Monday, December 17, 2012

Observation from the path of Typhoon Bopha

The term "path of a hurricane" is something you often hear in the news, but actually seeing the devastation that these strong winds and heavy rains cause is something you don't realize until you have visited an area where one has gone through. When that area is a rural area in a developing country, then the devastation is even more than you can imagine. Today we visited parts of Compostela Valley on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, one of the areas that was badly hit by Typhoon Bopha (local name Pablo) last week. We got to accompany one of NetHope's member organizations, Plan International that is performing relief operations in the area and expects to be running relief and rehabilitation programs here for 18-24 months.

As you visit these badly affected areas it was impressive to see how in the main municipalities, there are incident command posts set up, even when the buildings they are housed in area severely damaged. These incident command posts are where all of the operational action occurs. Relief goods from donors, both private and public, arrive on trucks that then get information from the staff at the incident command post on where to deliver the goods. Everything is tracked and recorded to ensure that the items go where they are most needed. Relief agencies, like Plan, visit the incident command post to get information about where their services are most needed. They share with the incident command post their plans and again everything gets recorded to ensure that there is as little duplication of effort as possible. There relief organizations also get updated information about the situation in the region and about what things were like before the typhoon hit.

This level of organization is impressive to witness, because in many countries around the world that I have visited, there is not as effective disaster management coordination at the local governmental level as one sees here in the Philippines. The reason of course is that in the Philippines over the last decade, there has been quite an investment in training people and putting the incident management system in place. This investment in building local capacity is important, because it allows the relief efforts to be driven by the people that know those affected and the area itself the best.

At many of these incident command posts there is lack of water, electricity and communications. Large whiteboards and stacks of notebooks are utilized to share and keep track of information about the situation. While they certainly do their job of sharing the information to those that visit the command posts, they create an additional layer in the coordination effort. Anyone that wants to operate in the area, must visit the incident command posts to get updated about the situation and to share information about what they are planning to do. What is even worse is that all baseline data, such as where all the water facilities, schools and health clinics is also only available at the incident command posts. Folders containing this information are repeatedly "copied" by response organizations, by taking photographs of the baseline data. Same applies to the situational data. The big whiteboards get photographed again and again. These photographs are then used to recreate the data back in the base of operations for each particular organization.

The initial reaction to this might be, why don't they use technology to share this. The immediate response you might get to this reaction might be "but they don't have electricity and connectivity, so they can't". In the immediate aftermath of the disaster much of that might have been true. Without computers and electricity it may have been difficult to share that information more widely. But after the first hours and days laptops and generators started arriving and the information in the incident command posts started to be put into spreadsheets, but the problem is that those spreadsheets are seldom shared in their electronic form. In many cases the only place that information gets shared might be "up the incident management chain". We however also saw in the response to Hurricane Sandy that this flow of information upwards, seldom gets shared widely and ends up being a "black hole" of information, one that constantly requests updates from everyone else, but doesn't share it back out with the wider public.

We asked people in the incident command posts how badly the mobile networks had been effected by the storm. In the one that we visited one of the mobile networks was back up and running within 24 hours of the typhoon passing over. So data could have been shared more widely through that mobile network. But even if the mobile network was not up and running, then copying that data onto thumb drives and having people transport that on a motorcycle to the next location with internet capabilities on a daily basis would be a simple solution until the network is back up. We often forget that improvised "sneaker networks" can solve connectivity issues in the first few days and weeks and enable us to better share the information needed to more effectively respond to natural disasters like this one.

It is important for us that we fix these information sharing issues and we at NetHope are working on driving forward an initiative related to that and we welcome you to join us in that effort.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Sandy Legacy

Less than a week has passed since Hurricane Sandy passed over the Caribbean and the US East Coast, leaving a trail of destruction and death behind. Only seven years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest disasters of all times left a similar trail of destruction on the Gulf Coast. Thankfully a lot of lessons were learnt from Katrina, especially when it comes to leadership and organizational issues. But sadly there are many issues that we will have to learn and re-learn from Hurricane Sandy. 

One of the things that makes Hurricane Sandy so special is the massive geographical area that was affected. It is way larger than anything we have ever seen before. Compared to Hurricane Katrina twice as many states and 5 times as many people were affected, and that is not counting the Caribbean Islands where millions more were affected. Sadly with increased extremes in climate related disasters, with ever increasing urbanization and population growth, these kind of mega-disasters affecting tens of millions of people will become more and more commonplace.

In many countries, and the US is no exception to this, the preparedness and response to disasters is in the hands of multiple levels of government, ranging from town/city level, up to county, state and finally federal level. This means that it is the duty of the city to provide response to and make preparations for any potential disaster. When the situation becomes to difficult for the local level, i.e. the city, to handle, then they can reach up to the county level, which activates resources from nearby cities or from county-level agencies. When the county surpasses it's limit, then the state comes in and provides additional support. The state can activate state-level responders, such as national guard or other state level agencies. When the situation becomes to difficult for the state level to handle, that is when the federal government comes in provides national-level support, through national-level resources such as the military and federal agencies.

This hierarchical level of disaster response works very well in most disasters, since the majority of disasters are small enough to handle locally or with mutual-aid support from nearby cities. Even for medium level disasters, most disasters can be handled at the state level, with minimal support from the federal level. It is however when mega-disasters, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy occur that the entire response model gets stretched beyond its limits. The system was simply not built for so many cities, counties and states to all be experiencing disaster of this magnitude, all at the same time.

Thankfully in order to ensure that there is some organization in place, coordination of activities happens at the various administrative levels. Each city collects information about the needs of it's citizens and then shares that with county, who in turn shares that with the state. All of this then gets aggregated up to the federal level. Sadly however often this information ends up in a silo, either within some of the function groups (called Emergency Support Functions/ESF in the US and clusters in the international response world) or at a particular administrative level. There are also different information systems being used at each level and there are lacks of standards for sharing the information correctly. In many cases information also only flows up the chain and not down the chain, so people at the local level are often unaware of what is happening at the macro level.

When a need is identified at the local level, a request for support needs to go up the chain before it can be provided by the appropriate level. I saw this first person during Hurricane Ike in Galveston, where the city EOC needed a generator from FEMA and there were dozens of them sitting in a nearby parking lot. The head of the EOC asked the FEMA person in charge for one of their generators, but the answer he got back is that the request had to go through the correct channel. Here was a great opportunity to provide direct assistance (and there were plenty of generators) down at the person-to-person on ground zero, but bureaucracy got in the way.

It is also important to remember that the government is also not the only responder on the ground. They are actually outnumbered in most disasters by staff and volunteers from non-profit organizations, such as Red Cross, Save the Children and Worldvision. In addition a large number of faith and community based organizations get active and provide assistance to those affected. Some of these organizations model their response on the same administrative boundaries as the governments (i.e. Red Cross chapters for cities and/or counties), while others work across these administrative boundaries, providing response where there is a need.

