Thursday, December 23, 2010

Outsourcing Crisis Information Management

When you ask those responding to a crisis what one of the key challenges they faced over 80% of them will mention information overflow as the main issue they faced. With improved connectivity this problem has just become more difficult to handle. In an email to OCHA staff one month after the earthquake, John Holmes, which at that time was the Emergency Response Coordinator of the UN pointed out that one of the key issues they faced was the lack of information about the situation.

This may sound like a paradox, that at the same time there is an overflow of information there is also a lack of information. But when you consider the issues the overflow causes it may become obvious why it is hard to generate any actionable information out of that tsunami of information.

The real issue we face is lack of trained information management experts in the field. Although the IASC issued a guidance about 2 years ago on information management within the cluster system, the truth of the matter is that very few of the clusters or response organizations have dedicated, well trained information management specialists. And those that have trained IM specialists may not be able to send them quickly to the location of the most recent disaster.

One of the questions we must therefore ask ourselves is whether we are trying to do too much in the field. Do the improvements in connectivity allow us to move some of the tasks from the field and into other locations that have better connectivity and more resources?

I want to give you a simple example of outsourcing this crisis information management that we in the ICE-SAR team used during our mission to Haiti last January. Late in the evening of day 4 of our mission we found out that early the next morning we would be travelling to the city of Leogane which at that time had not received any assistance. Instead of spending the next few hours, sitting in a tent at the airport in Port-au-Prince with limited connectivity, we contacted the ICE-SAR home support team in Iceland, that was staffed 24/7 with experienced search managers. We asked them to create maps for us and collect all the information they could about Leogane.

When we woke up at 4:30 am the following morning after a couple of hours of precious sleep, we had a PDF document waiting for us in our email inbox. The document contained detailed maps of Leogane, lists of all the major buildings (along with coordinates), contact information about the city council, police, etc. The home support team, sitting in the offices of ICE-SAR back in Iceland had been able to scour the Internet for information, study Google Earth imagery and create this “guide to Leogane” for us. Something that would not only have taken us much longer, but would also have been very expensive for us (remember that 1 Mb of data on a BGAN connection is $6 USD).

We need to take a serious look at the information gather, processing and dissemination efforts we are currently doing in the field and figure out ways to outsource them, either to people in our own organizations sitting in head-quarters or regional offices or “crowdsource/outsource” it to volunteer technology groups that we help train specifically to handle these kind of tasks.

Crisis Leaders without titles

One of the best books I read this year was The Leader Without a Title by Robin Sharma who previously has authored great books like The Monk who sold his Ferrari and The Greatness Guide. In The Leader Without a Title, Robin points out that you don’t need to have a particular title to show leadership.

Leadership is in big demand when crisis hits and often we look towards those with titles to show us that leadership. But unfortunately not everyone has the leadership qualities needed to help us get through crisis. They may have risen up through the ranks in their organizations or political parties based on other reasons than necessarily their leadership qualities.

It is however often during crisis that we see the leaders without title rise up to the occasion and do amazing things. Those are the people we often label as heroes. They don’t give up when the face difficulties. They think outside of the box. They get others to help them achieve a common goal. They are willing to learn new things rapidly to reach a target. They are passionate about their work.

I am lucky to know many such people that I have met through my work in crisis response. They are my role models when it comes to doing good. They are the people everyone wants to work with.

It is sometimes strange that as people’s titles become more important their ability to show leadership becomes less apparent. I remember during one of my first international disaster response missions, where we coordinating a joint assessment of a large flood area with the government. I had been put in charge of coordinating the assessment on behalf of the humanitarian community and I walked over to the person who had been put in charge of the entire disaster response by the government. I introduced myself and was about to provide him with information about what the humanitarian community wanted to do, but before I could he abruptly said to me “I will not talk to you. I only talk to your team leader”. Unfortunately this attitude was just a preview of his tone for the cooperation with the international community for the entire mission.

In the humanitarian world, the real heroes are the humanitarian field workers, especially the local staff. These are the people who go out amongst the affected community and give their all to help those in need. And they bend rules and they find innovative ways to do things. They also collaborate with other organizations even though at the “leadership level” in those organizations there is competition.

In an earthquake response last year in Padang, Indonesia I was fortunate enough to work with some real leaders. If you looked at their title or their pay grade you would have thought they were “nobodies”. But the truth of the matter was that these two women were leading the collaboration between the government and the international community. Without them we would not have been able to provide assistance to the government of the affected country in the manner we did. It was such a pleasure to work with them in what is considered one of the better organized humanitarian response missions of the last decade.

What we need are more people like them, not only during crisis, but in their daily job that are willing to rise to the challenge and drive leadership on a daily basis in everything they do – just think of what we could achieve!!!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Occasionally Connected Clouds

At the NetHope Summit I got the pleasure of meeting one of Intel’s visionaries, Chris Thomas who is their Chief Strategists. He gave an inspiring talk and one of the topics he discussed at lengths was what he called Occasionally Connected Clouds. Throughout the week I had the opportunity to speak with him further on this concept and it was fun to explore this concept even further with him.

First of all I liked his definition of what is cloud computing. Pretty much all the different technologies we have been developing over the last few years (virtualization, social media, etc.) have been grouped together under this term cloud computing. That’s great because that means we all are experts in cloud computing already…

What cloud computing brings us is a transitional shift where we stop “building and maintaining” and start “buying and using”. This in turn means that the technology buying decisions move from the IT departments to the users. By not having to build the solutions within your organization your entry level costs are also much lower.

But we have all heard these and other reasons for moving into a cloud based architecture. But what about when most of your operations are outside of the well connected, always on first world we live in here in the Northern Hemisphere?

According to Chris’ estimate over 80% of the applications built in the last 15 years don’t work with the latency you experience on connections in the developing world. While those of us in the 1st world have moved most of our applications to the web, these solutions are often hardly usable in the developing world.

Part of the problem according to Chris is that developers and researchers keep getting faster and faster connections and more powerful computers so they end up developing solutions that don’t work in the real world.

That is where occasionally connected architectures come in. In occasionally connected architectures you design your solutions in such a way that you can still do your work even when you are not connected to the Internet. When you do get connection you synchronize back any changes you made and get back any changes made by others.

Many of us are already using solutions that follow this architecture principle. If you are like me and use Microsoft Outlook as your email client then you are already using an occasionally connected solution. Outlook caches the contents of your email folders on your laptop. You can still read your email, reply to email and delete email even though you are not connected (I very often use long flights to clean up my inbox). When you do get connected those changes get synchronized back to the server and you get the new mail that you have been sent.

