Sunday, May 29, 2011

The importance of building local capacity

When a large scale disaster strikes the world watches. Twitter gets flooded with reports, pictures and prayers. CNN, BBC, Sky News and Al Jazzera all break their regular programs to show us terrifying images of what is happening. Thankfully only 2-3 large scale disasters strike every year. Depending on the magnitude and location of the disaster, the media and people loose interest within a few days or weeks. At the same time we have many medium scale disasters that happen around the world on almost a daily basis. If they strike US then we hear about them for a while, but if they happen in remote places of the world like Sri Lanka, Indonesia or Ghana then they at usually go un-noticed by most people. This is however usually not the case for the local media and the local population of the country affected. In the last 2 years we have seen efforts being born around utilizing social media, social networks and digital volunteer groups to help deal with the explosion of information that we now get through mobile phones and social media. While these efforts are promising and do provide us with opportunities for gathering, processing, analyzing and disseminating information in ways we have not been able to do so far, then they do fall short in one important part and that is that they are not sustainable for the long-term and repeatable for the large number of disasters that occur every year. In my visits to disaster prone countries, where I have been speaking to them about the importance of preparedness, they all spoke of interest in all of these new technologies and efforts that have been getting so much attention in the press and at conferences around the world. What they complain about is that nobody has reached out directly to them and shown them how they can make use of these tools. The reason is that we in the global humanitarian and technology community have been too focused on trying to figure out how to do things at a global scale that we have largely ignored the local perspective. Some might argue that the jet-setting trips of the leaders of the digital volunteer community to conferences around the world have been focusing on this effort, but I would like to argue that in most cases these have not necessarily resulted in more than short-term awareness building. Often these conferences have also been mainly attended by people who are not active in the disaster response community. One could also say that recent efforts of setting up crowd-maps following disasters in Pakistan, New Zealand and Japan, driven by local actors are samples of how things really work. While I agree that great work has been done by those local actors, then I would also argue that much greater work could have been achieved if we had focused more on preparedness and building local capacity before these disasters struck. Then we could have ensured that the information gathered was actionable and relevant to the response. We could also have ensured that the response community was utilizing this new medium to the fullest. Over the last year we have put a lot of focus into building a global capacity to deal with crisis. We have established the Stand-by Volunteer Task Force, we have established connections with the global response community (UN, NGOs, Red Cross) and we have had great examples of how this effort can really provide information to the response community. A promising change to this was an effort lead by the US State Department that started last week in Indonesia under the name TechCamp Jakarta. There they brought together key people from the new technology community and some of the actors from the local response community. It was a great first step, but more is needed to follow up on this. What we need to do is to put focus on building up local capacity in disaster prone countries, especially those in the developing world. We can then leverage the global capacity we have already built up to help support these local efforts when their capacity is overwhelmed. We can also leverage the technologies, processes and training we have already put together for these global efforts. So what is needed to build up that local capacity? 1) We need to bring together the various actors involved in disaster response in the country. This includes the government, the UN, the NGOs, etc. Often there may be existing forums that can be leveraged, but often these need to be extended to ensure inclusiveness of all the local actors. 2) We also need to bring in the local technology community. They are the ones who can help adapting the global solutions to the local needs. This includes members of the local open-source community, but also people from the private sector technology companies. 3) We also need to bring in the academic community. Students have in the past been the basis for any grass-root effort we have seen around crisis information management. Together these various actors from the different communities make up the local crisis information community. 4) We need to provide standardized & localized, on-line and in-person training to this community on how to utilize these technologies to achieve better information sharing during disasters. 5) We need to drive awareness of the potential of these efforts to the response community. Through that awareness building we can build the relationships needed between the volunteer community and the response community 6) We need to provide standardized yet flexible processes that the local community can utilize to ensure that their efforts are actually resulting in providing actionable and accurate information to the response community. 7) We need to work with the local mobile providers to establish short-codes for citizens to use for direct reporting into the systems. 8) We need to provide the local community with awareness building material (advertisements, banners, etc.) to build a volunteer community and to make citizens aware of short-codes. 9) We need to provide the local community with mentorship from the global community on establishing the community and running this effort. 10) We need to work with local web portals (newspaper, social networks, etc.) to get them to direct people towards the efforts of the local community instead of establishing their own. 11) We need to help the local community run simulation exercises where they can train their volunteers and first responders in utilizing the technologies. 12) We need funding from the donor community to help drive these efforts in 20 of the top disaster prone countries in the world. In my discussions with the response community in Indonesia, then the recent TechCamp event generated an interest that we should leverage to pilot a local capacity building effort for one of the most disaster prone countries in the world. I know the interest within the response community is high and that the BNPB (Indonesia's version of FEMA) would welcome better information sharing amongst the various responders. Big question is if we can leverage that interest to find donors who are willing to fund a crisis information management "revolution" one disaster prone country at a time.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Power of Preparedness - A story from Pakistan

In my trip to Pakistan earlier this year, I learned first hand about the power of preparedness at the community level. I visited a small “displaced” village on the banks of the Indus River. I asked them if there had been any early warning system in place for the floods. What they told me was that they had listened to radios to hear news about the flooding as it made its way down south. They had also received phone calls from relatives and friends up north telling them about the scale of the flooding.

But what really caught my interest was the fact that earlier in the year, one of the local NGOs that worked as an implementation for our NetHope member had visited this village to provide disaster risk reduction training to the people. They had explained the basics of disaster preparedness by showing a video on a laptop computer.

The local NGO then told me that they could see a dramatic difference between the villages that had received the training versus the ones that had not. In the ones that had received the training, people had brought their valuables to higher ground before the flood waters started rising. They had also in some cases harvested their crops before they were ruined by the floods.

Just providing this short and simple awareness building at the local level can really make a difference in how people prepare for the floods. And technology can help in this as the story shows. It is much more effective to be able to show a video than to bring leaflets or simply speak to people. Having the ability to bring something like a laptop with a pre-loaded video allows for even remote villages to be visited.

Of course we can say that the early warning system was very limited in Pakistan, but as always people find ways if they are aware of the danger. They reach out to their friends and relatives living up-stream to form their own little advisory network.

Way too many early warning systems are based on the pre-tense that there needs to be large investment by the government and that the government needs to warn everyone.

But as social networks such as Twitter and FaceBook are showing us then it is about the community of people you know and the community you live in. We must find simple and cost-effective ways of helping people connect to those around them through the technologies they have and thereby amplify these people-based networks of early warning.

This week I will be attending the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction and I look forward to meeting people from around the world and from organizations working on preparedness activities. For updates from the conference follow the Twitter tag #gpdrr2011