Friday, June 14, 2013

What gets me excited about Project Loon?

One of the critical issues we often face after a disaster is that the communication infrastructure has been affected. Even when cell towers are still standing, the power infrastructure is severely damaged and often it takes days or weeks to restore these terrestrial systems. At the same time the disaster response field is undergoing a significant shift, because survivors are now able to become a central part of the response process.

Google’s announcement this evening of their Google-X Project Loon, where they plan to leverage specialized high altitude balloons (similar to weather balloons) to provide internet access to rural areas around the world is a very interesting technology for us in the disaster response field. Our field has in the past relied upon expensive satellite-based solutions that often give a limited bandwidth at an high cost. Project Loon has an opportunity to change that drastically.

The concept behind Loon is that it has 1000+ of balloons floating around the world at a very high altitude (around 20km). They expect them to stay up for around 100+ days and then they will recover them and launch new ones in their place. Each balloon costs only a fraction of what it costs to launch a satellite, so the operational costs are much lower.

The equipment needed on the ground to receive signals from them is relatively small and simple. More importantly the receiver will not be very expensive, which is a significant difference from satellite based solutions. The receivers are also expected to become smaller in size as time passes.

Having the balloons so high up, means that earthquakes and hurricanes will not affect the ability to send and receive signals. The simple receiver on the ground can also be easily packed during the hurricane and put back up immediately after it passes over. Bringing in a number of these receivers is also going to be much easier than bringing in large satellite receivers.

Improvements in connectivity enable information about the disaster to be easily shared between those responding and those affected. This enables more effective disaster response and much better targeted response, where the needs of those affected are taken into account. New methods of connectivity, such as Project Loon, enable this information sharing to occur at a much earlier stage and at a much lower cost than today’s solutions.

In rural, hard to reach areas, this technology also has the potential to revolutionize the access to the internet. This is particularly true for areas that are far away from the electrical and communication grids. Rural health clinics and schools will be able to get connected at a much cheaper cost than they currently can. This creates an opportunity to fully leverage the power of information technology in these rural areas.

Project Loon is still at the experimental stage and I am sure there are a number of issues that need to be overcome before it becomes fully operational. Some of these will be scientific in nature, some will be technical in nature, and some will be political in nature, but we at NetHope look forward to collaborating with the Project Loon team on testing this technology in the austere environments that our members operate in.

Project Loon may not change how we get connected in rural and disaster areas this year or even the next, but it is certainly an out-of-the-box potential solution to one of the complex problems we have been working on over the past 12 years since NetHope was founded. It is welcoming to see that the private sector is willing to not only focus their R&D on solutions for the top of the pyramid, but also on the 5+ billion people who today live on or below the poverty line.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Announcing plans for the creation of an alliance to promote open humanitarian data

For the past year, we have been advocating for bringing the concepts of open data into the humanitarian space. We have written a number of blog posts, we have spoken at conferences, and we have traveled the world and met with humanitarian organizations, academic organizations, private sector companies, governments, digital volunteer groups and donors.

Wherever we go everyone is very supportive of the concepts we are presenting. Everyone agrees that there is a need for a significant improvement in the way we share information during humanitarian response.

During this time we have identified the need to focus on all three aspects of this big issue, the political/policy side, the technical side, and the capacity side. We have also identified the key road blocks in each area and we have come up with proposals on how to address them in a step by step manner over the coming years.

It is now time to formalize this significant public-private partnership effort. As a result we have decided to form an alliance of organizations interested in working on this effort collaboratively with us. This alliance has gotten the name Open Humanitarian Alliance (OHA). Its purpose is to further the sharing of information in the humanitarian space through the principles of open data. Our tentative plans are to formally launch the Open Humanitarian Alliance on May 28th, in New York City.

If your organization is interested in learning more about joining the Open Humanitarian Alliance, then feel free to reach out to us through OHI at

We would also like to invite all organizations and individuals interested in working with us on making this important effort a reality to join our OHA launch task force. This task force will help draft the governance structure for the alliance. It will also focus on the advocacy work of bringing all the key players into the alliance. You can sign up for the task force by contacting us at OHI at

Monday, February 4, 2013

Open Data and Impact Measures

It is always educational and thought provoking to read Bill Gates annual letters. This year's letter focused on the importance of measuring the impact of the work we are doing to make the world a better place.

