Over the past several months, if not longer, I have been wondering about a couple things:
1) Coordination and Governance in an Distributed, Networked World. As a Digital Humanitarian Network (DHNetwork) coordinator over the past year, I have often wondered what would be the best coordination model to use for large digitally distributed emergency-responding volunteers. If we could research the various models in use, perhaps we could both apply the most appropriate model to the DHNetwork and influence the traditional humanitarian coordination structure.
2) Modern Collaboration Techniques and Processes. With the recent rise of digital humanitarians, these distributed groups have found (technical) ways to seamlessly collaborate and rapidly build appropriate processes to operate and respond to emergencies. Given that the traditional humanitarian community “takes a lot of heat” for not adopting new technologies/processes as quickly as they are released, what can we do quickly and systematically to adopt new tools and processes. How can the digital humanitarians better prepare their projects so traditional organizations more easily understand how they can adopt them and how can traditional organizations more readily try new tools/process while accepting the related risk.
In that regard, I drafted two one-page research concepts in hopes to attract someone to do some initial work on these topics. It has been interesting difficult to find anyone willing to take it on. Many have expressed a high degree of interest, but in the end prefer to write reports about how things are changing (e.g. Disaster Relief 2.0 and Humanitarianism in a Networked Age) rather than figuring how how we can make change easier and faster. The research concepts, open for comment, are online:
- Digital Humanitarian Coordination and Governance in an Distributed, Networked World;
- Understanding Digital Humanitarian Collaboration Techniques and Processes;
I am happy to report that an new intern - Mary Milner - will join me this summer to work on these two topics. We expect to be in touch with many different people, but if you would like to be proactive about giving your input, kindly comment below or in the Google Docs linked above.
I was recently reading about Sosh’s expansion from San Francisco to New York and it got me to thinking: could we build a Humanitarian Concierge? It would be a crowd-based service bringing together the affected population with the responders where the affected could ask for or look up operational information and get services from fellow affected people or the humanitarian community. It would bring together peer-to-peer needs-response services with humanitarian call centers and digital volunteers.
Of course, Sosh is focusing on your general social life, but why not change the content so that one can look for the closest shelter, request specific assistance, determine the next food delivery, go to the least crowded field hospital, add the next community meeting to your calendar, and find out if your friends/neighbors/colleagues are okay. What I like about Sosh is two fold: 1) they focus on only high quality content (machine algorithms) and 2) before anything goes onto Sosh, it is inspected by a real human to make sure it is legit (human reasoning). These are two of the big differences between Sosh and other personal assistance apps right now.
There are many projects already started that I see would help make such an idea possible. These would include:
- Applications to match needs and resources in an emergency (like Joint.ly, Rynda, and QCRI’s MatchApp);
- Modification of or novel use of existing platforms such as Occupy Sandy’s use of the Amazon Wedding Registry to allow people people to specify their needs;
- Groups of digital humanitarians (perhaps from the Digital Humanitarian Network) to review and curate content;
- MicroTasking tools like those starting on MicroMappers;
- A (local) Humanitarian Call Center that can deal with feedback and perhap route requests through tools like StormPins, Ushahidi, CrowdMap, etc.;
- Check-in/out application for responders and organizations (e.g. Humanitarian ID) so we know who is in-country, what the capacity is to respond, and who can support virtually.
One of the biggest pieces that is missing to making this concept happen is standards. For example, I see more and more of the needs-matching apps showing up, yet there is no data standard behind them. The missing persons applications went through this a few years ago with several different sites and apps. Very quickly the community realized that they needed to come together and build the Person Finder Interchange Format (PFIF). But rather than everyone building their own unique standard, the opportunity that we now have is leveraging the Humanitarian eXchange Language (HXL) project. If each major element (e.g. expression of a need) was to build their standard as a piece of HXL, we could much more easily bring data together in the future. I remember dreaming up the idea with CJ Hendrix a couple years ago and he has really taken the project in a great direction. Now we just need the community to prioritize it, assign resources to it, and start making their data openly available in the HXL format. It will be one key piece to really make the Humanitarian Concierge happen sooner than later.
In regards to the technology, many will see it initially as a smart phone app. But, I see no reason that it could not also be run through SMS. The technology (e.g. RapidSMS and Frontline SMS) already exists and would just be a pipeline into a central response tool which would either respond automatically (if possible) or pass it to the Humanitarian Call Center for attention.
