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 data.gov 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.