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…