It is also important to remember that although I am using Hurricane Sandy and the US national response framework as an example above, then the same holds true around the world. The names of the responders may be different and the administrative levels may be different, but the chaos and the lack of effective response can also be found in every major disaster around the world. In fact when disasters become too big for the national response system to cope, that is when the international community arrives, often resulting in even more chaos.

At the same time we have seen how through an explosion in mobile phone ownership and through social media and networks, people affected by these major disasters are not only communicating their needs but also leveraging those same technologies to coordinate their own community response often independent of the official response channels. Although this community lead response at the moment may result in some duplication of efforts, it in most cases ends up meeting the gaps the official response leaves. This community based response also starts immediately after the disaster, way before the first responders arrive.

What is also great about these community based responses is the fact that they do an amazing job in creating a feeling of togetherness in these communities. Helping your neighbor is a concept that most religions have taught and the fact is that it is one of the best ways to build resiliency in communities at risk. Through mobile phones and technologies, these communities can now better organize their efforts and achieve even more impact than ever before. 

What is even more amazing is that through the Internet, concerned citizens around the world can help participate in these community based responses, by lending a helping hand in gathering, processing and sharing information. Often these distributed "digital volunteer" efforts spring up, when they see people affected directly by the disaster call out for information through social media, but we are also seeing more and more connections being established between the formal governmental responders and digital volunteer groups, because the formal responders have realized that those massive crowds of digital volunteers can be tasked with tasks that earlier were impossible to do because of the effort required to complete them. A great example of this is the areal damage assessment that FEMA in collaboration with Civil Air Patrol started immediately after Hurricane Sandy passed over. Over a hundred thousand areal images are being assessed for damage by thousands of volunteers sitting at their computer around the world, all organized by the Humanitarian Open Street Map team.

The underlying need that all of these responders, whether they are international, governmental, non-profit or community based have is a need for good information. There is a need for information about the situation at hand, the needs of the affected population, the response being planned and given and information about resources available. All of this information is then leveraged by the responders and communities affected to make decisions on their next steps. When the appropriate information is not available or accessible, then efforts may end up being duplicated and there may gaps in the overall response. Furthermore lack of access to the right information also often delays the appropriate response from being provided. 

At the same time, responders at various levels often get criticized for their work, which in most cases is being provided at a best effort basis. Response to and recovery from disasters is costly and often there is criticism in how the funds raised are utilized. Over the past decade this criticism has been met by putting strict accountability practices in place, sometimes so strong that more effort is being spent on tracking and documenting efforts than actually providing them.

The key to addressing many of the issues raised above is openness. If response organizations at all levels would start openly sharing the information they are gathering or producing and would share it publicly in ways that other organizations could consume and utilize it, then replication of efforts would be minimized and gaps in the response could quickly be identified and dealt with. What is even more important is that through openness we also achieve transparency, which leads to less effort being required to produce all of the accountability reports we currently have to hand in.

What is even more important is that when a response organization only has a limited visibility to the situation at hand (like state of the communication systems in the affected areas), they can bring in other organizations and digital volunteer groups to help them supplement the information they have through crowdsourcing and analysis. An example of this is that today the various private sector communication providers are mandated to provide FEMA with information about the state of their communication towers (how many are operating and where). Yet this information is not complete and what is even worse, it is not publicly shared, which means that response organizations and citizens who want to get to the nearest operating mobile area or want to know where to get online do not have any place to discover that. As digital volunteer groups discover the need for this information, they start collecting it and sharing with the public, but since they don't have access to the data from FEMA then their efforts are also not complete.

Imagine what would happen if everyone was sharing this kind of information openly with each other. The mobile phone companies sharing information openly to everyone about the current state of their network (this happened a few days in for some of the operators in Japan back in March 2011). The federal government sharing the overall situation from all the different operators. Then the digital volunteer groups and citizens augmenting that data with information from the ground. Instead of a fractured, incomplete and siloed overview of the state of communications, a compressive and valuable overview would be available to everyone.

Communication is not unique in this aspect. All of the basic needs that pop up after a disaster would benefit from openly sharing information. Where is water available and where is it going to be delivered. Where is shelter available and where are people requiring a roof over their head.  Instead of tens or hundreds of silos of information capturing these, then a comprehensive overview can be created, one that is accessible both to the response organizations and the communities involved.

But why isn't information being shared openly already? A lot of it has to do with the shift in culture that we are experiencing all around us. As we move from the industrial age ways of doing things to the information age way of doing things, then there is resistance to change from what worked in the past. But as younger generations who have grown up within this digital culture of openness start becoming the majority of our workforce then we will see that shift happen more quickly. But we cannot afford to wait for that generation shift to occur, because lives are at stake.

We at NetHope in collaboration with a number of organizations and individuals have been advocating for a focus on increased openness in the humanitarian world. Although many organization we have talked with have been very positive, we have also experience this resistance to change, especially when it comes to willingness to fund efforts to improve disaster response through open information sharing. 

We feel that Sandy has taught us lessons that we cannot ignore. It has taught us that communities are the key to more effective response and it has also taught us that mobile technology, social media and social networks are a crucial infrastructure for making the overall response more effective. Furthermore it has taught us that there are many issues still to figure out, such as how to coordinate this networked matrix effort of communities, digital volunteers and formal responders. These are all issues we know we can tackle, but in order to do that we need to work together and we need to ensure that the funding is in place to make that collaboration happen.

There is a lot of work to be done, but that work is not impossible if we work together. So if you are still reading and agree that through openness and better collaboration we can together co-create the response community of the information age, then I have a call to action for you:
  • If you are a first responder, NGO worker or work for one of the international response organizations then help us to advocate about this effort of openness within your own organization. Furthermore you can join our pool of subject matter experts willing to help drive change in this space. You can send us an email OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG and we will add you to our Subject Matter Expert pool
  • If you are a response organization (community, non-profit, local government, national government or international organization) and want to join our effort in enabling openness then shoot us an email at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG - collaboratively we can best help each other drive openness into our work
  • If you are a donor (private, foundation or government) that believes in openness and transparency and feel there is room for improvement, both domestically and internationally then shoot us an email at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you are a high-flying entrepreneur or corporate executive that want to spend a couple of hours a month/quarter providing us with access to your smart brain to crack some complex problems, then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG to learn more about our Advisory Fellows program
  • If you are an academic institution or a researcher who want to help us drive openness in the disaster response space and help us solve some of the challenges we face then also contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you are a developer, software architect, database guru, designer, tester or software project manager, then sign up to be part of The Humanitarian Toolbox, a "volunteer army" of software experts willing to donate part of their expertise and time to help solve the the technology issues that arise in enabling this open response community and help us develop the solutions required to support this community based response
  • If you are a private sector company that has resources or expertise that you believe might help in this important effort then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG
  • If you don't fit into any of the categories mentioned above but want to put your effort into helping us make this a reality, then contact us at OHI @ NETHOPE.ORG

Together we can ensure that Sandy leaves a legacy of change in the disaster response space. Change that lead to great improvement in effectiveness of response and in building more resilient communities. Change that leads to openness and transparency while at the same time saving lives. Together we can be the change we want to see in this world and ensure that we all together leave a footprint of progress on this world.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Introducing the Humanitarian Toolbox

Today we at NetHope, CrisisCommons and GeeksWithoutBounds are proud to announce, in partnership with Microsoft and DotNetRocks the launch of the Humanitarian Toolbox. The Humanitarian Toolbox is an initiative intended to help bring the expertise and good will of the software development community to the humanitarian world. Ever since the devastating images of the East Asia Tsunami in 2004, have developers around the world helped humanitarian organizations address some of the most complex problems through the power of technology. 