I wholeheartedly agree with my old boss (well technically bosses-bosses-……..-boss) on the aspect that we have to know whether what we are doing has the desired impact. Sadly there are still way to many projects out there that are not making the desired impact and yet get funded again and again (mainly for political reasons – nobody wants to rock the boat). This is something we must of course change.

At the same time corruption and mismanagement of funds has also caused the donor community to become very strict on accountability. Again something that was sadly required, because of “bad apples” in the humanitarian and development communities.

Both of these trends have given birth to a new breed of humanitarian and development workers that work in the newly created “Monitoring and Evaluation” field. Those people are responsible for keeping track of everything (for accountability reasons) and to provide proof to the donors that their money is actually making impact.

What struck me over the past couple of years as I have visited non-profits working in the aftermath of natural disasters is the fact that we have gone totally overboard in this attempt to correct and improve. I sometimes see more people filling out forms and reports “for the donors” than I see doing actual work in the field. We have in fact added layers upon layers of staff to keep up with these demands.

It sometime reminds me of the world that I came from before I joined the non-profit sector. During my last few years at Microsoft, the concept of scorecards was introduced throughout the company. Sadly the introduction of scorecards, while most likely having some effects to cut costs, has not had the intended effect within Microsoft. Sadly people focus so much on keeping the scorecard “green” that they forget all about innovation and growing things that aren’t being measured.

So what can we do to enable the accountability required and to enable us to measure the impact we need to know we are doing “the right thing”?

We at NetHope have over the past year been working on bringing the concept of Open Data to the humanitarian community. Our main goal for this effort is to improve coordination of response efforts by providing decision makers with better information. We believe that just that part of our effort will reduce suffering and save lives.

The additional benefit of opening up the data that humanitarian organizations gather and produce during response efforts is that it also increases transparency and enables not just themselves but also others to measure impact across organizations and sectors.

In one of his early TED lectures, Clay Shirky points out that the old way of coordinating is by creating institutions. But since communication costs are going down drastically, there is another option, putting the coordination into the infrastructure by designing systems that coordinate the output of the group as a byproduct of operating the system without regards to institutional models.

The same holds true for measuring impact. If our operational systems are automatically sharing the information they capture openly with the outside world, then we get the measuring of the impact automatically as a byproduct of operating the system without having to put in place the big institutional models.

The most important thing however in my mind, when it comes to measuring impact through open data is the fact that we can combine information from multiple organizations or sectors and thereby see the true impact instead of the siloed individual impact measurements from one organization or one sector.

If you are interested in working with us and a number of partners from the humanitarian, academic and private sectors on our Open Humanitarian Initiative, then feel free to reach out to us to find out how you can play a role in improving humanitarian coordination, increasing transparency and in enabling better measurement of impact.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Observation from the path of Typhoon Bopha

The term "path of a hurricane" is something you often hear in the news, but actually seeing the devastation that these strong winds and heavy rains cause is something you don't realize until you have visited an area where one has gone through. When that area is a rural area in a developing country, then the devastation is even more than you can imagine. Today we visited parts of Compostela Valley on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, one of the areas that was badly hit by Typhoon Bopha (local name Pablo) last week. We got to accompany one of NetHope's member organizations, Plan International that is performing relief operations in the area and expects to be running relief and rehabilitation programs here for 18-24 months.

As you visit these badly affected areas it was impressive to see how in the main municipalities, there are incident command posts set up, even when the buildings they are housed in area severely damaged. These incident command posts are where all of the operational action occurs. Relief goods from donors, both private and public, arrive on trucks that then get information from the staff at the incident command post on where to deliver the goods. Everything is tracked and recorded to ensure that the items go where they are most needed. Relief agencies, like Plan, visit the incident command post to get information about where their services are most needed. They share with the incident command post their plans and again everything gets recorded to ensure that there is as little duplication of effort as possible. There relief organizations also get updated information about the situation in the region and about what things were like before the typhoon hit.