Another Microsoft Office product, formerly known as Groove was also designed around this principle, but it added the peer-to-peer synchronization amongst clients connected to a local network into the mix. This was one of the reasons it became a popular solutions amongst the humanitarian community.

The key to creating solutions that work in this manner is to create these local caches of the information. While the main repository of information sits in the cloud (or in a private data center) the client contains a cache. In an optimal solution you should be able to synchronize the cache via Internet downloads, memory sticks or other media.

The concept of occasionally connected cloud solutions is gaining ground, especially with the growth of Smartphones. Many of the applications you see today running on iPhones, Androids or Windows Phones are built around this occasionally connected cloud model.

The back-end solution is a cloud based solution that often also has a web-based interface for those sitting at their laptops in a well connected environment. But for the mobile client they can’t expect to always have connectivity, so data is cached on the client and occasionally synchronized with the back-end cloud.

We in the humanitarian world will reap the benefits of more developers understanding the occasionally connected environments. This means that some of the enterprise based solutions we haven’t been able to utilize in the field, might get occasionally connected clients in the future. Clients that will work, even where there is not constant gigabit internet available and endless amounts of low cost electricity.

In a future post I will discuss how we can take this occasionally connected cloud model and help build the humanitarian cloud.

My new role

“There comes a time in every person’s life that their focus shifts
from success to significance” 
– Ed Granger-Happ, CIO IFRC/Chairman NetHope

Some of you might have noticed that I have been rather quiet on the blogging front for the last month and a half. One of the key reasons was that I have taken on a new role and that has taken a large portion of my time.

This summer Microsoft decided to cut my Disaster Management Advisor position that I had been doing for the last 3 years. The cut was not part of any strategy by Microsoft to move out of disaster related work, but rather a part of a larger reorganization within Microsoft, where a number of headcounts needed to be found for people selling the new cloud strategy. Luckily for me they treated me nicely so I had a good time to look around for the dream job.

In my last post I talked about going to the NetHope Member summit. I had been working on a project for them since September focused on emergency preparedness. That project was a preview of what my new role is all about.

In late October I agreed to take on the role of Global Program Director for Emergency Preparedness and Response at NetHope or in short be their Emergency Response Director. When they offered me this role it was easy for me to say yes, because this role allows me to continue bringing together my two passions in life technology and disasters.

NetHope is one of the organizations I have admired since I originally learned about it. Through it the CIOs of 32 of the leading NGOs in the world find ways to collaborate on things related to information and communication technology (ICT). The atmosphere within NetHope is one of collaboration and innovation, something I have not seen too much of inside the UN.

I am looking forward to working within this great community and to hopefully continue make a difference in the way technology is being applied to respond to and prepare for crisis worldwide.

As part of my new role I will be relocating from Iceland to Geneva, Switzerland in early 2011, so expect to start seeing me add a few sprinkles of French to my blog posts…

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Attending NetHope Member Summit in Silicon Valley this week

This week I am visiting Silicon Valley for the first time. The reason behind my visit is that NetHope is holding its Member Summit here this week. For the last 6 weeks I have had the opportunity to work on an emergency preparedness project with this amazing organization. Ten years ago the IT directors of some of the largest NGOs came together to form NetHope. The purpose was to increase collaboration in the area of ICT. Now ten years later it has repeatedly proven its importance, most recently by providing shared internet connectivity to NGOs operating in Haiti following the devestating earthquake in January. Instead of every organization going in with its own connectivity solution a combined team from NetHope and its partner Inveneo quickly deployed to Haiti. There they made use of off the shelve components to put in place a point-to-point WiFi based network that covered the Port-au-Prince area and provided over 20 NGOs with connectivity. This level of collaboration is something that is unfortunately not too common in the humantiarian community.

As mentioned earlier then I have been working on an emergency preparedness project, looking at opportunities to build ICT capacity within the NetHope member organizations before disasters strike. This has been very interesting for me since I have had the opportunity to interact with both the IT and Emergency Response departs of some of the largest humanitarian NGOs. It has given me an insight into some of the key issues they face during emergency response and it has generated some ideas of how we can move forward in this space.

During the course of the project we identified 4 areas we want to focus on moving forward. These are emergency communications, emergency ICT capacity building, crisis information management and innovation in emergency ICT. I look forward to having some interesting discussions during the NetHope summit about these areas and will of course try to share some of those here on this blog.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Iceland’s Orange Facebook “Revolution”

There is a lot of discussions these days on Malcom Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker on the role of social media in civic activism. In it he points out that many of the cases mentioned in the press around the use of Twitter are not as accurate as people would think. An example of this is the uprising in Iran back in 2009 which often emphasized the use of Twitter by the protesters. He points out that in fact is that most of the Twitter users were Iranians in the West who were communicating about what they heard was happening.

But I wanted to provide a case from the Icelandic Financial Crash in October 2008 that utilized Facebook as a medium to change a revolution that was happening. As mentioned in a previous post, then Iceland went more deeply through the financial crisis than most countries and after little action on behalf of the government protests broke out and were growing every day. What was even worse was that the protests were growing more and more violent as time passed. A rather small group of protesters was vandalizing property and attacking the police.

But one person thought of a way to counter this violence which was hitting a boiling point. He was someone who had many friends (1000+) in his social network on Facebook and he suggested to them that everyone who wanted to have the protests be peaceful should wear orange the following day. He also suggested people changed their profile picture to orange if they supported this initiative.

Immediately people picked up on this and before the sun rose the following morning over 10000 people had signed up for this orange “revolution”. That day people showed up wearing orange and took their position between those that did not wear orange and the police, stopping any kind of violence from happening.

Needless to say protests very quickly changed from the violence they had been in the preceding days and weeks to more peaceful protests where instead of beating the police people started beating pots and pans (and the revolution got the nickname “Pots and Pans revolution”.

This shows how you can quickly change the path of a revolution from a violent one to a peaceful one through the power of social media. Now did that happen this way in Iceland because the majority of the country is addicted to Facebook or could this also happen in other western countries?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Keys to Crisis Management - Expectation Setting

This is a first blog post in a series of posts about key skills that crisis managers need to have in order to successfully manage crisis.

Two years ago to the date, the prime minister of Iceland made a television address to the country, telling everyone that Iceland was about to go through a very difficult financial crisis that would have severe consequences. He ended the address with “God Bless Iceland”, a sentence that set the stage for people’s mood for the coming weeks.

The whole nation was in shock, but very few understood how serious the situation really was. Not only were all of the banks in Iceland doomed to end in bankruptcy, but the central bank had also run out of all foreign currency and it’s gold deposits were kept in England which was putting Icelandic banks on the terrorist watch list in order to freeze their accounts.