Over the past few years, this effort has culminated in the organization of hackathons and code camps that focus on working on problem statements defined by humanitarian organizations. Those of us from the humanitarian community have seen the potential these efforts hold, but sadly often these efforts have not been sustainable and little happens in-between the hackathon weekends.  One of the main reasons for this has been a lack of infrastructure to coordinate these efforts, which often are distributed around the world.

This is the reason we have teamed up with Microsoft, which has generously offered their Team Foundation Services as the infrastructure backbone for the Humanitarian Toolbox. By being able to break the problem statements into individual chunks of work and to clearly define each of them through storyboards, larger problems can now be addressed by this volunteer community of software developers. By having an infrastructure that also enables distributed software development also means that people can continue to work on problems even after they participate in a hackathon.

We are therefore reaching out to the broad software development community, looking for developers, designers, testers, database administrators, project managers, scrum masters and UX masters who want to give some of their time to share their expertise in software development to create solutions that will help save lives and reduce suffering. It is your chance to leave a footprint on this earth and a legacy of good. 

We from the humanitarian community are very excited to bring some of our complex problems and get you to help us solve them leveraging your valuable software development expertise. Visit our website, sign up to be notified when new problems get defined, follow us on Twitter and help us bring the humanitarian community into the information age.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Need for Increased Collaboration

The world we live in is certainly not a perfect place. There are a number of things that need to be done to improve it. Sometimes governments set out on improving it, sometimes non-profit organizations set out on improving it and sometimes concerned citizens set out on improving it. Each of these stakeholders has their own vision of the problem at hand and ideas about how to solve them. That vision is very much dependent upon their own vision of life and what they feel confident in doing.

Lets take an example to clarify things. For anyone who has visited the slums of Africa, you are touched by the hard life of people living in dire poverty, lack access to clean water, education, shelter and livelihood. Yet you also see a magnitude of organizations trying to help. Even the government has their own programs trying to address some parts of the problem. You will see an organization focusing on educating the children. You will see another organization focusing on providing healthcare services. You will see yet another organization focusing on creating sustainable livelihood opportunities. Each one of those organizations provides a small piece in a big puzzle, which is to improve the life of slum dwellers.

We see the same things happen when a disaster strikes. A number of agencies and organizations respond, each providing their expertise and services to address the needs of those affected. Thankfully in the last few years, we have seen increased coordination within each sector (cluster), so that duplication of efforts have gone down (water is not being provided twice in one place and then not in another). Yet even during semi-coordinated efforts such as humanitarian response, the pieces of the puzzle are still too many and little success has been in achieving a more coherent big picture (inter-cluster coordination).

The problem with both of these examples is that we as individuals and organizations tend to focus on what we are good at and forget to think about the big picture. In order to really make a difference in the life of a slum dweller, we need to address all of the issues at hand, access to water, access to education, access to sanitation, access to shelter and access to improved livelihood. If we are only providing parts of the overall puzzle then we end up having incomplete ability to make significant impact to those people's life. Same is true during disaster response. If all we provide is water and shelter and don't ensure the other sectors are being addressed for the people we are providing water and shelter, then we end up having incomplete impact on the lives of those affected by the disasters.

Some organizations have addressed this issue by "adopting" a village or area and start providing all the different services to the people in that area. The problem with that approach is that you end up providing more of a generalist approach, rather than the expert approach required to address each sector in more comprehensive manner. In other words the overall impact you achieve is not as strong as if you had expert organizations working together to help that same village or area.

Our approach to coordination needs to change. While we have become somewhat good at coordinating within a cluster, then we are still at the beginning stages of inter-cluster coordination. I firmly believe that the reason for us still being so bad at inter-cluster coordination is that we are trying to do it at the cluster leads level, instead of splitting the affected areas down into geographical segments and introducing cross-cluster coordination at those levels.

Lets take a concrete example from Haiti. It was great to have a country wide "Health cluster" and a "Shelter cluster", etc. in order to ensure coverage, standardization, joint needs assessment, etc. But when it came to coordinating things, then the affected area should have been split up into geographical areas, where inter-cluster coordination should have been happening. An example of this would have been setting up a coordination cell in Petionville where the inter-cluster coordination would have taken place. If nobody in that coordination cell would have been providing health services, then the country-wide health cluster could have been notified to ensure an organization providing health services could be involved in the overall efforts in Petionville.

This model also holds true for non-emergency settings, where development work is being done. Within the slums, you can division them down into geographical areas. Within each geographical area you create coordination cells, where the organizations providing services ensure that they are coordinating efforts within that geographical area and collaborating on making significant impact to those living in that area.

Another advantage of this approach is that the coordination cell is now a place for the communities within that geographical area to get involved and active in the effort. When you try to get people involved at a "country level" or even at a city level then you very often don't get the right local people involved. It is therefore important to ensure that the geographical areas are not too big, so people in the community can easily participate.

But why isn't this kind of collaboration not happening more often? There are a number of reasons, but I want to address two of them.

One reason is the capacity of organizations to participate in coordination activities. We have already put a lot of coordination "burden" on organizations to participate in the cluster system. A common complaint that I hear from my humanitarian colleagues in the field is that the value they receive out of participation in the clusters is very limited. Too much time is spent in cluster meetings to share information that could have been shared more effectively through other means and too little time is spent on actual coordination and strategic planning. First of all we need to drive initiatives that enable better information sharing. We also need to change the role of the clusters to be more about strategic coordination and standards setting, rather than as information sharing platforms. By moving lot of the operational coordination to the geo-specific cross-cluster coordination cells, we can enable this.

Second reason is one of recognition and fear of collaboration. Humanitarian and development organizations are funded through donors and it is important for them to be recognized for the work they are doing in the field. Sadly this importance that is put on recognition by the donors is influencing their ability to collaborate. It is almost like they fear that saying "this was a jointly done by Red Cross and Save the Children" is going to be negative towards the donors. Organizations seem to think that the donors will look at a statement like this and say "oh my gosh…they had to collaborate with someone else…because they were not able to do everything by themselves". The truth is that most donors that I know actually are very glad to see collaboration happen. We at NetHope have been especially beneficial of this, because donors see that by getting multiple organizations to collaborate together they can make more significant impact in the area they are funding.