This level of organization is impressive to witness, because in many countries around the world that I have visited, there is not as effective disaster management coordination at the local governmental level as one sees here in the Philippines. The reason of course is that in the Philippines over the last decade, there has been quite an investment in training people and putting the incident management system in place. This investment in building local capacity is important, because it allows the relief efforts to be driven by the people that know those affected and the area itself the best.

At many of these incident command posts there is lack of water, electricity and communications. Large whiteboards and stacks of notebooks are utilized to share and keep track of information about the situation. While they certainly do their job of sharing the information to those that visit the command posts, they create an additional layer in the coordination effort. Anyone that wants to operate in the area, must visit the incident command posts to get updated about the situation and to share information about what they are planning to do. What is even worse is that all baseline data, such as where all the water facilities, schools and health clinics is also only available at the incident command posts. Folders containing this information are repeatedly "copied" by response organizations, by taking photographs of the baseline data. Same applies to the situational data. The big whiteboards get photographed again and again. These photographs are then used to recreate the data back in the base of operations for each particular organization.

The initial reaction to this might be, why don't they use technology to share this. The immediate response you might get to this reaction might be "but they don't have electricity and connectivity, so they can't". In the immediate aftermath of the disaster much of that might have been true. Without computers and electricity it may have been difficult to share that information more widely. But after the first hours and days laptops and generators started arriving and the information in the incident command posts started to be put into spreadsheets, but the problem is that those spreadsheets are seldom shared in their electronic form. In many cases the only place that information gets shared might be "up the incident management chain". We however also saw in the response to Hurricane Sandy that this flow of information upwards, seldom gets shared widely and ends up being a "black hole" of information, one that constantly requests updates from everyone else, but doesn't share it back out with the wider public.

We asked people in the incident command posts how badly the mobile networks had been effected by the storm. In the one that we visited one of the mobile networks was back up and running within 24 hours of the typhoon passing over. So data could have been shared more widely through that mobile network. But even if the mobile network was not up and running, then copying that data onto thumb drives and having people transport that on a motorcycle to the next location with internet capabilities on a daily basis would be a simple solution until the network is back up. We often forget that improvised "sneaker networks" can solve connectivity issues in the first few days and weeks and enable us to better share the information needed to more effectively respond to natural disasters like this one.

It is important for us that we fix these information sharing issues and we at NetHope are working on driving forward an initiative related to that and we welcome you to join us in that effort.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Sandy Legacy

Less than a week has passed since Hurricane Sandy passed over the Caribbean and the US East Coast, leaving a trail of destruction and death behind. Only seven years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest disasters of all times left a similar trail of destruction on the Gulf Coast. Thankfully a lot of lessons were learnt from Katrina, especially when it comes to leadership and organizational issues. But sadly there are many issues that we will have to learn and re-learn from Hurricane Sandy. 

One of the things that makes Hurricane Sandy so special is the massive geographical area that was affected. It is way larger than anything we have ever seen before. Compared to Hurricane Katrina twice as many states and 5 times as many people were affected, and that is not counting the Caribbean Islands where millions more were affected. Sadly with increased extremes in climate related disasters, with ever increasing urbanization and population growth, these kind of mega-disasters affecting tens of millions of people will become more and more commonplace.

In many countries, and the US is no exception to this, the preparedness and response to disasters is in the hands of multiple levels of government, ranging from town/city level, up to county, state and finally federal level. This means that it is the duty of the city to provide response to and make preparations for any potential disaster. When the situation becomes to difficult for the local level, i.e. the city, to handle, then they can reach up to the county level, which activates resources from nearby cities or from county-level agencies. When the county surpasses it's limit, then the state comes in and provides additional support. The state can activate state-level responders, such as national guard or other state level agencies. When the situation becomes to difficult for the state level to handle, that is when the federal government comes in provides national-level support, through national-level resources such as the military and federal agencies.

