Monday, October 4, 2010

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!

6 comments:

  1. Sign me up.. we have a very short look back to find things missing from many exercise scenario's. Scripted events are a fine start, but real life presents so many "We didn't see that coming" moments that it will be fun to explore during this proposed adventure.

    Also, I feel that the "industry" for lack of a better term, needs to be better educated about what emerging technologies are capable of. I have read of a fair bit of mistrust based upon the direct experience of trying to implement 'new' technologies over the years. However, we are truly in a new era, in terms of lightweight and robust capabilities in:

    communications, sensors, mapping, geospatial and analytics

    The visionaries who may have lost their faith in the late nineties need to rekindle their spirit and get some imagination back so tech doesn't have to 'prove' that things work differently now, and can provide really innovative instruments* based upon real world experience and needs.

    *
    "tool" is not a great term for what hackers create.

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  2. Great input and yes we need to have this "platform" (for a lack of a better term) for people to meet, try out and experiment with new technologies in the environment of a crisis yet not during a crisis.

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  3. +1 Strong Angel has been a place where both the state of the art and the gap with the art of the possible could be seen together; in a adequate environment to help make relevant decisions. Plus the best asset to come out of these IMO has been the social network.
    Thanks Gisli as always

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  4. we are right now working in one of the biggest disasters in Pakistan at pakreport.org. We need to look into this model to get it going in real situations.

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  5. Mohammad - yes we need to take things that have worked and utilize exercises like this one as a way to move those solutions forward in a controlled environment.

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  6. STAR-TIDES and John Crowley's Camp Roberts exercises were similarly extremely effective in bringing together different groups, simulating conditions, getting a lot of collaborative work done. I believe the August 2009 events directly contributed to the effectiveness of the Haiti response.

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