True leaders understand the power of collaboration. We need the leaders in the humanitarian and development space to start advocating for increased collaboration. We need the donors to encourage it by focusing their funding on collaborative efforts. But first and foremost we need the humanitarian and development workers in the field to show their leadership that in the field real collaboration can happen. Next time you go to a disaster area, make an effort to meet others working in the area you are working and establish a collaborative forum for you to coordinate things. Even if that collaborative forum takes place at the campfire in the humanitarian camp that has been set up. Break down the silos that exist between the different organizations and seek ways to make a more significant impact together. You don't need to be the leader of your organization to show leadership qualities. All you need is the willingness to improve the world we live in.

Go out an collaborate!!!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Humanitarian Response in times of Mass Collaboration and Networked Intelligence

This blog post originally appeared as a Vision for the Future position paper for the Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management policy roundtable organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center Commons Lab.


The current humanitarian response system is based on institutions created during the Industrial Age. It was built when connectivity was a very scarce resource and information sharing was something that only happened during meetings. The increased resiliency of mobile communication networks and the proliferation of satellite-based network connectivity have lead to information being much easier to share. At the same time, the rise of social networks and the explosive growth of mobile ownership amongst the affected communities have led to a new way of communicating. Furthermore the large institutional humanitarian response organizations are no longer the only responders, with multiple smaller organizations also responding. This blog post looks at the opportunities new technologies have provided in rethinking the humanitarian response system and how new approaches may address some of the key issues faced in large-scale disasters in recent years.


We are at a turning point in our history. With many of the institutions we have relied upon failing to meet their obligations, the effects of population growth, climate change, urbanization, globalization, and economic instability means that those organizations cannot continue to do business like they have done for the last 50 years. At the same time, we are seeing a convergence of a technological revolution (often referred to as the Internet Revolution), a social revolution (the growth of social networks), and the rise of the Digital generation (people who have grown up on the Internet). These times are therefore both creating new threats and opportunities and it is crucial that we don't ignore these factors and keep trying to do things the same way we have always done them.

In the field of humanitarian response we have seen the same signs. The way things were done 5-10 years ago no longer work effectively, in part because of the higher numbers of and the greater diversity of response organizations. At the same time the capabilities of the affected population to directly communicate with the outside world have greatly improved. With the massive growth of mobile phone ownership, the ability to reach out to people and not only provide them information to make better decisions, but also to get in return their input creates new opportunities for addressing humanitarian response in a new way, has improved.

In 2010 the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) asked the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) to bring together some of the brightest minds in the humanitarian world and write a report called Disaster Relief 2.0 (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 2011). This was groundbreaking in many ways because it pointed towards new ways that the traditional humanitarian community could work with the new digital generation of humanitarian volunteers.

A lot has happened since the report was written. We have seen the award-winning ways (International Association of Emergency Managers, 2011) the volunteer community helped the humanitarian community get a comprehensive overview of the situation in Libya as the civil war broke out. We saw a massive triple-strike disaster hit a very high tech country and citizens utilize technology to share information with each other (Miettinen, 2011). Finally have seen a massive regional long-term disaster unfold in the Horn of Africa and people wondering what can be done to provide assistance and why it was not responded to earlier.


Back in 2005, following the South East Asia Tsunami, some of the leading organizations in the humanitarian community came together and initiated what became widely known as The Humanitarian Reform (Adinolfi, Bassiouni, Lauritzen, & Williams, 2005). This reform came about because the old model of doing things was no longer applicable, especially in large-scale disasters, and there was a need to rethink how we handled some of the core issues faced when trying to coordinate the multiple organizations involved in dealing with large-scale humanitarian disasters.

In the humanitarian space, just like in most other areas, the changes we have experienced in the last decade are bigger than in the 50 years proceeding that period. It is therefore important for us to start the discussions now on how we need to reform or possibly reboot the humanitarian system for the coming decades. Under the leadership of UN OCHA, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has started a process they call the Transformative Agenda to address some of the issues that have been found in the humanitarian reform by refining it, mainly through clarification of roles and responsibilities.

But the danger is that the Transformative Agenda is trying to repair a system that is built on the principles of the industrial age, while what is really needed is apply the seven principles of the age of networked intelligence as defined by Tapscott and Williams (2006). These principles are innovation, collaboration, openness, interdependence, integrity, self-organization and sustainability. At the same time it is important that we also don’t lose sight of the traditional humanitarian principles.

In this blog post we will go through each one of the Information Age principles and discuss what effect applying them to humanitarian response will have.


We need new, innovative ways to approach to deliver the services needed in the aftermath of a disaster or crisis. Instead of distributing food vouchers to affected populations, we could top up their mobile banking accounts with funds to buy food. Instead of flying in food from abroad, we could utilize technology to help local producers close to the affected area transport and sell their food in areas where food is needed. We could create trading platforms for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies to buy commodities directly from local producers. We could leverage the transportation networks and sales channels of companies like Coca-Cola to get the commodities transported faster.

We need to target the aid we give in more innovative ways. We need to leverage mobile phone technology to determine with greater precision directly from the affected communities the actual needs—not just guess based on not-so-accurate needs assessment surveys. We know communication is aid and we must figure out innovative ways to increase and harness the information flow and establish the channels of communication (Infoasaid, 2011).

We must look towards open innovation models that allow us to leverage the expertise of people outside of the traditional humanitarian response community to address these complex issues we face. Through collaborative and open innovation, we can find solutions that utilize outside of the box thinking to come up with solutions we inside the humanitarian community would never have thought of.


The word collaboration comes from the Latin word “collaborates,” which means to work together. Webster defines it as "to work jointly with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected" (Merriam-Webster, 2011). In the humanitarian world we have more focused on coordination than collaboration in the past. Webster defines the verb coordinate as the act "to bring into common action, movement, or condition." This has often caused issues dealing with other organizations such as the military and the government civil protection because in those organizations things are done through a "command and control" culture.

Interestingly most humanitarian organizations internally have a rather strong culture of "command and control" through their bureaucracies of management levels. But when they interact with other organizations in the field they refuse to adhere to any kind of command and control structure, but have agreed to coordinate with each other albeit some more reluctantly than others. The big issue however is that the mechanisms for coordination are breaking down as more and more organizations get involved and as the scale of the emergencies faced grows each year.

The great research of Professor Emeritus Dennis Mileti of University of Colorado at Boulder showed us that one of the biggest obstacles to collaboration during disasters are organizations (Mileti, 1999). When disasters strike, organizations tend to fight for attention from the media and the public, fight political turf battles, and try to utilize a disaster to proof their importance and existence. A great example of this can be found in any country in the world where you can ask a police department if they like their fire department or vice versa. The same also holds true in the international arena where the large UN agencies and the big NGOs fight endless turf battles while people are suffering. But luckily, as Dennis pointed out in his research, people come to the rescue (Kim, 2004). It is through individuals in these organizations that collaboration happens, often against the political will of the organization.

