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!!!