This hierarchical level of disaster response works very well in most disasters, since the majority of disasters are small enough to handle locally or with mutual-aid support from nearby cities. Even for medium level disasters, most disasters can be handled at the state level, with minimal support from the federal level. It is however when mega-disasters, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy occur that the entire response model gets stretched beyond its limits. The system was simply not built for so many cities, counties and states to all be experiencing disaster of this magnitude, all at the same time.

Thankfully in order to ensure that there is some organization in place, coordination of activities happens at the various administrative levels. Each city collects information about the needs of it's citizens and then shares that with county, who in turn shares that with the state. All of this then gets aggregated up to the federal level. Sadly however often this information ends up in a silo, either within some of the function groups (called Emergency Support Functions/ESF in the US and clusters in the international response world) or at a particular administrative level. There are also different information systems being used at each level and there are lacks of standards for sharing the information correctly. In many cases information also only flows up the chain and not down the chain, so people at the local level are often unaware of what is happening at the macro level.

When a need is identified at the local level, a request for support needs to go up the chain before it can be provided by the appropriate level. I saw this first person during Hurricane Ike in Galveston, where the city EOC needed a generator from FEMA and there were dozens of them sitting in a nearby parking lot. The head of the EOC asked the FEMA person in charge for one of their generators, but the answer he got back is that the request had to go through the correct channel. Here was a great opportunity to provide direct assistance (and there were plenty of generators) down at the person-to-person on ground zero, but bureaucracy got in the way.

It is also important to remember that the government is also not the only responder on the ground. They are actually outnumbered in most disasters by staff and volunteers from non-profit organizations, such as Red Cross, Save the Children and Worldvision. In addition a large number of faith and community based organizations get active and provide assistance to those affected. Some of these organizations model their response on the same administrative boundaries as the governments (i.e. Red Cross chapters for cities and/or counties), while others work across these administrative boundaries, providing response where there is a need.

It is also important to remember that although I am using Hurricane Sandy and the US national response framework as an example above, then the same holds true around the world. The names of the responders may be different and the administrative levels may be different, but the chaos and the lack of effective response can also be found in every major disaster around the world. In fact when disasters become too big for the national response system to cope, that is when the international community arrives, often resulting in even more chaos.

At the same time we have seen how through an explosion in mobile phone ownership and through social media and networks, people affected by these major disasters are not only communicating their needs but also leveraging those same technologies to coordinate their own community response often independent of the official response channels. Although this community lead response at the moment may result in some duplication of efforts, it in most cases ends up meeting the gaps the official response leaves. This community based response also starts immediately after the disaster, way before the first responders arrive.

What is also great about these community based responses is the fact that they do an amazing job in creating a feeling of togetherness in these communities. Helping your neighbor is a concept that most religions have taught and the fact is that it is one of the best ways to build resiliency in communities at risk. Through mobile phones and technologies, these communities can now better organize their efforts and achieve even more impact than ever before. 

What is even more amazing is that through the Internet, concerned citizens around the world can help participate in these community based responses, by lending a helping hand in gathering, processing and sharing information. Often these distributed "digital volunteer" efforts spring up, when they see people affected directly by the disaster call out for information through social media, but we are also seeing more and more connections being established between the formal governmental responders and digital volunteer groups, because the formal responders have realized that those massive crowds of digital volunteers can be tasked with tasks that earlier were impossible to do because of the effort required to complete them. A great example of this is the areal damage assessment that FEMA in collaboration with Civil Air Patrol started immediately after Hurricane Sandy passed over. Over a hundred thousand areal images are being assessed for damage by thousands of volunteers sitting at their computer around the world, all organized by the Humanitarian Open Street Map team.

The underlying need that all of these responders, whether they are international, governmental, non-profit or community based have is a need for good information. There is a need for information about the situation at hand, the needs of the affected population, the response being planned and given and information about resources available. All of this information is then leveraged by the responders and communities affected to make decisions on their next steps. When the appropriate information is not available or accessible, then efforts may end up being duplicated and there may gaps in the overall response. Furthermore lack of access to the right information also often delays the appropriate response from being provided. 

At the same time, responders at various levels often get criticized for their work, which in most cases is being provided at a best effort basis. Response to and recovery from disasters is costly and often there is criticism in how the funds raised are utilized. Over the past decade this criticism has been met by putting strict accountability practices in place, sometimes so strong that more effort is being spent on tracking and documenting efforts than actually providing them.