In this age of networked intelligence and mass collaboration, we must find innovative ways to leverage social networks (both technical and non-technical) to improve this collaboration that is already happening at the individual level. Leadership within the humanitarian organizations must allow for these individual acts of collaboration to happen and in fact they should be encouraging them. It would also be very interesting to see what happened if the donor community would encourage collaboration in all projects they support.

In one of his early TED lectures, Clay Shirky (2005) points out that the old way of coordinating is by creating institutions. But since communication costs are going down drastically, there is another option, putting the coordination into the infrastructure by designing systems that coordinate the output of the group as a byproduct of operating the system without regards to institutional models.

Let’s take a concrete example from the humanitarian world of how this might work. Humanitarian response is all about matching needs of the affected communities with the response capabilities of the humanitarian organizations responding. The institutional way of performing this match is to define a lead organization (cluster lead) that is responsible for bringing together all the interested parties (cluster members) to a meeting (cluster meeting). This happens as often as is required to get each one of them to report on what they have found the needs to be and then report how they are responding to meet that need. If the cluster lead is doing a good job, they get a good matrix of needs and responses and can then help identify duplication of efforts and gaps in the response.

This model stems from the time communication between the different organizations was difficult/expensive and communication with the affected communities was something you only did during needs assessment missions. But in a world of networked intelligence, where the affected communities have a capability to communicate their needs directly and where the response organizations can easily/cheaply communicate with each other, the model can be self-coordinating.Through increased information sharing and better communication it is possible to take collaboration within humanitarian response to the next level and overcome many of the issues faced with current models of coordination.


Today an enormous amount of effort is spent on accountability of humanitarian work. This stems from decades of waste and corruption that unfortunately was quite commonplace. But the methods for averting corruption that were to put in place led to a very rigged accountability processes. At the same time, very few of the humanitarian organizations are transparent about how they spend the money they raise. Of course, most of them publish reports, but detailed information about expenditures may be difficult to find.

In the age of networked intelligence, transparency is a new form of power. Rather than being something to be feared, transparency is becoming central to successful organizations. Open organizations perform better (Tapscott & Williams, 2006), so smart NGOs are choosing to be more transparent. One could say they "undress for success."

It is not difficult to imagine what would happen if all humanitarian organizations were open and transparent about their work and those who provide them with money (both the public and governments) could see in detail how those funds are being used. Instead of massive overhead from accountability processes, it would be possible to introduce full openness. This openness will also lead to people finding new and more efficient ways to address the issues faced. If someone notices that a large portion of funding goes towards a particular task in the relief operation, then that immediately becomes an opportunity to find new and more efficient methods.


When the cluster system was introduced seven years ago, it helped improving the coordination of humanitarian response because it brought into the cluster all the organizations working on a particular subject area, such as health, education, etc. However, one of the drawbacks we have seen is that the work of each of the clusters has become more compartmentalized than before.

Inter-cluster communication and information sharing is not functioning properly in most emergencies. Humanitarian response, however, is very interdependent. If you don't ensure good sanitation and hygiene, then you will see health deteriorate. If you don't provide enough food and water to people, then you will see malnutrition increase. In many cases, you have humanitarian organizations that fully understand this interdependency and therefore work within multiple clusters within the same area.

So what can be done to address this? One approach might be to split work based on geographical areas, rather than clusters. An organization then becomes responsible for providing all services to the community in a particular area. If they don't have the specialty to provide a particular service, then they collaborate with another organization that specializes in that field. This way the organization that is responsible for the area can ensure that all the interdependent factors are being addressed and that there are no gaps in the response effort.


Integrity is all about doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching. It is possible to leverage the age of networked intelligence to ensure that integrity is an overarching principle that everyone follows. There are multiple examples already of how humanitarian organizations are utilizing technology to monitor their own performance and integrity (Save the Children, 2010).

With cell phones now doubling as cameras and video recorders, you never know when someone might actually catch an organization compromising its integrity. This constant monitoring by beneficiaries and citizen reporters should lead to increased integrity in humanitarian response, even if we loosen the strict models we follow today.


Following a sudden disaster, there is great chaos as the people affected by the disaster try to find ways to survive and the large swarm of relief organizations descends upon the affected area. In our attempt to deal with this chaotic system, we try to enforce structure through "humanitarian response systems" that enforce hierarchies upon environments that are not hierarchical in nature. The key reasoning behind hierarchical responses is that information about the overall situation is only available from the top down.

In their seminal paper (Alberts & Hayes, 2003), Alberts and Hayes discuss how the very structured and hierarchical command and control model of the military needs to evolve because better access to information, even on the battlefield, allows for more rapid and context sensitive decisions to be made at the field level. One of the key points they make is that while strategic direction should come from the top down, the tactical decisions need to be made "at the edge" by those on the battlefield.

We can learn a lot from their paper and apply it to humanitarian world. If it is possible to provide field workers with the same level of access to information as people in HQ have and if they are provided with the right strategic decisions, then it is possible to empower them to not only make decisions locally but also to organize locally how they interact with others.

If it is possible to provide everyone with information about what everyone else in the area is doing and allow for them to link up with others working on similar activities, then self-organization would start occurring naturally. The key to this, however, is the ability for organizations to easily report on their activities and areas of interest. If they had a simple way of doing this, then it is very likely all of them would feel very inclined to do so because it is in their own self-interest to avoid duplication and identify gaps in the response.

At the same time it might be possible for the affected communities to quickly see what is happening in their area, who is working there, and where there are gaps. That would either allow them to lobby for more focus on unmet needs or to self-organize to help address that need in their own community. Today’s humanitarian response system is too closed and doesn't allow for inclusiveness of new humanitarian organizations, let alone the affected communities themselves. It is essential this changes.


In recent decades we have seen increased focus on disaster risk reduction activities, but most of these are still in their infant stages and only at the governmental level. In recent years, we have also seen increased use of the term resiliency when talking about how to better prepare communities for potential risks.

The long-term focus on risk reduction and resiliency will certainly help us minimize the threats nature throws our way, especially when dealing with the sudden onset disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods. But when dealing with long-term disasters such as drought, we must look for sustainable ways to prevent them from leading to even more complex emergencies such as famines.

But we must also think about sustainability when it comes to providing the humanitarian relief itself. Instead of endlessly transporting large amounts of relief items halfway across the world, we must identify ways of utilizing more local and regional resources for help. This, in turn, can help the local economy and economies in the region grow through production and provision of those relief items. In the famine in Ethiopia in the late 1980s, there was enough food available within the country itself – it simply was not available in the areas where the drought and famine was worst. Yet instead of transporting food from other parts of the country, relief organizations transported relief items from other continents and markets for local food in the non-affected areas tumbled.