So, what is the Impact of such a tool?
For me, this question is where it could get really interesting. If we have all the data out there and (remote) services to enable people to help themselves and others, we would really be getting at a fully participatory aid-type of response which is defined by Matt Stempeck as being mutual, peer-to-peer aid mediated or powered by information and communication technology. And, we would be delivering humanitarian aid in a networked age. It could become a reality where large humanitarian organizations have to take a different role than they have had in the past decades. Perhaps it becomes more about providing raw supplies to allow for on-demand 3D Humanitarian Printing, providing pre-positioned services like AidBox, and providing assistance to organizations/governments in order to enable them to share their data before & during emergencies.
The traditional donors (governments) would likely have to change how they give their money and the full “donor pool”, including governments, private industry, and individuals, would effectively be recognized together as one group and would have to work together in a networked fashion to help solve problems in near real time.
Digital Humanitarians around the world could truly aid in emergency response. Perhaps they are assisting the Humanitarian Call Center, or helping with manual needs-matching, or translating official documents into local languages, or even driving large advocacy campaigns.
There is no way to know where things are really going. But, we know that change is going to happen. There are already over 1 billion smartphones in use with predictions adding another billion by 2015. One can only imagine that this speed of adoption will continue as smartphone prices continue to drop rapidly. There will be more people out there demanding better, quicker information that let’s them help themselves rather waiting for a food caravan to stop by at some point in the future.
I am curious how we can move this idea forward so please leave your opinions, suggestions and thoughts below in the comments.
A few months ago, I came across BufferBox and was thinking that it would be a great service which I could personally use. Quite often, I order things from Amazon in Europe, but they refuse to ship into Switzerland. So, I have to either ship to a friend in nearby France or use a “Point Relais” on Amazon.fr. Effectively, with BufferBox you order something and have it delivered to a nearby BufferBox and you receive a PIN (after delivery) that allows you to open the box in which your order has been stored.
Now, what I am wondering is, could we use a similar model to help deliver humanitarian aid? Essentially and AIDBox.
I am thinking of a few different AIDBox options:
1) Responding to demand. A person in need could send an SMS of their need (including preferred AIDBox location ID), a responding organization accepts that request, the material is placed in the nearest AIDBox, and the requestor is sent a PIN code they can use to open the box where their request is placed.
2) Propositioning What if AIDBox was a vending machine like device which was pre-populated with common items in need? So, if I needed two bars of soap and two blankets for my family, I could send an SMS with my needs (and my preferred AIDBox location ID), the managing organization would accept the request, and a I would receive an SMS with a PIN code to enter into the machine. The AIDBox would then dispense two bars of soap and two blankets.
3) Raw Materials. Perhaps we could pre-position raw materials in something like a AIDBox and when someone requests an item, they would be given a PIN code with which they could get the raw materials and instructions. Using these, they could arrange to have the necessary products printed by a 3D printing service nearby.
Yes, there would be various security concerns. But, I suspect that many of those have been dealt with by the various UN Agencies, NGOs, Gov’ts, etc who already deliver aid.
The other question people might ask is about possible abuse. The benefit with this approach is that it is based on a mobile numbers. So, if the affected person wanted to receive aid, they would have to register their mobile number with a central service thereby ensuring their cannot make an abusive numbers of request. [Even if they do not have to register, we would see multiple requests from the same number and could program systems to watch for patterns of abuse]. Also, having these numbers would provide the aid community with a very targeted group to whom we could communicate with when wanting to share or request information related to the emergency.
I suspect that there could be several novel ways to use this concept in emergencies. I would love you hear your thoughts.
Quite often during the early days and weeks of an emergency, I hear people asking for more data or information. This is a very common occurrence, but I often struggle with how to stop people from demanding more information and to instead focus on understanding what is already available. I also see that most information professionals who support these decision makers in turn demand more data from humanitarian partners and produce more products. In my reading pursuit to help my own understanding, I read several decision making books including a couple great ones from Malcolm Gladwell (Blink & What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures) which really helped. And, one of the more interesting analogies that Gladwell used was the idea of a Mystery vs a Puzzle in regards to data/information requirements in decision making.