If it hadn’t been for personal contacts with JP Morgan bank, through which currency trades could be made, the country would have been closed to all foreign currency transactions and basically not be able to import food, fuel and medicine to name a few.

For the country which had experienced the highest standard of living in the world, this was a terrible setback. That high standard of living had been made possible through loans that people could not afford to pay back. Everyone was living in the dream-state that there would always be a solution to pay things when the loans were due. This was true both in the business world as well as for families.

With the initial television address people’s expectations had been reset. In many ways it was a cold gush of water thrown in their face. The next few weeks everyone watched as each bank tumbled and the currency was halved in value. Politicians were helpless and didn’t know what to say to people other than “there is a crisis”.

People became restless and demanded change. They took to the streets and protested. And after a while the politicians listened and we had elections. Those parties that were in power lost seats while those that were in opposition got more seats than they had before – why did they get those seats – because people expected that they would run things differently.

But now two years later, how did it all go? The banks were resurrected with help from the government and although many companies have gone bankrupt, then many of the large companies have been taken over by the banks. Those companies are kept alive while they are be “restructured”.

Many people have lost their homes, but a much higher number has been kept on “life-support” by lowering their monthly payments while extending their debt way beyond the original loan periods. This holds true for both car loans and mortgages.

But where the government really failed was in expectation setting. By dragging their feet to face the consequences of the bad loans and the beyond capacity lifestyle they have gotten people to believe that they would get through this without loosing their houses or cars. They made people believe that they would need to cut down their spending on luxury items for a few years, but after that everything would be fine.

At the same time the legal system, after almost a 18 month process, ordered that large portion of car loans in Iceland were actually illegal. They had been tied to foreign currency rates, but that practice was illegal by law. After judging the loans were illegal people were left in a vacuum all summer long while the decision what interest rate to use to recalculate the loans went again through the legal system. During this whole period people were given the hope that actually they might not owe very much in their expensive cars that they couldn’t afford in the first place to buy and maybe they might be able to keep them.

In the meantime the government has not done much to address the needs of those who are going to loose their housing. Their message has always been that they will “help the families”, but always pushed any action towards the banks. And if asked what was being done they always said the banks were offering many options. The truth of the matter was that the banks were actually only assisting a very small portion.

So what can we learn from all of this?

The main lesson is that when your ability to deal with the situation is limited then you have to set expectations low. You have to brace people for the inevitable and help them get through those times in as good way as possible. Yet you have to make them understand that they will not have the same kind of life as before.

If you however set their expectations too high and tell them that everything will be alright then you are bound to fail. A golden rule is to set expectations low and then deliver more. That way you keep people satisfied with what you are doing – because even if we wanted to then we can’t perform miracles.

But this is something politicians have a hard time doing, because it is seldom good for votes to tell the truth and explain to people what has really happened and what they are really going to face. Instead it is much better to make promises that underneath you don’t know if you can keep, but at least you have 4 years to try and people are good at forgetting what you said 4 years earlier.

This is something that many crisis managers however understand and after a disaster strike they very often warn people that things might get worse than they actually will get. “We might get strong aftershocks”, “The flooding might get worse before it gets better” are sentences you will hear from crisis managers while “we hope the worst is over” and “we will get you back home as soon as possible” are sentences the politicians will be saying.

So if you are ever faced with making public statements during or following a crisis, make sure you set expectations low. If things get better than you expect then you can always claim that it was due to the good work of your people. If however you set expectations high your job is on the line – just like the current government in Iceland is feeling the heat (literally as protesters light fires outside the parliament).

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Virtual Crisis Crowd Coordination Center

When disaster strikes there is an immediate flood of people who want to help out in any way they can. At the same time you have various tasks that need to be done that these people might be able to assist with. In the past there have been systems that focus on matching requests for supplies and those that can donate these. But what I am referring to is the ability to match and coordinate people who want to use their free time at the computer to work on tasks such as geo-tagging, data cleaning, data processing, data analysis, etc.

In this blog post I will describe what I think should be the functionality of such a virtual crisis crowd coordination center.

First of all you need to have a place to register their interest in helping out. In this registry they should denote what skills they have and also potentially what time they can provide help at (distributing tasks across time zones can often do magic). This kind of registry should be built on top of an already existing system like Facebook or LinkedIn so that people don’t need to register all their basic information again, but rather just things specific to crisis support.

Then there needs to be a place for organizations (both formal and crowd based ones) to register information about themselves into the system. Registering an organization provides them with an ability to create requests and to send those to the appropriate groups of crowd volunteers based on attributes they define.

Third thing you need is a form of a ticketing system that allows you to create tasks that require volunteers and then the ability for volunteers to sign up for those tasks and perform them. It should be possible to assign tasks to multiple individuals at the same time and then possibly even compare the results from each afterwards.

To provide a sense of quality control and also some “competition” then you could integrate some kind of rating/reward system into this coordination center. Those that finish tasks get “badges” for the work done and can achieve higher levels of status depending on how much work they do. Those requesting work to be done can also rate the work of people and thereby get quality control when they chose who to assign tasks to.

By building this kind of a coordination center you could ensure that there is a ready community to reach out to every time a crisis occurs instead of having to build it up again and again.

I am pretty sure most of the components for such a solution already exist and that it is just a question of putting the right pieces of the puzzle together. Of course this would have to be a scalable cloud-based solution so that it could handle the massive outpour of volunteers we could get this way Smile

If you want to work on making such a coordination center a reality comment below…

The Case for a Crisis Information Fund

“Noise becomes data when it has a cognitive pattern; data becomes information when its assembled into a coherent whole which can be related to other information; information becomes knowledge when its integrated with other information in a form that is useful for making decisions and determining actions; knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner useful in anticipating, judging and acting; understanding becomes wisdom when its informed by purpose, ethics, principals, memory and projection” 

– Dee Hock - 1996

The former CEO of Visa Dee Hock fully understood the importance of information in making decisions and determining the appropriate action to perform in the business world. This is even more important when managing crisis because decisions you make can mean the difference between life or death.

The response organizations like UN, Red Cross and the NGOs know that by investing in information management they can improve and make their work on the ground more targeted and thereby eliminate duplication and avoid gaps. At the same time they are faced with the reality that information is currently stuck in silos that don’t span organizations. Investments in technologies to improve this are hard because ICT is seen as operational costs and the donor community has been on a crusade to lower overhead.

At the other end of the spectrum you have the private sector, especially technology companies which firmly believe that technology can play a role in making business processes more efficient and lower the cost of achieving the goals they go after. We need to leverage the power of technology and get it to help us improve crisis information management.