The key to addressing many of the issues raised above is openness. If response organizations at all levels would start openly sharing the information they are gathering or producing and would share it publicly in ways that other organizations could consume and utilize it, then replication of efforts would be minimized and gaps in the response could quickly be identified and dealt with. What is even more important is that through openness we also achieve transparency, which leads to less effort being required to produce all of the accountability reports we currently have to hand in.

What is even more important is that when a response organization only has a limited visibility to the situation at hand (like state of the communication systems in the affected areas), they can bring in other organizations and digital volunteer groups to help them supplement the information they have through crowdsourcing and analysis. An example of this is that today the various private sector communication providers are mandated to provide FEMA with information about the state of their communication towers (how many are operating and where). Yet this information is not complete and what is even worse, it is not publicly shared, which means that response organizations and citizens who want to get to the nearest operating mobile area or want to know where to get online do not have any place to discover that. As digital volunteer groups discover the need for this information, they start collecting it and sharing with the public, but since they don't have access to the data from FEMA then their efforts are also not complete.

Imagine what would happen if everyone was sharing this kind of information openly with each other. The mobile phone companies sharing information openly to everyone about the current state of their network (this happened a few days in for some of the operators in Japan back in March 2011). The federal government sharing the overall situation from all the different operators. Then the digital volunteer groups and citizens augmenting that data with information from the ground. Instead of a fractured, incomplete and siloed overview of the state of communications, a compressive and valuable overview would be available to everyone.

Communication is not unique in this aspect. All of the basic needs that pop up after a disaster would benefit from openly sharing information. Where is water available and where is it going to be delivered. Where is shelter available and where are people requiring a roof over their head.  Instead of tens or hundreds of silos of information capturing these, then a comprehensive overview can be created, one that is accessible both to the response organizations and the communities involved.

But why isn't information being shared openly already? A lot of it has to do with the shift in culture that we are experiencing all around us. As we move from the industrial age ways of doing things to the information age way of doing things, then there is resistance to change from what worked in the past. But as younger generations who have grown up within this digital culture of openness start becoming the majority of our workforce then we will see that shift happen more quickly. But we cannot afford to wait for that generation shift to occur, because lives are at stake.

We at NetHope in collaboration with a number of organizations and individuals have been advocating for a focus on increased openness in the humanitarian world. Although many organization we have talked with have been very positive, we have also experience this resistance to change, especially when it comes to willingness to fund efforts to improve disaster response through open information sharing. 

We feel that Sandy has taught us lessons that we cannot ignore. It has taught us that communities are the key to more effective response and it has also taught us that mobile technology, social media and social networks are a crucial infrastructure for making the overall response more effective. Furthermore it has taught us that there are many issues still to figure out, such as how to coordinate this networked matrix effort of communities, digital volunteers and formal responders. These are all issues we know we can tackle, but in order to do that we need to work together and we need to ensure that the funding is in place to make that collaboration happen.

There is a lot of work to be done, but that work is not impossible if we work together. So if you are still reading and agree that through openness and better collaboration we can together co-create the response community of the information age, then I have a call to action for you:
  • If you are a first responder, NGO worker or work for one of the international response organizations then help us to advocate about this effort of openness within your own organization. Furthermore you can join our pool of subject matter experts willing to help drive change in this space. You can send us an email OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG and we will add you to our Subject Matter Expert pool
  • If you are a response organization (community, non-profit, local government, national government or international organization) and want to join our effort in enabling openness then shoot us an email at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG - collaboratively we can best help each other drive openness into our work
  • If you are a donor (private, foundation or government) that believes in openness and transparency and feel there is room for improvement, both domestically and internationally then shoot us an email at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you are a high-flying entrepreneur or corporate executive that want to spend a couple of hours a month/quarter providing us with access to your smart brain to crack some complex problems, then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG to learn more about our Advisory Fellows program
  • If you are an academic institution or a researcher who want to help us drive openness in the disaster response space and help us solve some of the challenges we face then also contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you are a developer, software architect, database guru, designer, tester or software project manager, then sign up to be part of The Humanitarian Toolbox, a "volunteer army" of software experts willing to donate part of their expertise and time to help solve the the technology issues that arise in enabling this open response community and help us develop the solutions required to support this community based response
  • If you are a private sector company that has resources or expertise that you believe might help in this important effort then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you don't fit into any of the categories mentioned above but want to put your effort into helping us make this a reality, then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG

