Author Archives: Gordon Woo

About Gordon Woo

Catastrophist, RMS
Gordon is a catastrophe-risk expert, with 30 years’ experience in catastrophe science, covering both natural and man-made hazards. Gordon is the chief architect of the RMS terrorism risk model, which he started work on a year after joining RMS in December 2000. For his thought leadership in terrorism risk modeling, he was named by Treasury & Risk magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in finance in 2004. He has since lectured on terrorism at the NATO Center of Excellence for the Defense against Terrorism, and testified before the U.S. Congress on terrorism-risk modeling. As an acknowledged, international expert on catastrophes, Gordon is the author of two acclaimed books: “The Mathematics of Natural Catastrophes” (1999) and “Calculating Catastrophe” (2011). Dr. Woo graduated as the best mathematician of his year at Cambridge University and he completed his doctorate at MIT as a Kennedy Scholar and was a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. He also has an Master of Science in computer science from Cambridge University.

The Unrehabilitated Terrorist

A few hundred yards from where Stephen Hawking first explored black holes from his wheelchair, is the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. Hawking never shied away from really hard problems; nor do the Cambridge criminologists. There is no Nobel Prize for finding viable solutions to rehabilitating prisoners, but the Cambridge Learning Together program has forged new communal pathways for addressing this major societal challenge. The program seeks to bring together people in criminal justice and higher education institutions to study alongside each other in inclusive and transformative learning communities.

The Learning Together program began at the University of Cambridge in 2014, in partnership with HMP Grendon, a small prison at a village named Grendon Underwood, outside London. This program recognizes that collaboration underpins the growth of opportunities for the learning progression of students in prison, and the development of pathways towards non-offending futures.

Five years on, a celebration alumni event was organized for Black Friday, November 29. This took place in the City of London, at Fishmongers’ Hall, off London Bridge. This happens to be close to the Monument, where the RMS London office is situated.

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MyShake: New App Unveiled for California Earthquake Early Warning

As my colleague Mohsen Rahnama reminded us in his recent blog, the last destructive earthquake to strike Northern California was on October 17, 1989. Loma Prieta was a magnitude 6.9 earthquake which resulted in 63 deaths and about four thousand injuries. The epicenter was about ten miles northeast of Santa Cruz, and seismic waves took about 30 seconds to reach San Francisco. But there was no way of communicating any earthquake early warning to residents of the Marina district of San Francisco, which suffered some of the worst damage from shaking and fire outbreak.

On October 17, 2019, the thirtieth anniversary of this earthquake, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services unveiled a smartphone app from the University of California, Berkeley Seismological Lab that will give all Californians the opportunity to receive earthquake early warnings.

Governor Gavin Newsom, who happened to be in the Marina district at the time of the 1989 earthquake, has urged people to download the MyShake app. This app (myshake.berkeley.edu) is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play, and relies on the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

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Terrorism in El Paso

Terrorism is a global menace that spreads like a virus along social networks. On March 15, 2019, Brenton Tarrant killed 51 Muslims attending Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Terrorism is the language of being noticed. Shortly before his rampage, he emailed his white supremacist manifesto, The Great Replacement, to the New Zealand Prime Minister’s office and media outlets, and shared a link with 8chan, a counter-culture website associated with political extremism.

Ever since the Christchurch mass shooting, 8chan users have commented regularly on their desire to beat Tarrant’s high score of victims. On Saturday, August 3, 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius posted a four-page document, The Inconvenient Truth, on 8chan, which has since gone offline.  

This expressed support for the Christchurch shootings, and blamed immigrants and first-generation Americans for taking away jobs. He also called for the deportation of immigrants. Such a white supremacist tirade is not unusual on 8chan. However, shortly after this posting, he headed for the Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall, El Paso, Texas, and opened fire in the parking lot and store with an assault rifle. Mid-morning on Saturday, Walmart was busy with shoppers. His twenty-minute shooting spree left 20 dead with 26 people hospitalized. He then surrendered to police officers. 

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Ebola in Goma

Assessing the risks faced by the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would go well beyond the norms of the insurance industry. On January 17, 2002, a large part of the city center was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the north. Volcano hazard is not a significant risk factor for many towns and cities – and nor is Ebola. Goma is exceptional in being at risk from both.

Outbreaks of Ebola have occurred in the DRC sporadically in 1976, 1994, 2003, 2007 and 2012. The most recent outbreak started on August 1, 2018, and even with the infection of 2,500 and the deaths of more than 1,700, the Ebola virus is still not contained. Endemic hostilities in the DRC make it hard for health organizations to track contacts of those infected, and to operate treatment centers without fear of military attack. Health workers expose themselves daily to lethal infection – and should not be exposed also to armed assault. But they are – two health workers were killed in mid-July.