But how do we get there if funding is stopping us from investing in this space? In my mind, an I know I am not alone, we need to have a renewed focused on this crucial aspect of crisis management and it does take a change in mindset from the donor community but also from the humanitarian community itself.

We in the humanitarian community need to be willing to break down those barriers and stop competing when it comes to information. We need to collaborate more and make the information we gather public to each other.

If we do this we can also start leveraging the passionate crowd of people out there that are willing to help us in collecting, processing, analyzing and disseminating the information we gather.

Today donors are mainly focusing on individual information management improvement projects instead of pushing for these collaborative, shared and open approaches.

What if we had the International Crisis Information Fund, supported by not only some of the usual suspects like USAID, DFID, SIDA, CIDA, World Bank, etc. but if we also got the tech sector and institutional funds to pitch into a single fund which focus it would be to improve crisis information availability, analysis and management?

A fund like that would focus on supporting projects that spanned multiple humanitarian actors, projects which pushed for opening up the access to data and sharing of that data. But it would not stop there, it would support grassroots efforts in creating, maintaining and supporting technological solutions that enabled the humanitarian actors to do their work more effectively. This kind of fund could also support the development of crisis information management training material and curriculum which would be freely shared among the humanitarian community. The fund might even consider becoming the core funding source for volunteer communities like MapAction which provide information capability into the field in times of crisis.

A fund like this might be a big dream and the air up at 36000 feet in the plane I am sitting while writing this might make me think strangely, but I have always believed in dreaming big and thinking outside the box.

I know an idea like this will face opposition from some of the traditional actors that will see this as something that might take away their current funding sources, but it is my firm believe that this would actually strengthen the work they are doing and increase the overall availability of funding in this space.

If you believe something like this could become a reality and want to help make it one, then send me a line and lets create a disruption in the way crisis information is funded.

A Crisis Information Repository in the cloud

Many years ago I was a program manager for a technology called Microsoft Repository. It was my first introduction to the world of metadata. Seeing how important it was to companies to create repositories of the enterprise data available within their company was key to enhancing business operations through technologies such as data warehouses and business intelligence.

When working in a crisis we however seem to create multiple repositories of crisis information in multiple platforms. What makes it even worse is that each organization creates their own repository for the data they gather. Some of these repositories are formal and collect all the different metadata about the crisis data, but others are simply file shares where data files get copied.

Attempts have been made in the past to create some repositories. This is especially true in the GIS world, where solutions have been created to store the various GIS products and collect the metadata about each product. But often these solutions have been run by individual organizations or have been restricted to just showing what data is available and not provide access to the data itself.

And the other thing that we really want to do is actually collect as much of the baseline data that we need before a disaster actually strikes.

The case of Haiti also teaches us that these datasets can not sit in the disaster affected countries themselves, because they may either get destroyed during the disaster or be hard to get to in the chaos following the disaster.

I would like to see us move towards a crisis information repository that lives in the cloud. The cost of storage in large scale data centers has gone drastically and that provides us with an opportunity to get economies of scale. By establishing a single collaborative Crisis Information Repository where everyone can contribute and retrieve data from then we can simplify the life of crisis information managers in the times of disasters by providing them with a single place to go to. Just like you have as a single source of open, available government data in the US we need a single place everyone can go to and retrieve data from. And when they create new data they can contribute to that same repository.

I don’t know what it takes to make this kind of effort a reality, but mainly I think it needs a mind shift in the organizations of wanting to share and collaborate in this way.

If you feel strongly about this lets work together and figure out a way to make this a reality.

We need to revive the StrongAngel model

A few years ago, under the great leadership of Eric Rasmussen the CEO of InSTEDD a set of exercises were run under the name StrongAngel. Those were a great success, but unfortunately with Eric’s move to InSTEDD they have not been repeated.

We all know that trying out new technology during an actual crisis situation is bound to fail and often creates more issues than it solves. We however lack a place to try these things out under a simulated environment.

What made StrongAngel unique was the fact that it brought together the various actors in the humanitarian community and the technology sector. But it also imposed one important rule on those involved. That was to COLLABORATE and NOT compete during the event. This meant for example teams from Microsoft and Google were sitting next to each other and figuring out how to utilize the best of breed technologies from each vendor to solve TOGETHER a problem faced by the humanitarian community.

I firmly believe we need to revive these kind of exercises, but not only bring together the humanitarian community but also the grassroots volunteer community. We need to create an environment where the humanitarians can express their needs, the technology sector can provide its solutions and technological expertise and merge that with the passion of the volunteer crowd.

One of the best formats I have seen for this was during a conference I attended in my own home country of Iceland. It actually combined a conference and exercise and a discussion into one single event.

What we need is a long weekend (Thursday-Monday) where we start out with a keynote explaining what we are trying to achieve and what the rules of the game are. At the end of the keynote you start the exercise with a simulated event occurring. To make that event even more realistic you get media students or media organizations to help you put together realistic reports of the situation.

Next step for the participants is to actually get themselves settled into a makeshift camp that you put up at the central location for the event. The humanitarians then start getting information and requests for assistance. We already have amongst my friends in the humanitarian community enough scripted simulation exercises that we don’t need to create a brand new disaster scenario.

Under the conditions that humanitarian organizations would normally work (little space, random weather, lack of electricity, lack of bandwidth) the volunteer groups and the technical sector need to establish ways to work together. At the same time the humanitarians are moving forward according to their normal operating procedures (establish coordination centers, setting up the cluster system, etc.).

The difference is that in this exercise each agency and cluster information focal point gets assigned a focal point that should gather needs from them and push those needs over to the technology and volunteer community. The information management focal points will be asked to try to do as little data collection, processing and analysis themselves as possible but rather try to outsource it to the community.

At set intervals (for example every 6 hours) you stop the exercise. You do a short overview of progress from the exercise directors and then you split the participants up into discussion groups that talk about what they have run into so far and what they could have done differently. You give them 60-90 minutes to discuss and capture these lessons. At the end of the break the exercise directors give the participants new instructions. These might be that some time has passed in the exercise timeline since the break was taken and that the situation has evolved in a particular aspect. The participants then go back out into the simulated environment and continue for the next 6 hours.

An exercise like this would run around the clock to emulate the conditions faced and experienced in the field. This means the organizations have to take into consideration how to split up work and make sure people are getting some rest, something often forgotten.

At the end the exercise period we would make sure to have plenty of time to present what has been achieved and discuss what could have gone better. Each individual organization participating would also be asked to provide feedback after the exercise on the lessons they learned during this period.

