu kollu tajjeb u l-armata jixirqilha l-grazzi tagħna lkoll għal dak kollu li jirnexxielha twettaq.

Kemm il-Prim Ministru f’Santa Luċija kif ukoll il-Ministru tal-Intern fil-Marsa iktar qabel, ħabbru ukoll li fl-Għassa tal-Marsa ser jibda jkun hemm Spettur kif ukoll li l-presenza tal-Pulizija fil-Marsa ser tiżdied bl-Ghassa tibda tkun miftuħa għal 24 siegħa kuljum. Dan hu kollu tajjeb għax il-presenza tal-Pulizija fit-toroq hi ta’ għajnuna kbira fiż-żamma tal-ordni pubbliku. Għax huwa meħtieg presenza ikbar ta’ pulizija fit-toroq tagħna, mhux biss fit-toroq tal-Marsa imma f’dawk tal-pajjiz kollu.

Fi ftit kliem hi l-pulizja li għanda tkun inkarigata miż-żamma tal-ordni pubbliku mhux l-armata. Dan jgħodd għall-Marsa u għal kull rokna ta’ Malta.

A financial surplus, yet an environmental deficit

As was expected, last Monday’s budget speech solemnly announced a budget surplus for the first time in many years. However, the environmental deficit was, as usual, hidden between the lines.

The budget is aptly titled Preparing for the Future (Inlestu għall-Futur). In dealing with environmental issues, the budget speech does not lay down clearly the path the government will be following. At times, it postpones matters – proposing studies and consultations on subjects that have been in the public domain for ages.

On the subject of vacant properties, the government prefers the carrot to the stick. In order to get dilapidated and empty properties in village centres back on the rental market, it is offering a €25,000 grant to renovate such properties, but then rightly insists that, once renovated these should be made available for social housing for a minimum of 10 years. In previous budgets, various other fiscal incentives have been offered to encourage such properties being placed back on the market.

After offering so many carrots, it would also make sense to use the stick by way of taxing vacant properties in situations where the owner is continuously ignoring the signals sent regarding the social, economic and environmental impacts of empty properties.

The budget speech announced improvements to rental subsidies. However, it then opted to postpone the regulation of the rental market. It announced a White Paper on the subject which, when published, will propose ways of regulating the market without in any way regulating the subject of rents. In view of the currently abnormal situation of sky-high rents, this is sheer madness.

It is fine to ensure that the duties and responsibilities of landlords and tenants are clearly spelt out. Does anyone argue with that in 2017? It should have been done years ago. Instead of a White Paper a Legal Notice defining clear-cut duties and responsibilities would suffice: there is no need to wait.

It is, however, too much to bear when a “social democrat” Finance Minister declares  that he will not even consider rent control. There are ways and means of ensuring that the market acts fairly. Other countries have done it and are still doing it, as rental greed has no preferred nationality. Ignoring this possibility is not a good omen. The market should not be glorified by the Finance Minister; it should be tamed rather than further encouraged to keep running wild with the resulting social havoc it has created.

This brings us to transport and roads. The Finance Minister sends a clear message when he stated (on page 44 of the budget speech) that no one should be under the illusion that upgrading the road infrastructure will, on its own, resolve the traffic (congestion) problem. Edward Scicluna hints on the following page of his speech that he is not too happy with the current situation. He laments that the more developed countries encourage active mobility through walking, cycling and the use of motorbikes, as well as various means of public transport, simultaneously discouraging the use of the private car. However, he does not then proceed to the logical conclusion of his statement: scrapping large-scale road infrastructural projects such as the proposed Marsa flyover or the proposed tunnels below the Santa Luċija roundabout announced recently by Minister Ian Borg.

These projects, like the Kappara flyover currently in its final stages, will only serve to increase the capacity of our roads. And this means only one thing: more cars on our roads. It is certified madness.

While the Government’s policy of increasing the capacity of existing roads through the construction of flyovers and tunnels will address congestion in the short term, it will lead to increased traffic on our roads. This moves the problem to the future, when it will be worse and more difficult to tackle. The government is acting like an overweight individual who ‘solves’ the problem of his expanding wasteline by changing his wardrobe instead of going on a painful but necessary diet.

This cancels out the positive impact of other policies announced in the budget speech such as free public transport to young people aged between 16 and 20, free (collective) transport to all schools, incentives for car-pooling, grants encouraging the purchase of bicycles, pedelec bicycles and scooters, reduction in the VAT charged when hiring bicycles as well as the introduction of bicycle lanes, as well as encouraging the purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles.