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London Bridge Terrorism Inquests: A Counterfactual Risk Perspective

The inquests into the deaths of eight individuals killed in a terrorist attack on London Bridge and in Borough Market on June 3, 2017, were held at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, two years later – from May 7 to June 28, 2019. Judge Mark Lucraft, the Chief Coroner for England and Wales, concluded that the eight victims were unlawfully killed, but he was not convinced that MI5 and the police missed any opportunities that would have prevented the attack.

Three Islamist terrorists, Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane, and Youssef Zaghba, rammed pedestrians on London Bridge, before launching a frenzied knife rampage around nearby Borough Market, a lively food market and tourist hotspot that attracts 4.5 million visitors per year. The three attackers were shot dead by police at 10.17 p.m., less than 10 minutes after the rampage began.

Although the Chief Coroner did not criticize MI5 and the police in his conclusions, he did criticize the lack of security barriers on the bridge, and concluded that this showed weaknesses in systems for assessing the need for such measures, and implementing them promptly. The attack happened only two-and-a-half months after the Westminster Bridge vehicle ramming attack on March 22, 2017.

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Understanding the Terror Attacks in Sri Lanka

A decade ago, an RMS colleague traveling to Bali for a climate change conference sought my advice on where to stay to minimize the risk of falling victim to terrorism. In 2002, some 204 people had been killed in a bomb attack by Islamist militants in Kuta Beach, a busy tourist area in Bali. My advice then, as it is now, was to stay away from luxury hotels. Not just for tourists, but for insurers also, the risk to luxury hotels is far higher than for lesser accommodation.

The basic principles of terrorism risk modeling explain the terrorist preference for luxury hotels and places of worship, both of which were targeted in a coordinated terrorist attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday (April 21), which with a current death toll of 290, has nearly killed half as many more people than the Bali bombing.

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Terrorism in Christchurch

Since 9/11, there have been sporadic attacks on Muslims in Western countries, perpetrated by right-wing terrorists, but none has been more horrific and shocking than the coordinated assault on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, after Friday prayers on March 15, 2019.

Anniversaries have a special significance in the terrorist calendar. This act of wanton religious violence took place several weeks after the 25th anniversary of the most infamous mosque shooting, in Hebron, Israel, on the morning of February 25, 1994. Baruch Goldstein, a doctor raised in U.S., entered the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, pulled out an assault rifle, fired 111 shots, killing 29 Muslims, injuring 125 others. It looks as if this carnage was surpassed in Christchurch.

Terrorist lone-wolves, like Baruch Goldstein, are hard to track because they leave only a small plot planning footprint. The Christchurch attack appears well coordinated and executed, and would have left a sizeable plot planning footprint, that security officials might potentially have detected.

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NHS Funding and the Hope of Living Longer

On March 13, 2019, the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, warned in the House of Commons during his Spring Statement, that a “… cloud of uncertainty was hanging over the U.K. economy.” Reminiscing of a sunnier time for the U.K. economy, in the Budget speech in March 2000, Gordon Brown announced a substantial increase in government spending on healthcare. The Chancellor’s ambitious plan was that health spending would rise by more than a third in real terms over a five-year period, by 6.1 percent per year over and above inflation.

To inform and support this program, he commissioned a review of the long-term trends affecting the U.K. National Health Service (NHS). Based on wide-ranging academic research, this review, which was published in April 2002, had a long-term time horizon of twenty years, extending to 2022. The author of this review was Sir Derek Wanless, a professional banker, who was also a highly gifted mathematician – an important attribute for reaching robust quantitative conclusions on long-term NHS funding.

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Brain Fitness as a Driver of Longevity

Around 100 million people watched this year’s Super Bowl on February 3, which was a low-scoring game where the much faster play of the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, compared with his opposite number LA Rams’ Jared Goff, was a decisive factor. Few in the television audience would have known that the veteran quarterback had special cognitive training to enable him to perform so well according to the mantra: think slow, play slow.

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On Writing a Book on Cyber Risk

Accessing information on the Internet was once likened to searching for information in a library, where the pages of all the books had been ripped out and strewn on the floor. Everyone knows that there is a colossal amount of online information about cyber security issues. How can this seemingly boundless ocean of information be processed for the practical benefit of cyber risk professionals?

This is a daunting multi-disciplinary challenge because cyber risk management spans the broad domains of information technology, risk regulation, law and criminology, security economics, insurance, as well as risk analysis.

This challenge can’t be met by one person – but it can with three. Early in 2017, Andrew Coburn conceived of the idea of a book on cyber risk, with Éireann Leverett and myself as the two other co-authors. Eireann is an ethical hacker, with specialist capabilities and technical insight into the shadowy world of cyber attack and defense. I knew he had special expertise when he showed he could hack my (Samsung) phone in five minutes.

After a brainstorming session in the RMS London office, Andrew came up with the title, Solving Cyber Risk, and after a year and a half of gestation, this book has just been published by Wiley.

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