So the big question is what does it take to make this kind of an exercise into a reality. You need money, time and lot of passionate people. I firmly believe that if we can get together a great group of passionate people who want to make this happen then we can go after the funding both through the tech sector but also through the usual humanitarian donor community. They all want to see this kind of collaboration happen, especially if they can see collaboration happening across organizations and communities.

So if you want to see this happen reach out to me and we will put together the group that makes it happen.

See you all in a rainy field somewhere in the world trying out all the new technologies and working together towards more efficient crisis response!

A crisis grassroots efforts consortium

It was very interesting to attend the International Crisis Mappers Conference in Boston this weekend. It was especially great to see all the passion in the room, especially from the volunteer grassroots community, but also very important to see key players like UN, OCHA, World Bank, NATO send some key people there to get the conversation going between those two camps. I firmly believe that conferences like these are the key to breaking down the barriers between those two different communities.

As I said it was especially great to see the passion from the grassroots community. In many ways the Internet has broken down the barriers of like minded people to reach out as a group to offer assistance during times of crisis and actually be able to help out. I have in a previous post talked about the importance of establishing the correct interfaces between those two camps.

One thing that however does create a bit of concern for me is that those efforts are a bit scattered. Many of them are grouped around technological solutions (Sahana, Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, InSTEDD, etc.) or around a type of volunteer (CrisisCommon for developers, CrisisMappers for GIS people, etc.) and at various points during the conference you could here a bit of competition rise between them.

It is however when all those different organizations work together that they really achieve disruptive changes. A great example of this was the Project 4636 effort in Haiti. We however have to make sure efforts like that become repeatable and can be deployed immediately in the aftermath of a disaster (or even before a disaster occurs) instead of having to establish all the links during the chaos that we experience immediately after a disaster occurs.

Just over ten years ago the IT managers of the largest NGOs in the world established a consortium called NetHope. Today 32 of the largest NGOs in the world participate. What makes NetHope unique is that nobody forces those organizations to collaborate but if 5+ organizations are interested in collaborate around a specific project then it becomes a NetHope project and they go out together to get funding for it. Where as in many consortiums years are spent trying to get a consensus amongst all the members NetHope believes in smaller victories over shorter times.

I believe what we need in the volunteer grassroots crisis community is a consortium based on the same approach as NetHope did for ICT in NGOs. In other words a consortium to which the various technology/solution open source projects would be members of, but also the volunteer community groups like CrisisCommons, CrisisMappers, etc.

In this consortium everyone would be on equal footing. When the humanitarian community expresses needs for solutions or assistance, then the grassroots groups can decide whether to participate in each project or not.

At the same time a consortium like this would become and information sharing platform about what is being done around the world in utilizing open source and volunteer communities to improve the response to crisis and the quality of life for people in the developing world.

When projects that involve multiple organizations are formed these organizations could go out jointly to donors and thereby increase the likelyhood of receiving support for these projects. The NetHope model has shown that repeatable funding increases through the institutional ties that consortiums like this can establish much easier than individual groups can.

You could also see a consortium like this host a yearly simulation exercise/tech fair that would allow new technologies be experimented on in a simulated environment. The model that StrongAngel used but we have unfortunately seen repeated in the last few years. But more on that later…

Lets figure out what it would take to form this kind of a consortium and get all the actors involved!!

Individually we fail – united we stand!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Need for Inter-Galactic Travellers in Disasters

The title of this blog post is taken from an IGNITE talk that Akiko Harayma gave at the International Crisis Mappers Conference 2010 in Boston. In her talk she used the analogy of the humanitarian workers and the crowd-based volunteers being from two different planets speaking two different languages. She pointed out in a great way how we need to figure out ways to bridge that gap, through increased dialog between the two.

The truth is that what the humanitarian workers need during a disaster is not yet another source of information. We already have information overload in the field.  What we need is the ability to “outsource” some of the information management process to the volunteer based crisis information managers out there.

But in order to achieve this, we need to have people that can translate the needs from the humanitarian community into requirements that the crowds understand. Those of us who have done software development know that one of the trickiest things we face is actually understanding what the end user needs. The number of software projects that have attempted to improve efficiency and simplify life for end users, but have in fact created more work for them is staggering. A good colleague David Platt has written a book on the subject called Why Software Sucks.

The truth is that what you need is to be able to “translate” those needs into requirements that the the “techies” understand. The best way to do that is of course to bring those techies into the world of the end users. However in the case of disaster response, we definitely don’t need more people to arrive in the field.

What we need are people who know both worlds. People who are bi-lingual and can explain to the techies what the humanitarians really need. Preferably we need at least one of those in the field to help gather the needs and someone in the crowd-space that can help translate those. In worst case we should have someone in the crowd space who can help act as the interface/link between those two different planets.

I do see myself as an inter-galactic bi-lingual traveller, but I want to find others that can help us play that role during times of crisis. If you are one – send me a line so that we can make sure we play this important role together next time a disaster strikes.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Responding to Haiti Earthquake - The Technology Perspective

In this post I will discuss my mission to Haiti following the Haiti earthquake and the role technology played.


Last January I was the team leader of the Icelandic Urban Search and Rescue team (ICE-SAR) that deployed to Haiti following the devastating earthquake that struck the island on the afternoon of January 12th. Our team is made up of 35 volunteers that normally respond to various kinds of search and rescue missions in Iceland. Our team recently went through a classification process by the United Nations and that helped us is having everything well organized and exercised. This coupled with the speed of decision making within the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs meant that we were the first international urban search and rescue (USAR) team to arrive in Port-Au-Prince in the afternoon of January 13th.

The situation as we arrived was devastating and very few of us will ever forget the sights and sounds we witnessed those first days in Haiti. Thankfully we were able to rescue 3 live victims from a collapsed super-market within 24 hours of landing in Haiti. Images of the rescue were broadcast live on CNN and our team became a target for media outlets to call for updates.

In this post I want to focus on the aspect of how technology played a role in our operations in Haiti. One of the first things we did after we landed was to call back home to Iceland via satellite phone to let them know we had arrived safely in Port-Au-Prince. Our second phone call was to the UN office in Geneva which coordinates international USAR teams. We let them know that the airport was open and that other teams would be able to get landing permissions via the tower at the airport which was still semi-operational. Our next task was to get connected to the Internet via a satellite based internet system called BGAN. Through it we were able to update other USAR teams on the situation via a restricted web platform used by all the USAR teams worldwide.