All this contributes to the current environmental deficit. And I have not even mentioned issues of land use planning once.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 15 October 2017

Beyond roundabouts and flyovers

 

The need for adequate traffic management is apparently, at last, very high on the list of matters preoccupying the Maltese public. The solutions to the problems we face, however, depends on the behaviour of each and every one of us.

Traffic congestion is a constant irritation, as our roads are clogged for longer periods of time and in addition to wasting an ever-increasing amount of time in traffic, we are simultaneously constantly reducing the quality of the air we breathe.

Tackling traffic management adequately would hence address two fundamental issues: air quality and our clogged roads.

I do not dispute that improving the road network eases the flow of traffic. However, it has to be stressed that this is only a short-term measure. Adjusting the roundabout at Manwel Dimech Street in Qormi or the traffic lanes close to the airport or constructing flyovers at Kappara and Marsa will address and rationalise traffic movement now.

However, this further development of the road infrastructure is simply an encouragement for more cars to use our roads. It is only a matter of time when it will be the turn of the new developments to burst at the seams.

The present state of affairs is the direct result of the long-term neglect of transport policy. Public transport – as well as alternative means of transport – has been given the cold shoulder for far too long.

We require a transport policy that actively encourages the reduction of the number of vehicles on the road. Having around 800 cars on the road for every one thousand people in a small country is ridiculous. The small distances between localities in Malta and Gozo should make it much easier to encourage a reduction in dependence on the privately-owned car. Initiatives can be taken on a local level as well as between neighbouring localities. In such instances, it can be much easier to encourage the use of bicycles or the use of public transport or even to walk short distances: our health will surely benefit.

Isn’t it about time that we claim back ownership of our streets? We need more pedestrianised streets inaccessible to cars at any time of the day in every locality in Malta and Gozo. More streets need to be traffic-free, safe for children and parents to walk to school and back. We also need wider pavements for the use of pedestrians (not for tables and chairs to service catering establishments).

In the 2016 Budget speech, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna announced that, during 2017, government entities should be finalising sustainable transport plans. In the coming weeks these should be made public and, as a result, we expect that all government entities will commence addressing the mobility requirements of their employees and their customers. If carried out properly, this exercise could also impact on the private sector thereby (hopefully) substantially reducing a substantial number cars from our roads at peak times. In turn, this could have a considerable impact on public transport because with fewer cars on the roads, it should be more efficient.

Concurrently, government should also address the proposal to electrify the whole private transport sector through banning petrol and diesel cars from our roads, after a reasonable transition, and switching over to cars running on electricity. In Malta, this proposal was launched as part of Alternattiva Demokratika’s 2017 election manifesto. Since then, it has also been taken up by the French and UK governments. Removing petrol and diesel cars from our roads would substantially improve the quality of the air we breathe in all our localities and consequently in the long term will contribute to a considerable reduction of respiratory ailments.

This is the only way forward by which traffic is brought under serious control simultaneously ensuring sustainable mobility and improving the quality of our air.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 10 September 2017

Marsa: a planning mess

turkish-cemetry-marsa-malta2

The Chamber of Architects has taken the Planning Authority to task on the piecemeal local plan reviews that it has been churning out, one at a time. The latest tirade was with reference to a partial review of The Grand Harbour Local Plan (originally published in 2002) specifically with respect to a Marsa Park Site.

We have just concluded a public discussion on a Masterplan for Paceville, which was shredded by public opinion and sent back to the drawing board.

Earlier, we had the Planning Authority itself contesting whether Local Councils, NGOs and the Environment and Resources Authority  had a right to contest the decision to permit high-rises in Townsquare Sliema and in Imrieħel.

To make matters worse, instead of consolidating the environmental regulatory functions of the state, this government has opted to deliberately fragment them, thereby ensuring their reduced effectiveness by design.  In a small country such as Malta, it pays to have one consolidated authority  directed by environment professionals through whom land use planning responsibilities should be accountable.

Land use planning needs to be more focused but holistic in nature. The Chamber of Architects aptly makes the point that focusing the efforts of the partial review of the Grand Harbour Local Plan specifically on “a Marsa Business Park” without considering this within the context  of a much needed regeneration of Marsa would be a futile exercise. The decay of Marsa as an urban centre needs to be addressed at the earliest opportunity and this will not be done through piecemeal local plan reviews but through comprehensive planning “which ought to include community needs, road transport re-alignment, environment improvement and flooding mitigation measures”.

These are the basic issues which should be addressed by a local plan review concerning Marsa. Tackling major infrastructural and social problems facing the Marsa community should take precedence over any proposal for the redevelopment of the Marsa Park site. It is the whole of Marsa that should be addressed and not just one tiny corner.