Together we can ensure that Sandy leaves a legacy of change in the disaster response space. Change that lead to great improvement in effectiveness of response and in building more resilient communities. Change that leads to openness and transparency while at the same time saving lives. Together we can be the change we want to see in this world and ensure that we all together leave a footprint of progress on this world.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Introducing the Humanitarian Toolbox

Today we at NetHope, CrisisCommons and GeeksWithoutBounds are proud to announce, in partnership with Microsoft and DotNetRocks the launch of the Humanitarian Toolbox. The Humanitarian Toolbox is an initiative intended to help bring the expertise and good will of the software development community to the humanitarian world. Ever since the devastating images of the East Asia Tsunami in 2004, have developers around the world helped humanitarian organizations address some of the most complex problems through the power of technology. 

Over the past few years, this effort has culminated in the organization of hackathons and code camps that focus on working on problem statements defined by humanitarian organizations. Those of us from the humanitarian community have seen the potential these efforts hold, but sadly often these efforts have not been sustainable and little happens in-between the hackathon weekends.  One of the main reasons for this has been a lack of infrastructure to coordinate these efforts, which often are distributed around the world.

This is the reason we have teamed up with Microsoft, which has generously offered their Team Foundation Services as the infrastructure backbone for the Humanitarian Toolbox. By being able to break the problem statements into individual chunks of work and to clearly define each of them through storyboards, larger problems can now be addressed by this volunteer community of software developers. By having an infrastructure that also enables distributed software development also means that people can continue to work on problems even after they participate in a hackathon.

We are therefore reaching out to the broad software development community, looking for developers, designers, testers, database administrators, project managers, scrum masters and UX masters who want to give some of their time to share their expertise in software development to create solutions that will help save lives and reduce suffering. It is your chance to leave a footprint on this earth and a legacy of good. 

We from the humanitarian community are very excited to bring some of our complex problems and get you to help us solve them leveraging your valuable software development expertise. Visit our website, sign up to be notified when new problems get defined, follow us on Twitter and help us bring the humanitarian community into the information age.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Need for Increased Collaboration

The world we live in is certainly not a perfect place. There are a number of things that need to be done to improve it. Sometimes governments set out on improving it, sometimes non-profit organizations set out on improving it and sometimes concerned citizens set out on improving it. Each of these stakeholders has their own vision of the problem at hand and ideas about how to solve them. That vision is very much dependent upon their own vision of life and what they feel confident in doing.

Lets take an example to clarify things. For anyone who has visited the slums of Africa, you are touched by the hard life of people living in dire poverty, lack access to clean water, education, shelter and livelihood. Yet you also see a magnitude of organizations trying to help. Even the government has their own programs trying to address some parts of the problem. You will see an organization focusing on educating the children. You will see another organization focusing on providing healthcare services. You will see yet another organization focusing on creating sustainable livelihood opportunities. Each one of those organizations provides a small piece in a big puzzle, which is to improve the life of slum dwellers.

We see the same things happen when a disaster strikes. A number of agencies and organizations respond, each providing their expertise and services to address the needs of those affected. Thankfully in the last few years, we have seen increased coordination within each sector (cluster), so that duplication of efforts have gone down (water is not being provided twice in one place and then not in another). Yet even during semi-coordinated efforts such as humanitarian response, the pieces of the puzzle are still too many and little success has been in achieving a more coherent big picture (inter-cluster coordination).