The First 48 Hours

After we had set up base camp at the airport the rest of the team deployed into the city to perform search and rescue at a location called Caribbean Super-Market. At the base camp we were in constant contact with our headquarters back in Iceland and with UN in Geneva via our BGAN connection. As other teams arrived and the UN set up a coordination center (in our base camp), we were able to utilize the same technology to get maps of the area that could be used to plan the search operations.

Since our team working in the field was also equipped with a BGAN then they could retrieve information specific to their location as well as send and receive information to/from basecamp. This made all information processing much easier than relying simply on radio or satellite phone communications. They were also able to upload images of the first rescues that our headquarters then distributed to the media and our families and colleagues back home in Iceland.

The Importance of Maps

In the days that followed we were searching through areas of Port-Au-Prince and the coordination of that effort was made possible through the access to satellite imagery and maps that were downloaded through the BGANs. This was a stark difference from the earthquake in Bam, Iran in 2003 when everything was coordinated using a map of the town drawn up from a guidebook. A great NGO called MapAction deploys along with the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team that is responsible for the overall coordination of large disasters. The MapAction team consists of GIS experts that work daily on creating maps. When they deploy to disasters they are key to getting good reference and situational overview maps on the ground.


Having the ability to communicate easily back to headquarters also made it easier for us to do our job. On day 4 we were given the assignment to go to the town of Leogane which is approx. 30 km outside of Port-Au-Prince. It had been severely damaged by the earthquake since it was closer to the epicenter than the capitol. We were handed that assignment late in the evening and were given security clearance to go there early the following morning. Instead of staying awake the entire night retrieving information about the town and plan how to perform operations, we were able to hand over that work to our headquarters team. They had a great internet connection (compared to our 32kbps connection) and were all experienced search managers. When we woke up at 5am, we had a great information package waiting in our email inbox with maps, pictures of large building in the town and GPS locations of the schools and government offices. This remote planning of the search effort was made possible through the increased ability to connect to the Internet, even from disaster locations.

Hotel Montana

On our final day in Haiti, the team unanimously volunteered for a very difficult task, which was to go to Hotel Montana, a hotel and apartment complex where UN and NGO workers frequently stayed many of them along with their families. The hotel had already been searched for 10 days and likelihood of live finds was very low. Instead the team knew the main task would be body recovery. In the words of the squad leaders as they informed me of their decision to volunteer for this task, “we feel the humanitarian workers are our team members and we know our families would like to get closure”.

As the team went up to Hotel Montana from our base at the airport, I put a message on Twitter saying that I was proud of this decision of my team to take on this difficult task. A few minutes later I got a message via Facebook from a relative of a family member still missing in Hotel Montana. The message pointed me towards a Facebook group focusing on the efforts at Hotel Montana. I started posting information on the group page about our efforts there and answer questions from relatives in dire need of information. There was a media blackout at the site imposed by the UN peacekeeping team controlling the site. This meant relatives were not getting any information at all and many thought nothing was being done at the site. I could provide them with detailed information about the number of teams working on the site and give them insight into the progress being made. Relatives also sent me information about where their loved ones had been which I made sure to pass on to those coordinating the efforts at the site.

The team came back to camp around 2am after a very long and difficult day. At that time I was able to share with them some of the messages I had received from the relatives and it is needless to say that there was a very emotional atmosphere in the base camp. I was happy to find out later that rescue teams that came after us to Hotel Montana continued this practice of reporting back to the relatives.

Rebuilding Haiti

Haiti will never leave the minds of those who have responded there and when we meet we all admit our thoughts go back there every day. It is my hope that the current efforts to rebuild Haiti will receive the funding and support needed to help them get back on their feet.

Trusted Spaces

In this post I will discuss the need for closed collaboration groups for disaster coordination

During a disaster the sharing of information is crucial. A large portion of that information is and should be publically available to everyone. Certain information, such as information about individual beneficiaries should however receive the appropriate privacy handling such sensitive material is entitled to.
In my previous post I described how crowds can play an increasingly important role in the information management aspect of disaster response. In this post I want to focus on a particular aspect of information management which deals with how you can segment information down into areas. There can be multiple reasons why you would want to segment information down into areas.

One example is that a particular agency/organization may be responding to a crisis. It may want to have the ability to share its internal coordination information among the field workers and headquarter staff working on that particular disaster. Another example is when members of a particular humanitarian cluster (education, health, early recovery, nutrition, etc.) want to share information that is specific to that particular cluster, but might not be of interest to others. Thirdly you might want to share particular information between just two organization, for example UN and IFRC.

Dealing with crisis in conflict areas is probably the most complex case where information might need to be shared on a confidential basis. With increased involvement of military organizations in humanitarian operations, there are often cases where they would like to be able to share information with NGOs without at the same time making those NGOs targets because of their interaction with the military community.

The term trusted spaces has been used to describe what is common to these examples. Within a trusted space you can invite those individuals that should have access to the information in question. These trusted spaces can include only a few members or they can span hundreds. Information shared inside a trusted space should not be accessible to those not within the trusted space and due to the sensitivity of the information it can also be argued that the information should be encrypted when sent between those participating in a trusted space.

For trusted spaces to work well in the humanitarian field they must also fulfill a few more requirements. One is that members of the trusted space will not always be on-line. As I discussed in my previous post humanitarian field workers are occasionally connected. The trusted space must be able to deal with this occasional connectivity.

To make things even more complex – one needs to deal with the situation that happens when two individuals update the same part of information at the same time. Solutions such as record-locking and transactions (commonly used by databases) do not work as easily in the occasionally connected world. This requires trusted spaces to have to deal with information conflict resolution. In 95% of cases automated conflict resolution processes can be applied but in the remaining cases human interaction is required. That is why trusted spaces must include the capability for humans to communicate directly with each other to solve the conflict.

In the past there have been multiple approaches taken to address this concept. One of the most commonly used solution in the humanitarian field has been to use Microsoft Groove and its concept of workspaces. Others have used password protected web sites, sometimes built on technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint. While both have been used successfully one could argue that in both cases Big World solutions are being used to solve issues in the Small World (see definition of Small World-Big World in my last post) and when doing so there are often issues that come up, such as how to deal with the limited and expensive bandwidth in the Small World.

What is needed is a way to create and maintain trusted spaces using cloud technologies while at the same time allowing for the occasionally connected nature of small worlds. Anyone interested on creating this?


In this post I will discuss ways to streamline information management in crowded yet occassionally connected environments.


Crowdsourcing is rapidly becoming an important tool to use in disaster response as I described in my previous post. In that post I described how impromptu volunteer groups gathered to provide various forms of assistance to the people of Haiti. An interesting observation to that effort is that as CrisisCamps were held around the world, people inside each camp would divide themselves up into groups focusing on a particular project or task. At the same time people in camps in another city would be doing the same.

