Friday, June 14, 2013

What gets me excited about Project Loon?

One of the critical issues we often face after a disaster is that the communication infrastructure has been affected. Even when cell towers are still standing, the power infrastructure is severely damaged and often it takes days or weeks to restore these terrestrial systems. At the same time the disaster response field is undergoing a significant shift, because survivors are now able to become a central part of the response process.

Google’s announcement this evening of their Google-X Project Loon, where they plan to leverage specialized high altitude balloons (similar to weather balloons) to provide internet access to rural areas around the world is a very interesting technology for us in the disaster response field. Our field has in the past relied upon expensive satellite-based solutions that often give a limited bandwidth at an high cost. Project Loon has an opportunity to change that drastically.

The concept behind Loon is that it has 1000+ of balloons floating around the world at a very high altitude (around 20km). They expect them to stay up for around 100+ days and then they will recover them and launch new ones in their place. Each balloon costs only a fraction of what it costs to launch a satellite, so the operational costs are much lower.

The equipment needed on the ground to receive signals from them is relatively small and simple. More importantly the receiver will not be very expensive, which is a significant difference from satellite based solutions. The receivers are also expected to become smaller in size as time passes.

Having the balloons so high up, means that earthquakes and hurricanes will not affect the ability to send and receive signals. The simple receiver on the ground can also be easily packed during the hurricane and put back up immediately after it passes over. Bringing in a number of these receivers is also going to be much easier than bringing in large satellite receivers.

Improvements in connectivity enable information about the disaster to be easily shared between those responding and those affected. This enables more effective disaster response and much better targeted response, where the needs of those affected are taken into account. New methods of connectivity, such as Project Loon, enable this information sharing to occur at a much earlier stage and at a much lower cost than today’s solutions.

In rural, hard to reach areas, this technology also has the potential to revolutionize the access to the internet. This is particularly true for areas that are far away from the electrical and communication grids. Rural health clinics and schools will be able to get connected at a much cheaper cost than they currently can. This creates an opportunity to fully leverage the power of information technology in these rural areas.

Project Loon is still at the experimental stage and I am sure there are a number of issues that need to be overcome before it becomes fully operational. Some of these will be scientific in nature, some will be technical in nature, and some will be political in nature, but we at NetHope look forward to collaborating with the Project Loon team on testing this technology in the austere environments that our members operate in.

Project Loon may not change how we get connected in rural and disaster areas this year or even the next, but it is certainly an out-of-the-box potential solution to one of the complex problems we have been working on over the past 12 years since NetHope was founded. It is welcoming to see that the private sector is willing to not only focus their R&D on solutions for the top of the pyramid, but also on the 5+ billion people who today live on or below the poverty line.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Announcing plans for the creation of an alliance to promote open humanitarian data

For the past year, we have been advocating for bringing the concepts of open data into the humanitarian space. We have written a number of blog posts, we have spoken at conferences, and we have traveled the world and met with humanitarian organizations, academic organizations, private sector companies, governments, digital volunteer groups and donors.

Wherever we go everyone is very supportive of the concepts we are presenting. Everyone agrees that there is a need for a significant improvement in the way we share information during humanitarian response.

During this time we have identified the need to focus on all three aspects of this big issue, the political/policy side, the technical side, and the capacity side. We have also identified the key road blocks in each area and we have come up with proposals on how to address them in a step by step manner over the coming years.

It is now time to formalize this significant public-private partnership effort. As a result we have decided to form an alliance of organizations interested in working on this effort collaboratively with us. This alliance has gotten the name Open Humanitarian Alliance (OHA). Its purpose is to further the sharing of information in the humanitarian space through the principles of open data. Our tentative plans are to formally launch the Open Humanitarian Alliance on May 28th, in New York City.

If your organization is interested in learning more about joining the Open Humanitarian Alliance, then feel free to reach out to us through OHI at nethope.org.

We would also like to invite all organizations and individuals interested in working with us on making this important effort a reality to join our OHA launch task force. This task force will help draft the governance structure for the alliance. It will also focus on the advocacy work of bringing all the key players into the alliance. You can sign up for the task force by contacting us at OHI at nethope.org.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Open Data and Impact Measures

It is always educational and thought provoking to read Bill Gates annual letters. This year's letter focused on the importance of measuring the impact of the work we are doing to make the world a better place.

I wholeheartedly agree with my old boss (well technically bosses-bosses-……..-boss) on the aspect that we have to know whether what we are doing has the desired impact. Sadly there are still way to many projects out there that are not making the desired impact and yet get funded again and again (mainly for political reasons – nobody wants to rock the boat). This is something we must of course change.

At the same time corruption and mismanagement of funds has also caused the donor community to become very strict on accountability. Again something that was sadly required, because of “bad apples” in the humanitarian and development communities.

Both of these trends have given birth to a new breed of humanitarian and development workers that work in the newly created “Monitoring and Evaluation” field. Those people are responsible for keeping track of everything (for accountability reasons) and to provide proof to the donors that their money is actually making impact.

What struck me over the past couple of years as I have visited non-profits working in the aftermath of natural disasters is the fact that we have gone totally overboard in this attempt to correct and improve. I sometimes see more people filling out forms and reports “for the donors” than I see doing actual work in the field. We have in fact added layers upon layers of staff to keep up with these demands.

It sometime reminds me of the world that I came from before I joined the non-profit sector. During my last few years at Microsoft, the concept of scorecards was introduced throughout the company. Sadly the introduction of scorecards, while most likely having some effects to cut costs, has not had the intended effect within Microsoft. Sadly people focus so much on keeping the scorecard “green” that they forget all about innovation and growing things that aren’t being measured.

So what can we do to enable the accountability required and to enable us to measure the impact we need to know we are doing “the right thing”?

We at NetHope have over the past year been working on bringing the concept of Open Data to the humanitarian community. Our main goal for this effort is to improve coordination of response efforts by providing decision makers with better information. We believe that just that part of our effort will reduce suffering and save lives.

The additional benefit of opening up the data that humanitarian organizations gather and produce during response efforts is that it also increases transparency and enables not just themselves but also others to measure impact across organizations and sectors.

In one of his early TED lectures, Clay Shirky 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.

The same holds true for measuring impact. If our operational systems are automatically sharing the information they capture openly with the outside world, then we get the measuring of the impact automatically as a byproduct of operating the system without having to put in place the big institutional models.

The most important thing however in my mind, when it comes to measuring impact through open data is the fact that we can combine information from multiple organizations or sectors and thereby see the true impact instead of the siloed individual impact measurements from one organization or one sector.

If you are interested in working with us and a number of partners from the humanitarian, academic and private sectors on our Open Humanitarian Initiative, then feel free to reach out to us to find out how you can play a role in improving humanitarian coordination, increasing transparency and in enabling better measurement of impact.