The only way to create sustainable disaster risk resiliency is to ensure it is community driven. We must give the affected communities better tools to prepare for, respond to, and rebuild from disasters. We must build local capacity and expertise in dealing with the hazards people live with. In the end, we must work ourselves out of a job by making disaster prone countries more resilient and better prepared to respond themselves to disasters they face.


The main purpose of this blog post is to get the reader to think about how the humanitarian system might be adapted to more modern ways of addressing the complex problems that everyone faces in the humanitarian world. Some of the ideas presented in this paper may seem a bit too radical for now, but as the digital generation takes over from the pre-digital generation in the humanitarian world many of the ideas could be implemented. It is important to remember that the organizations doing humanitarian work today are not going to change by themselves - it is through the people inside and outside of those organizations that this change must happen and hopefully that in turn over time leads to at least some of the organizations to start thinking in new terms.


Special thanks go out to the various people within the humanitarian and research community who over the last few years have over good food entertained a discussion about the future of the humanitarian system on which most of the ideas in this blog post are based. In particular I would like to thank  John Crowley, Nigel Snoad, Patrick Meier, Oliver Lacy-Hall, Jemilah Mahmood, Jen Ziemke, Eric Rasmussen, Robert Kirkpatrick, Jennifer Chan, Paul Currion, Bartel Van de Valle, Jesper Lund, Andrej Verity and Ky Luu, who have discussed these topics at great lengths with me overthe years. Finally big thanks to Lea Shanley at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that allowed me to present an extended version of this concept at one of their events.


1. Adinolfi, C., Bassiouni, D. S., Lauritzen, H. F., Williams, H. R. (2005). Humanitarian Response Review. United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. New York and Geneva: UN OCHA.

2. Alberts, D. S., Hayes, R. E. (2003). Power to the Edge: Command and Control in the Information Age. Washington, DC: CCRP.

3. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. (2011). Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies. Washington, D.C. and Berkshire, UK: UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.

4. Infoasaid. (2011, July 20). Communication is Aid. Retrieved December 9, 2011, from Youtube:

5. International Association of Emergency Managers. (2011, August 2). IAEM Announces Winners of 2011 Global Awards Competition. Retrieved December 9, 2011, from International Association of Emergency Managers:

6. Kim, S. (2004, March 28). People are a resource. Retrieved December 9, 2011, from Disaster News:

7. Merriam-Webster. (2011, December 9). Dictionary. Retrieved December 9, 2011, from Collaborate - Dictionary:

8. Miettinen, V. (2011, March 28). After the quake: crowdsourcing Japan. Retrieved December 9, 2011, from Microtask:

9. Mileti, D. (1999). Disasters by Design. Washington, DC: John Henry Press.

10. Save the Children. (2010, October 28). Save the Children’s SMS Texting Program Helps Pakistani Flood Survivors to Help Themselves. Retrieved December 9, 2011, from Save the Children:

11. Shirky, C. (2005, July 1). Clay Shirky on institutions vs. collaboration. Retrieved December 9, 2011, from TED:

12. Tapscott, D.,  Williams, A. D. (2006). Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York, NY: Portfolio

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Leaving a legacy

“There comes a time in your life when your focus shifts from success to significance”
Edward G. Happ (Chairman NetHope, CIO IFRC)
Throughout my close to twenty years of volunteering and working for non-profit organizations, I have had the honor of leading some great teams of people who all shared the common goal of doing something good for others. In my mind, as a leader, your role is not to direct those people or to manage them. In my mind, as a leader, your role is to help them build that shared vision and then do everything you can to eliminate any obstacle they may face in achieving that shared vision.
This is particularly true when you lead a time through a crisis, such as when responding to a large scale natural disaster. During those times, your task as a leader is to keep your team focused on the task at hand and help shield them from all the distractions that are all around such as media, humanitarian politics and other operational issues. Furthermore your task during those difficult times is to ensure that the morale of the team and the individual wellbeing of each team member is high, so that they can deal with the difficult tasks at hand.
To be given an opportunity to lead teams of great people in difficult times that are all focused on helping their fellow human beings is a great honor and privilege. At one point in my life, I was offered to go back into a highly paid job in software development after having worked for a few years in the humanitarian world. The decision to continue working on helping other people in need was a simple one. My life’s focus had shifted from success to significance as Ed so nicely put it.
But what is it that draws people into this world? It is certainly not the complex international and organizational politics that way to often hamper progress. It is certainly not the adrenaline of operating in dangerous environments. For me and many of my colleagues it is that smile on a person’s face once you know you have made a difference in their life. In her beautiful song to the humanitarian community, the singer BeyoncĂ©, put it very nicely. She talked about leaving a footprint on this earth, a mark that said “I Was Here”.
The late author and visionary Stephen Covey also put it very well, when he said “the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence, and contribution”. His definition on the need to leave a legacy fits very much with my own sense of purpose. For many people, leaving a legacy means having “monuments” rise that they can point towards and say “I did that”. For many people, leaving a legacy means becoming popular, talked about or even famous. For many people, leaving a legacy means achieving certain titles or positions of power.
But for me, leaving a legacy is about knowing that I made a difference in people’s lives. It is about knowing that those that I worked with, felt they were better people because they knew me. It is about knowing that those people that me and my team tried to help, felt they were better off because we helped them. It is about knowing that things may be done better in the future because of some work that I and my team have done.
As a leader, it is also your role to ensure that your team feels that their own legacy is growing when being part of the team. Sadly too often we see conflict arise within teams or organizations because people feel that other team members are “claiming the success” of the team effort. But a true leader knows that nothing is achieved only by an individual. It is the whole of the team that creates the result. A true leader therefore tries to ensure that all team members, no matter how big their role is, understand that their effort was a key part of the integral effort required to achieve the common goal. Together the team leaves a footprint saying “We Were Here”.
As part of being nominated for the Microsoft Alumni Foundation Integral Fellows Award this year, then I was asked what I would want my legacy or major contribution to have been. This was a question I asked myself a few years back, so it became easy for me to provide an answer.
Having been in the field during a number of disasters around the world, I realized that there were many great opportunities for significantly improving the way we prepare for and respond to disasters. Following Gandhi’s advice of “being the change I want to see in the world”, I try to work hard towards bringing those improvements about. But that is not something a single person can do, it takes a group of people from various sectors, various walks of life and various nationality, who all share this same vision.
If my legacy becomes that I was one of those who helped lead the effort of bringing together those people and drive forward improvements that help build disaster resilient communities, help create a move towards community based humanitarian response and enhance the decision making and coordination in the aftermath of a natural disaster, then I will be satisfied with a job well done.
In closing I want to quote one of my favorite authors, Robin Sharma, with the best advice he ever got, which was from his father. This advice was based on the old Indian saying:
“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Community Based Humanitarian Response

In my last blog post I discussed the importance of getting the disaster affected community involved the humanitarian response. I wanted to follow up on that discussion with a more detailed post that would discuss the different levels of Community Based Humanitarian Response.

