After Venezuela’s power system collapsed late last week, leaving most of the country in the dark for days, the scope of the blackout was initially difficult to discern. Corpoelec, the state-owned utility monopoly, wasn’t sharing outage data, and much of its communication came in the form of sporadic tweets.
Lacking such information, many people outside the country—and those in Venezuela with cell service and charged phone batteries—turned to an alternative source: NetBlocks. The five-person NGO tracked the power outages using tools for monitoring Internet connectivity worldwide. Its charts, posted frequently on Twitter, revealed dramatic plunges and tepid climbs as the utility struggled to resume power generation.
“We’ve been using what we know about the correlation of energy supply and Internet to try and establish what the situation is on the ground,” Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks, said on a recent video call from London, along with research director Isik Mater. Team members now take shifts monitoring Venezuela's situation to keep track of progress.
“When we don’t post an update for an hour, people wonder where we are,” Toker says. “It motivates us to improve our systems and to keep working on getting the data out to the public more.”
Venezuela is in the grips of a years-long economic and humanitarian crisis, with inflation topping 1 million percent in 2018 and record numbers of children suffering severe malnutrition. Spotty electric service is now fairly common, but the recent blackout marked a significant turning point for the country’s flagging infrastructure.
On 7 March, a substation at the massive Guri hydropower plant went down. The San Geronimo B substation supplies electricity to 80 percent of the country over an extensive network of high-voltage transmission lines. Power experts and Corpoelec employees told multiple news outlets that the plant’s turbines failed following years of neglect, mismanagement and corruption at the utility. (President Nicolás Maduro, meanwhile, accuses his opponents of sabotage.)
Hospitals, dialysis centers, ATMs, mobile payment apps, refrigerators, street lights—everything was failing or frozen without power and Internet connections. Correspondents for The Guardian wrote that, by nightfall, the capital city Caracas had “the air of an apocalyptic movie” as residents stood on their cars, holding phones aloft and searching for signals.
A week later, many people remain disconnected. By 13 March, some 140 hours after the onset of the nationwide blackout, 27 percent of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure had not yet been restored, NetBlocks estimated.
Netblocks bills itself as a nonpartisan “Internet observatory.” The applied research outfit formed in late 2016 to track network disruptions in the Middle East. Now the team monitors Internet shutdowns and cybersecurity incidents around the world to watch for encroachments on democracy and free expression.
The researchers use a handful of remote measurement techniques from their co-working space in London.
Web analytics software shows how millions of devices—be they mobile phones or DSL modems—are interacting with the Internet. These “edge measurements” reveal whether the devices are experiencing slow loading times or are unable to access social media sites and other platforms. NetBlocks says it gathers about 350,000 edge measurements globally per day. It also takes measurements from NetBlocks’s hardware probes that volunteers can plug into their home networks.
Internet users themselves can share data with NetBlocks by running a scanner in their web browser. These tests provide a clearer picture of when connections drop and resume, and they help measure networks’ latency and ping times. Participants include advocates for free speech and fair elections, as well as online gamers and bitcoin miners who depend on speedy, reliable Internet access to support their activities.
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Network connectivity across regions of #Venezuela: #Mérida has been almost entirely offline since the power outages began; pictured, time-lapse network mapping showing situation from 5 March to present #SinLuz #12Mar pic.twitter.com/zDqueZrHiz— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) March 12, 2019
Still, Toker points out that this field of research is relatively new, and NetBlocks is continuously fine-tuning and modifying its systems. “There is always space for improvement,” he says.
Tracking Crises In Real-Time
NetBlock’s current work in Venezuela grew out of this ongoing effort to improve data quality, Toker and Mater say.
In 2017, the team began tracking hurricanes and severe weather events to help train its automated anomaly detection model. Researchers wanted to better distinguish between accidental outages—such as those caused by grid failures—and politically-motivated shutdowns. Initially, the idea was to filter out unintentional events so they could focus on censorship efforts or free speech violations.
With intentional disruptions, Internet routers and devices disconnect and reconnect as swiftly as flipping a light switch. “There’s no lag, no reboots, those devices pick up where they left off, and this is evident in the data,” Toker says. With power outages, however, the Internet recovers gradually. Routers reset, drop off, reset again. Certain areas are connected before others. “This is like a smoking gun for a power outage,” he adds.
When Hurricane Harvey roared over southeast Texas, NetBlocks was training its model to correlate the power outages with loss of Internet connectivity. The team posted real-time outage maps online, and some emergency response crews used the information to help coordinate their relief efforts. “We said, ‘Wow, this is useful information in and of itself,’’ Toker recalls. NetBlocks produced similar maps in 2018 when Hurricane Florence battered the U.S. Carolinas.
Prior to Venezuela’s devastating blackout, NetBlocks had already been closely monitoring the country’s Internet networks for two months, Mater says.
On 10 January, as Maduro was sworn in for a second term, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-run National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, proclaimed himself interim president. Soon after, an online battle ensued as Wikipedia editors altered the pages for Guaidó and Maduro hundreds of times within hours. CANTV, the country’s main telecommunications provider, responded by temporarily blocking all pages of the online encyclopedia. This tipped off NetBlocks’ automated detection system.
Since last week’s power outage, the tiny NGO says it has received hundreds of public and private messages asking for updates on Venezuela’s Internet connectivity. Along with posting charts online, NetBlocks also shares its data files with any researchers or community members who request it. Toker says ensuring compliance with various data-sharing and privacy regulations worldwide is a top, if not cumbersome, priority for the team.
“Our goal is to get the data out so people can use it,” he says.