The problem with both of these examples is that we as individuals and organizations tend to focus on what we are good at and forget to think about the big picture. In order to really make a difference in the life of a slum dweller, we need to address all of the issues at hand, access to water, access to education, access to sanitation, access to shelter and access to improved livelihood. If we are only providing parts of the overall puzzle then we end up having incomplete ability to make significant impact to those people's life. Same is true during disaster response. If all we provide is water and shelter and don't ensure the other sectors are being addressed for the people we are providing water and shelter, then we end up having incomplete impact on the lives of those affected by the disasters.

Some organizations have addressed this issue by "adopting" a village or area and start providing all the different services to the people in that area. The problem with that approach is that you end up providing more of a generalist approach, rather than the expert approach required to address each sector in more comprehensive manner. In other words the overall impact you achieve is not as strong as if you had expert organizations working together to help that same village or area.

Our approach to coordination needs to change. While we have become somewhat good at coordinating within a cluster, then we are still at the beginning stages of inter-cluster coordination. I firmly believe that the reason for us still being so bad at inter-cluster coordination is that we are trying to do it at the cluster leads level, instead of splitting the affected areas down into geographical segments and introducing cross-cluster coordination at those levels.

Lets take a concrete example from Haiti. It was great to have a country wide "Health cluster" and a "Shelter cluster", etc. in order to ensure coverage, standardization, joint needs assessment, etc. But when it came to coordinating things, then the affected area should have been split up into geographical areas, where inter-cluster coordination should have been happening. An example of this would have been setting up a coordination cell in Petionville where the inter-cluster coordination would have taken place. If nobody in that coordination cell would have been providing health services, then the country-wide health cluster could have been notified to ensure an organization providing health services could be involved in the overall efforts in Petionville.

This model also holds true for non-emergency settings, where development work is being done. Within the slums, you can division them down into geographical areas. Within each geographical area you create coordination cells, where the organizations providing services ensure that they are coordinating efforts within that geographical area and collaborating on making significant impact to those living in that area.

Another advantage of this approach is that the coordination cell is now a place for the communities within that geographical area to get involved and active in the effort. When you try to get people involved at a "country level" or even at a city level then you very often don't get the right local people involved. It is therefore important to ensure that the geographical areas are not too big, so people in the community can easily participate.

But why isn't this kind of collaboration not happening more often? There are a number of reasons, but I want to address two of them.

One reason is the capacity of organizations to participate in coordination activities. We have already put a lot of coordination "burden" on organizations to participate in the cluster system. A common complaint that I hear from my humanitarian colleagues in the field is that the value they receive out of participation in the clusters is very limited. Too much time is spent in cluster meetings to share information that could have been shared more effectively through other means and too little time is spent on actual coordination and strategic planning. First of all we need to drive initiatives that enable better information sharing. We also need to change the role of the clusters to be more about strategic coordination and standards setting, rather than as information sharing platforms. By moving lot of the operational coordination to the geo-specific cross-cluster coordination cells, we can enable this.

Second reason is one of recognition and fear of collaboration. Humanitarian and development organizations are funded through donors and it is important for them to be recognized for the work they are doing in the field. Sadly this importance that is put on recognition by the donors is influencing their ability to collaborate. It is almost like they fear that saying "this was a jointly done by Red Cross and Save the Children" is going to be negative towards the donors. Organizations seem to think that the donors will look at a statement like this and say "oh my gosh…they had to collaborate with someone else…because they were not able to do everything by themselves". The truth is that most donors that I know actually are very glad to see collaboration happen. We at NetHope have been especially beneficial of this, because donors see that by getting multiple organizations to collaborate together they can make more significant impact in the area they are funding.

True leaders understand the power of collaboration. We need the leaders in the humanitarian and development space to start advocating for increased collaboration. We need the donors to encourage it by focusing their funding on collaborative efforts. But first and foremost we need the humanitarian and development workers in the field to show their leadership that in the field real collaboration can happen. Next time you go to a disaster area, make an effort to meet others working in the area you are working and establish a collaborative forum for you to coordinate things. Even if that collaborative forum takes place at the campfire in the humanitarian camp that has been set up. Break down the silos that exist between the different organizations and seek ways to make a more significant impact together. You don't need to be the leader of your organization to show leadership qualities. All you need is the willingness to improve the world we live in.

Go out an collaborate!!!