To do so, I will utilize one of the classical writings about citizen participation, namely Sherry R Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation.


Although Arnstein’s field of work was urban planning, then it relatively easy for us to take her ladder and adapt it to humanitarian response. Arnstein’s theories have of course been controversial from their initial publication in 1969, especially because she is very negative about the non-participation and tokenism levels of participation. A strong proponent of citizen power, she felt that the only acceptable level of community involvement was when citizens were in control.

But lets go through the 8 different rungs of the ladder that form the three levels of participation (non-participation, tokenism and citizen power). For each rung we will discuss how it would apply to humanitarian response.


Manipulation along with Therapy make up the non-participation level of the ladder. It is in this rung that affected communities are not being enabled to participate and any communication with the affected community focuses on telling them that appropriate response is being provided or simply that no crisis exists. We unfortunately still see these levels of denial by some governments, especially those that repress their citizens.

In order to have some form of involvement by the community, we may create Community Advisory Groups, but instead of listening to what they have to say, officials or responders will educate, persuade or advise the citizens, not the reverse.


In the therapy rung, governments and response organizations try to “educate” or “cure” the affected community by teaching them ways to change their own behavior instead of addressing the issues at hand. Citizen task forces may be created to address issues that are not crucial to the overall well-being of the affected community, but it at least keeps them busy and involved.

Luckily we don’t see this happen to often in humanitarian response, which is good, since this is probably the most dishonest of all the rungs. One may however wonder if some of the work-for-aid/food/money programs created by aid agencies in recent years may have fallen under this rung.


Informing the affected communities of their rights, responsibilities and options is an important first step in citizen participation. We have over the past decade seen an ever increasing focus being put on this aspect of humanitarian response. However, the emphasis is way too often put on one-way flow of information, from the responders to the affected communities. Without a channel for the affected communities to provide feedback, there is little room for “negotiation”. This leads to humanitarian organizations providing programs design for the benefit of the affected population, without giving them any chance to influence the program itself.

Although extremely powerful to improve awareness of the response, we must step beyond this one way communication to others that allow for a more appropriate feedback loop.


Inviting the affected communities to share their opinion, just like informing them is a legitimate step towards community participation. The most common way of doing this is to perform needs assessments and community surveys. By asking community leaders or households to share information about their situation and their need, an expectation is created within the community that their needs will be met.

The results are however aggregated and sometimes not even fully used to make operational decisions about the response, due to lack of information management capacity.

A great example I once heard from a colleague was of when he did a needs assessment in a hospital and was thrown out by the doctor in charge who shouted “You are the 7th organization that comes here and ask me what I need and none of you come and provide anything I ask for. Stop assessing the situation and start providing me with relief”.


In this rung, you see community leaders being bit more involved in the response. Those community leaders are asked for input in the operational planning and even sometimes get involved in local distribution of relief items to some degree. It is however important to note that their input is not always listened to and they are also not always informed of why decisions are being made the way they are being made.

Furthermore it is often the case that although in the initial planning phase those community leaders are involved, then often that involvement does not continue into the implementation phase. This is often because the time period between the planning phase and the implementation phase may be very short and also because external factors may lead to changes to the initial plans, without the community leaders being kept in the loop.


At this rung in the ladder, the power dynamic is being redistributed through negotiation between the affected communities and the response organizations. At this level, they agree to share planning and decision-making responsibility through joint mechanism for resolving impasses.

One could argue that the clusters were an attempt to create a mechanism for bringing together the different parties involved. Sadly however they in most cases only have participation from the response community and the government.

Partnerships are most effective when there is an organized power-base in the affected community. This power-base then has community leaders that accountable to them and respects the wishes of the community.

To enable partnerships, it is essential to involve local community organizations that represent this power-base and get them to actively represent their community within local response “clusters”. The response organizations must then be willing to accept the involvement of the community and issues should be addressed through some form of negotiation (give-and-take) instead of unilateral decisions.

Delegated Power

Negotiations between affected communities and response organization can also result in communities achieving dominant decision-making authority over a particular plan or program. This would be the case if the local response “clusters” had a clear majority of community representatives. At this level, the ladder has been scaled to the point where affected community holds the significant cards to assure accountability of the program to them. To resolve differences, response organizations need to start the bargaining process rather than respond to pressure from the other end.

Another model of delegated power is separate and parallel groups of affected community representatives and response organizations, with provision for affected communities to veto if differences of opinion cannot be resolved through negotiation.

At this level the humanitarian response is becoming much more driven by the community itself and the response organizations act more as providers of services and goods. It is hard for traditional humanitarian organizations to see response evolve to this level, but as communities become more self-resilient we might start to see a few local communities around the world where this level can be achieved.

Citizen Control

In this final rung, humanitarian response organizations and governments have given up all control of the response to the affected communities themselves. Instead of the humanitarian organizations making the plans or implementing the response, the communities themselves become fully responsible for all aspects. The role of the humanitarian response organization may simply become one of providing advise or handling back-end logistics.

Although this model may sound very utopian to humanitarian responders, then this is often the case in smaller disasters that don’t get the attention of the traditional response community. It is also often the case that communities resolve to once the initial relief phase is over and the humanitarian organizations move away.

Some argue that with increased mobile ownership and through the social networking revolution citizens already have the tools they need to start organizing their own response. It is however important to remember that over the last 150 years, relief organizations have learnt many lessons from their mistakes in responding to disasters. If communities are fully self-organized, they may run into some of the same mistakes due to lack of experience in this space. Mistakes in humanitarian response often mean the difference between life and death, so the key to citizen controlled humanitarian response, must be that we can at the same time ensure the knowledge of these lessons gets integrated into their response.


Although total citizen control may not be achievable soon, improvements in communication technology, especially in the mobile space, provides us, like other fields a great opportunity to improve the involvement of affected communities in our work. Right now we are climbing up this ladder, with some of us in the informative or consultative rung. Only a select few examples can be found of bringing participation up to the partnership level.

Humanitarian organizations must adapt to the changed world we live in and make their humanitarian response community driven. Through improved information sharing and increased community involvement, we can ensure that partnerships can be built on sound information that leads to effective decision making.

In memoriam - World Humanitarian Day 2012

Today, August 19th, is World Humanitarian Day. On this day we remember humanitarian workers who have died while helping others in need. This day was carefully selected, because on this day back in 2003, twenty-two humanitarians died in Bagdad, Iraq during a bombing of the UN compound.