In order for the various groups in multiple camps to be able to coordinate their efforts, wikis, phone conferences, Skype chats and various other solutions were used to bring everyone together. In some cases solutions such as mechanical turks were used to divide the tasks at hand between those working on that particular project. In most cases volunteer project leaders were appointed who were made responsible for defining the process to be used and handing out the tasks.

Birds of a feather

“Birds of a feather flock together” is an old saying used to describe the fact that likeminded people will group themselves together. In social media today there are a number of ways in which people can group themselves together. Within Twitter users make use of hashtags to mark their message to be about a particular topic. Users interested in that topic can then create a search that shows all messages that contain that particular hashtag. Within FaceBook users have the ability to create groups and users can either self-subscribe to these groups or membership can be on an invitational basis only.

Twitter search lists and FaceBook groups however do not scale well. A group focusing on the rescue efforts in Hotel Montana in Haiti was receiving 100-200 messages per hour and to each message there were multiple responses, totally often in over 1000 messages to be sent during an hour.

In the same way Twitter search lists looking at a particular hashtag quickly become saturated, especially due to the high number of re-tweets. During the first few hours and days of the Chile earthquake there were easily over 1000 tweets per hour and it became very hard for a human to keep track of new information coming in.


An often used approach to dealing with this problem is the concept of curators. These are people who monitor a large number of sources and then post relevant information to their feed. People then create lists of the most active curators letting others know they are a good source of information. On a couple of occasions I have ended up on such lists. The problem with the curator approach is that it does not scale well. When I go to sleep or stop ignoring my family I stop posting. If you are lucky then you have a few good curators on a particular topic that span the globe in such a way that 24/7 information flow can be guaranteed.

The concept of Flocks

So how can we build upon those approaches that currently are being applied (curators, search lists, Facebook groups) to get better information sharing? What we need is a simple mechanism for expressing interest in a particular topic and the ability to share information about that topic to all of those interested. To mirror the saying used above those who are interested in a particular topic would join a flock. Once you join the flock you would have the ability to see the information already shared between the members of the flock. Once you have become a member of the flock you can start communicating with other members of the flock, either directly or to the entire flock. Information posted by those that are the most active (the curators) should be given priority over other information. It should also be possible to organize the information shared within the flock. As a member of a flock connects to it, they should be able to see what information has been provided since last time they were connected.

A solution like this could easily be built upon social media technologies that already exist. Twitter could be used to send and receive messages to/from a flock. A Twitter list could be used to coordinate the membership of the flock. A simple cloud based web site could be used to allow information management and visualization of that information.

Instead of constantly re-tweeting important/key information then one could envision a system through which users could tag important information as key information. This information would thereby get priority over other information.

The flocks could either be open or closed spaces where information would get collected. Their lifetime could be minutes/hours/days/months/years, all depending on what they were focusing on. By adding a bit of intelligence to the information being posted to a flock, automatic geo-tagging could be used to make the information visualized on a map. Automated translation tools might also help dealing with language issues.

Dealing with occasionally connected environments

But how would this kind of concept work for those operating in occasionally connected environments such as those experienced by disaster response workers? By applying social media technologies such as Twitter as the transportation mechanism, then you can go back to technologies such as text messages (SMS) as the delivery channel. They are one of the first communication mechanisms to get up and running. Synchronization technologies such as FeedSync are designed to operate in these environments. The blocks of information are usually small being transmitted and conflict resolution is not very complex for this kind of information sharing. A small off-line or mobile client could easily be developed that would provide similar functionality for those in the occasionally connected environment as the cloud based web site provides for those in the Big World.

Crowds, Clouds and Crisis

This post describes a disruption that is under way in humanitarian related information management and processing. It describes the role that both crowds and clouds will play in this disruption that will lead to better ability to handle crisis.
“There can be no deep innovation without an initial period of deep disruption”
The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a turning point for humanitarian related information management and processing. Being the first major natural disaster since the explosion of social media, it allowed people from around the world to for the first time share information in real-time with each other and with organizations involved in the response. Urban Search and Rescue teams searching through the rubble for missing people would get contacted via social media about their efforts with information about those missing and in return were able to provide back to these relatives and friends accurate and detailed information about the rescue efforts. At the same time citizens were reporting locations of collapsed houses, camps of displaced people and medical facilities. These locations were mapped onto a situational awareness map that allowed responders to get a better overview of the situation facing them. And all of this happened in an ad-hoc manner through social media. Volunteer groups were set up around the world to help develope, test and translate applications, while yet other groups were mapping the streets of Port-Au-Prince and translating messages coming in from citizens in Creole to English before passing them on to aid organizations.

When dealing with disaster response you are normally faced with two opposing problems. First one is the lack of information and the other one is the flood of information. In the initial hours following a disaster, information coming out of the affected areas is very scarce and often does not get propagated to the humanitarian response community but instead ends up inside one organization or another. At the same time media and now especially social media is providing an overwhelming amount of information that is very disconnected and unorganized. This flood of information often forces response organizations to reject it as false or unverified information. Similarly multiple organizations will start doing assessments in the affected areas, but don’t have the bandwidth to process it and are reluctant to share it with others. It is important that these paradoxes are addressed.

When responding to disasters, very few organizations have the luxury to deploy multiple information managers. Most of their efforts go into providing the actual on the ground assistance. It is however well understood and agreed that effective disaster response must be well planned and must be built on actionable information. We however way too often see implementation plans by organization based on their “gut feel” or “word of mouth” on where the situation is worst. Humanitarian organizations have attempted to come up with rapid assessments for identifying where to put their efforts, but most of those “rapid” assessments are over 10 pages long and take forever to process. A small effort is under way to do joint-assessments by multiple organizations to get away from assessment-tiredness of the affected population, which seems to be asked the same questions 10 times before any help arrives. It is therefore important that we rethink the way we assess the situation in the field and how we process the information we receive.

While a few years back connectivity would be lost for weeks following a natural disaster, we now see mobile phone companies get some basic services such as text messaging back up and running within 24-72 hours after the initial event. At the same time the ownership of mobile phones has exploded, with well over half the population of Earth owning mobile phones. Even in some of the more remote locations you now have mobile connectivity. These people are connecting via their mobile phones to social media in an ever-growing number. We must find ways of leveraging this people, their local know-how and information.

Cloud based services such as Facebook and Twitter have already made it possible for us to communicate with millions of people and to leverage our individual social networks to reach a wider audience than ever before. But right now humanitarian organizations are mainly utilizing this channel for advocacy by providing information about their activities in hope of generating funds to sustain them. Very little efforts have been made to utilize these channels for information sharing or analysis.