The partial local plan review is ignoring the local community, just like its cousin the Paceville Masterplan did some months ago. Many years ago we learned that “planning is for people”. This seems to be no longer the case as, according to the Planning Authority, planning is apparently for business hubs, high-rises and, obviously, for developers. They seem to be very well connected, thereby ensuring that they occupy the first items of this government’s land use planning agenda.

Marsa has been forgotten over the years. With the closure of the Marsa power station now is the appropriate time to consider the various accumulated impacts on the Marsa community in order that an integrated approach to addressing them is identified. Planning is for people. That means that the Marsa community should be actively involved when these plans are being formulated, including at the drawing board stage. Land use planners should stimulate the Marsa community to speak up and involve itself in drawing up a blue print for its future.

The regeneration of Marsa is an urgent matter which should not be left unattended.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 15 January 2017

Tall Buildings : the advice ignored by the Maltese authorities

Ali report

 

“Tall buildings cannot be avoided in our times. The choice we have is whether to control them or else whether to put up with their future growth.” These were the concluding comments of a report drawn up by Professor Mir Ali from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA after a visit to Malta in 2008 during which he met with and advised MEPA on the future of tall buildings in Malta.The report is entitled Urban Design Strategy Report on Tall Buildings in Malta.

Professor Ali’s report contains recommendations most of which are as relevant today as when they were originally drafted. Central to these recommendations, way back in 2008, was the need to draw a master plan addressing tall buildings and their impacts. “Lack of a master plan,”  Professor Ali stated, “results in uncontrolled developments and unpredictable impacts on urban life.”  The developed master plan,  Prof. Ali emphasised, should be “for Malta as a whole and for the selected sites for tall buildings, individually.”  Drawing up such a master plan with a reasonable level of detail will take time to carry out, a considerable portion of which should be utilised in consultation, primarily with the residents to be impacted. Certainly much more time would be required than the November 2016 target indicated by the government earlier this week.  A moratorium on the issuing of any development permit for high-rises until such time that a master plan has been discussed and approved would be a very reasonable course of action.

Professor Ali considered six sites, which were indicated to him by MEPA, as having the potential of hosting high-rise development. He proposed the following rank order : Qawra, Gżira, Tignè, Paceville, Pembroke and Marsa.  Such a ranking order by Prof. Ali is qualified by an emphasis on the substantial infusion of public monies which is required. Prof. Ali commented that if the number of sites are reduced to less than six it would be much better for Malta.

Professor Ali made a number of incisive remarks.

There is a need for an objective market and feasibility study for each project, which study should include the life cycle cost of the project. In view of the high vacancy rate of existing residential units, Prof. Ali queried the kind of occupancy expected of high-rises. Failure of high-rises will impact the economy of the whole of Malta which has no safety valve because of its size and lack of adequate elasticity, he stressed.

An efficient public transport is a fundamental requirement for the Maltese islands irrespective of whether high-rises are developed or not. But for the success of tall buildings “an integrated sustainable public transport system” is absolutely necessary. Yet, surprise, surprise, Professor Ali observed that “there is no efficient public transport system that is efficient and that covers the whole of Malta”

Sounds like familiar territory!

Infrastructural deficiencies must be addressed. If the existing infrastructure is inadequate or in a state of disrepair it must be upgraded and expanded to meet future needs. Tignè residents in Sliema have much to say about the matter, not just with reference to the state of the roads in the area but more on the present state of the public sewers! Residents of the Tignè peninsula are not the only ones who urgently require an upgrade of their infrastructural services. Residents in many other localities have similar requirements.

Social and environmental impacts of tall buildings must be considered thoroughly at the design stage. However Maltese authorities have developed the habit of ignoring the social impacts of development projects. In addition, it is very worrying that, as reported in the press earlier during this week,  Prime Minister Joseph Muscat does not seem to be losing any sleep over the matter.

People living in a low-rise environment consider high-rises as intrusive. Unless public participation is factored in at a very early stage through planned beneficial impacts on the community in terms of economic benefits, upgrade of services and the general benefits of the redevelopment of the surroundings, such projects do not have a future.

The upkeep of high-rises is quite a challenge which requires skills that are different from low-rise buildings. Notwithstanding changes to the relevant provisions of the law, there already exist serious difficulties in bringing together owners of low-rise multi-owned properties in order that they can ensure that maintenance of such properties is addressed. The challenge of high-rises is exponentially more complex.

The above is a snap-shot of Prof. Ali’s report. From what I’ve heard from a number  of people who met Professor Ali, he was more vociferous in his verbal utterances. Unfortunately,  his advice has been largely ignored.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 26 June 2016