In a fantastic social networking experiment, UN OCHA, humanitarians, their friends and celebrities from around the world broadcasted a single message of hope to over 1.1 billion people. Furthermore, the singer Beyoncé, released a song dedicated to those humanitarian workers called I Was Here. In the beautiful lyrics and video that accompanied, the selfless work of humanitarians around the world is highlighted. Furthermore millions of people around the world committed to doing a good deed for someone else today in a sign of solidarity and helpfulness worldwide.

This social networking experiment, which is an amazing feat, is a great example of how social networks can be utilized to reach large numbers of people over a short period. Considering UN OCHA itself is a newcomer to social media, then it is especially interesting to see how quickly they are adapting to this new world and it is hopefully just the first step in an increased visibility and usage of social media in humanitarian situations.

But in this blog post I wanted to focus on my colleagues who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Since 2011, 109 humanitarian workers have been killed, 143 others were wounded and 132 have been kidnapped. Sadly these statistics are unfortunately part of a growing trend that shows insecurity of humanitarian workers has greatly increased. There are a number of reasons for this increase, such as changes in the geopolitical environment, overall increase in humanitarian workers, less respect for neutrality of humanitarian workers and organizations and more complex environments that humanitarian operations are performed in.

The Red Cross movement is doing a great job worldwide in increasing awareness both in conflict and natural disaster areas. But we must address this issue from multiple angles, not just from the awareness perspective. Don’t get me wrong, awareness is a very important angle and hopefully organizations like the Red Cross movement will embrace new methods and technologies to spread the messages of neutrality and respect for humanitarian workers.

There are other areas we must also address. One is to involve the affected communities more in the humanitarian work we do. Even when dealing with complex emergencies, it is important to get the affected community to become an integrated part of the approach taken. By making them part of the operational planning and execution, then the assistance becomes theirs. A community driven response ensures that those who are helping become better “protected” by the community itself. I often tell people about my many visits to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, which according to UN security rules are off-limits for UN workers due to security threats. I never feel threatened there, because I am accompanied by people who are part of the community and are doing good things for the community and nobody would ever think about hurting. This “shield by association” is amazingly powerful and does not only provide shielding against attacks, but it also enables information about threats to be more readily shared with humanitarians from the community.

Over the last few years we have seen more and more involvement of the affected communities, through programs like Communication with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) and organizations like InterNews. In my mind this is the first step down a path we must follow, a path where community participation increases from the simple informative stage it currently is in to the more citizen power stage that enables full citizen involvement. We need to borrow lessons learnt from the urban planning field and drive for increased community participation. As that field has shown, then technology can play an interesting role in improving that citizen participation. I call on our colleagues in the UN to use their convening power to start a deeper discussion on community based humanitarian response.

At the same time we must also improve how we manage and handle information, both information coming from the affected communities, the national governments and the response organizations. Through better information sharing, we can lead to more effective decision making and more coordinated response. This in turn enables humanitarian workers to focus their efforts where the need is most and at the same time overlay that information with security and safety information that then influences their operational planning. More coordinated response also allows for increased involvement of the community, better planning of humanitarian convoys and more focused delivery of response. This in return can save lives of not only humanitarian workers, but also of those affected.

NetHope along with its partners has started on addressing parts of that big puzzle through its Open Humanitarian Initiative. We welcome additional partners in that effort, especially those who also share our vision that involving local communities and organizations is one of the important keys to better response efforts. For those interested in learning more about the Open Humanitarian Initiative, then we encourage you to attend our Google+ hangout scheduled on August 30th at 8-10am PST, 11am-1pm EST, 3-5pm GMT, 5-7pm CET.

We must all be open to the fact that the world is evolving rapidly and that we in the humanitarian community must be willing to evolve with it. Communication technology has enabled us to reach large part of Earth’s population. We must leverage this communication revolution to increase awareness, better involve affected communities and better share information with each other, so that the trend of humanitarian workers being killed in the line of duty is reversed.

Together we can make a difference, one that someday may even save our own life or the life of someone we know.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Open Humanitarian Initiative: Improving Disaster Response

Last year was the costliest year in natural disasters that the world has ever seen. According to a report issued by global reinsurance firm Munich Re, world disasters in 2011 caused damages exceeding more than a third of a trillion dollars. And, experts at The World Bank predict that natural disasters will only get worse in the future, largely due to two powerful trends: burgeoning cities and a changing climate.
As the world prepares to cope with the high costs and other devastating effects of future earthquakes, tsunamis and more, it must find a better way to manage the chaotic environment that follows these disasters.
The world has made significant progress in making natural disasters less deadly through better early-warning systems, clearer evacuation plans and stricter building codes in earthquake-prone areas, among other emergency preparedness tactics. But, the global humanitarian community must be better at responding to large-scale destruction once it strikes.
One of the top culprits contributing to chaos following a disaster? A lack of communication and information-sharing.
NetHope, a collaboration of the world’s leading international NGOs, is working on addressing this serious and pressing problem in collaboration with a broad community of humanitarian and academic institutions with its forthcoming Open Humanitarian Initiative (OHI).
With support from The Patterson Foundation, NetHope is spearheading this broad-ranging initiative to improve information sharing and information management between humanitarian organizations, affected communities and governments in disaster-prone countries. OHI will build on existing open data efforts underway, and it will bring together all of the different actors in the humanitarian response system including donors, NGOs, government agencies, research organizations, companies from the private sector and the digital volunteer community to do so.
Why is it so important that data be widely accessible during a disaster?
Imagine that you’re in a coastal region reeling from the aftermath of a tsunami. You may be trapped under rubble or in desperate need of medical attention, food and water. You’re probably separated from your friends and family, wondering who survived. Hundreds of humanitarian workers and other emergency responders reach the area and try their best to address all of the victims’ urgent needs.
Now imagine that those responders – who, bear in mind, come from many different organizations – do not have the necessary tools to communicate with one another. That Responder A can’t tell Responder B that she found your missing relative 20 miles away. Imagine how incredibly difficult it is to swiftly and effectively respond amongst this chaos when those managing the response can’t share information with one another.
It is critical that emergency responders have the ability to coordinate aid and share information. Real-time and post-disaster evaluations consistently reveal that a lack of information-sharing between groups responding to large-scale disasters leads to inefficiencies in response efforts; inefficiencies that too often result in loss of life, extended human suffering and poor resource allocation.  
OHI will focus on two key areas – technology and capacity building – to provide a more complete information management solution. Investing in technology platforms to improve interoperability, visualization and data sharing, as well as in capacity building efforts like research and recruiting digital volunteers, OHI will drive immediate benefits for emergency responders who will get the information that they need when they need it.
Over the course of the next several months, NetHope will meet with leaders from various companies, foundations, NGOs and pilot countries to secure their partnership in OHI, and it will finalize project plans for OHI’s official launch expected in autumn 2012. NetHope cannot do it alone; only in collaboration with all of the actors who play a role in disaster response can we truly make effective and life-saving changes.
To learn more about OHI and how you can get involved contact NetHope at