The Crowds
During the Haiti crisis we saw a new form of humanitarian response, the crowd response. Through a few but strategic social networks a set of volunteer crowds were established to address some of the challenging information related issues faced by the citizens and response organizations in Haiti. One of the most successful one was the collaboration between Ushahidi and InSTEDD and a few others around a solution called Project 4636. It allowed citizens in Haiti to utilize SMS to send in information and requests for assistance. Instead of relying on specially formatted text messages from citizens, they made a quick decision to rather utilize the power of the crowd to transform free text messages into structured, geo-spatially located messages. By getting volunteer groups (all formed through social networks) to give some of their time to perform those validations, geo-spatial addressing and translations they could provide situational information to humanitarian agencies on the ground. To get this done they had literally thousands of volunteers from around the globe performing this task.

We need to harness this power of the crowds and willingness of people to help out during times of need to address some of the more complicated information management issues faced by the humanitarian community. People interested in participating in these kinds of efforts on a regular basis could be trained to perform certain tasks that can then be called upon during the times of crisis. Maybe it is time for the Internet equivelance of the PeaceCorps.

The crowds can be used for more than just simple situational awareness like in the case of Haiti. The emerging field of collaborative business intelligence and analysis can easily be applied to the humanitarian space. As mentioned earlier large amounts of data are being collected both via humanitarian response organizations but also through social media. Most of that data however is analyzed beyond the simple analytics that can be done with a few minutes/hours work in Excel. Within the field of collaborative BI the people involved are split into three types, the producers, the collaborators and the consumers. By applying the concept of the crowd and utilizing the power of the internet we don’t need those to be located in the same place. The producers, most of them in the field would make the raw data available and do some basic processing on it such as enhance it, highlight important information and combine different data sources. The collaborators, most of which would be located outside of the field would remix, mash-up and re-package the data as new information solutions. These collaborators could be connected to experts for example from the academic community which would be able to guide them. Finally the consumers of the information would be donors, people in humanitarian HQs and of course the field workers themselves. They contextualize the results to make decisions and develop strategies for how to deal with the crisis.

It is important to understand especially during the initial phase of the disaster, the need for speed is greater than the need for accuracy. If you wait for all the data to come in before you make any decision people will have died before you even start delivering any aid.  An example of this is whether we need 1000, 10000 or 100000 tents is more important than if the actual number of beneficiaries is 857, 9300 or 96544 respectively.  This allows us to apply what has been called edge-based analysis, in which multiple and possibly conflicting versions of the truth can exist. The task of the analysis is to come up with emergent prototypes of the situation and test them quickly.

In 2008 Ted Okada from Microsoft Humanitarian Systems coined the term Big World-Small World to describe how solutions are either built with the western world (including the headquarters of the humanitarian organization) or the field (including citizens of that country as well as field workers). It is important for us to understand that solutions built for one world often do not apply in the other. Social media and the growth of mobile phone ownership may provide for us an excellent opportunity to bridge these two worlds. Through simple means like text messaging we can get information from the small world, process it in the big world and then provide feedback back to those in the small world. This feedback loop between the two worlds is important to ensure that both sides become willing participants in this endeavor.

The Cloud

As mentioned earlier the cloud has enabled some of the advances already made in crowdsourcing of tasks. But it is important to realize that the cloud must play an ever increasing role if we want to make this vision a reality. One of the key aspects of that is that we must be able to scale work efficiently up and down as demand changes. As with most things we must be able to handle the peaks yet at the same time know that most of the time activity will be almost none at all.

The use of the cloud must be threefold. First of all the cloud must be utilized to coordinate the crowdsourcing, through solutions like turks (CrowdTurks). Secondly it must be utilized to automate as much of the processing as possible and finally it should be utilized to share back the information to the consumers, whether they are in the small world or in the big world. Let us look at each one of those.

In the case of Haiti most of the effort was being done by ad-hoc groups gathering around in universities and other locations. A few, but important key people lead the effort and helped split the tasks needed to be done up into multiple steps that then could be performed by smaller workforces. At one point in the effort a system similar to the MechanicalTurk developed by Amazon was set up to coordinate the work of processing all the incoming text messages.

This coordination of work needs to be more automated. It needs to be easy for people to sign up to do individual tasks in the process from anywhere. There needs to be a way to create new ad-hoc processes on the fly, provide description of each step in the process, so people can easily learn what needs to be done and then perform that step for the time they have available. This needs to be flexible and scalable in order to be able to handle the wide variety of tasks that need to be performed and the variations in the availability of the crowd.

Secondly there is automation of tasks. As information is flowing in through channels such as social media or text messages then the overwhelming amount of raw data coming in can be high. This information may be in multiple languages (for example in Creole), yet the overwhelming majority of the people in the crowd may be English speaking. By utilizing technologies like the Microsoft translation framework the amount of time needed to perform translations can be drastically reduced. Other automatic processing such as geo-tagging, filtering, removing of duplicates, weighing of authenticity (as attempted by the Ushahidi Swift River project) and so on can be extremely important to make this possible. These automation tasks need to be able to scale up and down as the flow of information rises and falls.

Last but not least it must be easy for people to consume the information being generated. This includes the ability to visualize it both geo-spatially and through other more common business intelligence visualizations. At the same time it must also be easy for people to retrieve back the information in the form of RSS feeds and as spreadsheets.  When providing access back to the small-world (i.e. the field) it is important for us to realize that those users are almost always occasionally connected back to the big world (i.e. the cloud).  We must therefore provide ways through which they can both collect information but also retrieve it via means that support this occasionally connected state.  This can be achieved through synchronization technologies such as FeedSync or through peer-to-peer sharing products like Microsoft Groove. We must also remember that during disasters connectivity is intermittent and costly. In most cases we are therefore not talking about direct cloud access to all the visualization products. Instead we must rely on technologies like mentioned earlier to retrieve the data and perform some of the bandwidth intensive visualizations directly on the client.

The Way Forward

This crowd and cloud based information management is not something that will be done by any single company, but rather as a collaborative crowd effort. Companies which provide cloud based services should participate by providing access to their clouds and by sharing their expertise in building cloud based services with the crowds of developers that will have to participate in this effort. Through their corporate social responsibility efforts they will get a chance to share some of their large investments in the cloud with those in dire need of assistance.

Existing collaborative efforts in this field, such as the Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) driven by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, World Bank and the UN should serve as a model for a collaborative effort by the private sector, the humanitarian sector and the crowds out there willing to participate in an effort to make humanitarian response more effective and in turn save lives and reduce suffering.