To outline the difference between a puzzle and a mystery, he used the following example:A puzzle = What was Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts? A mystery = What would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein? Gathering more data will help us to solve puzzles, but not to solve mysteries. Mysteries require sense-making more than data. Often adding data to a complex situations create conflict with existing data thereby making the situation even more uncertain and more difficult to make a decision.
Gladwell notes that “…the distinction is not trivial. If you consider the motivation and methods behind the attacks of September 11 to be mainly a puzzle, for instance, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, add to the volume of information we have about Al Qaeda. If you consider September 11 a mystery, though, you’d have to wonder whether adding to the volume of information will only make things worse. You’d want to improve the analysis within the intelligence community; you’d want more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know about Al Qaeda. You’d want to send the counterterrorism team from the CIA on a golfing trip twice a month with the counterterrorism teams from the FBI and the NSA and the Defense Department, so they could get to know one another and compare notes. If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.”
In the humanitarian world, we could apply this concept easily to any emergency. But, let’s use the 2010 Haiti earthquake. How to get aid into the country is a puzzle. It was a complicated logistic question which had a complicated answer. The overall effectiveness of the response to the earthquake was a mystery until well after the fact and no amount of data or information during the initial response could have predicted the outcome. Overall, humanitarian emergencies are more like a mystery than a nice puzzle with a predictable outcome. Yet, frequently responders continue to demand more and more data/information.
So, what do we need? We need analysts with language ability, religious understanding, and knowledge of the cultures of the countries we are responding in. We need analytical listeners who have the right skills and know the right questions to ask. We need people who can ‘make sense’ of the situation thus determining what information is a “dot” and how these dots can be connected.
Of course there will continue to be a demand for more data/information [it is a perfect stalling technique for decision makers]. And, modern technologies are only enabling the creation of more and more data. But, we have to stop and realize that more data can make things worse. The more data we add, the less valuable it becomes. The value of each successive data point gets smaller and smaller while the strain of sorting out all the information keeps increasing. Gathering the extra information is the easy part. Thinking about what the extra information means takes real work. Effectively, we need to watch closely for the point when to stop collecting so much data and rather focus on making sense of what we have. We need to be very mindful of what data we are collecting, for what purpose are we collecting it, and for which decision maker, in the large taxonomy of decision makers, we producing products for.
The important point about decision makers is that they often make decisions on five (or less) cues. These cues range from past experience to opinions of colleagues to the latest social media messages. When a decision maker is either bombarded with too much data or is not given enough, they are often paralyzed and struggle to make decisions. With modern technologies and the ease of sharing information through channels like Twitter, decision makers are finding it even more difficult to make sense of what is going on and finding it even more difficult to make the best possible decisions. If you tell a decision maker to look at Twitter to help make a decision, they have no idea how to even start.
When I started reading OCHA’s recent publication entitled Humanitarianism in the Network Age, I was initially worried as it started implying that big data availability could really help decision makers. Thankfully, later in the report, they noted that “…more data may not always be the right answer. In time-constrained situations, decision makers can only process a certain amount of information, and in situations where there is limited understanding of the nature of a problem, the search for more data can obscure the need for more analysis. Each additional unit of data that requires analysis has a transaction cost. In a resource-limited environment the cost of analysis can easily be overwhelming.”
Yes, we are in an age where we will have large amounts of data no matter what we do. And, we need to figure out how to incorporate these datasets. What the humanitarian world is starting to realize is that there are several modern entities out there who already provide amazing services that can help. Many of the more recently recognized Volunteer & Technical Communities are aiming to help collect this increasing amount of data, put it into a digestible format or structure, and provide it to decision makers to potentially use as one of their decision cues. If we take the December 2012 activation of the Digital Humanitarian Network, the solution team [Standby Volunteer Task Force and Humanity Road] was asked by UN-OCHA to search through social media within 24 hours to find pictures and videos of the destruction. In that time, the team searched through 20,000 messages and returned the information in a structured format as requested by UN-OCHA. The massive amount of social media had now been “filtered” into something much more manageable for the requesting entity. The data was used to compile into a form of social media map, to produce a set of analytical graphs, and to augment traditional in-person assessments. This big data was effectively distilled down into something that a decision maker could use as one cue in helping to make a decision. After-the-fact, we have learned that this same data (in different structures) could have been used very differently such as infrastructure damage mapping and advocacy purposes had it been made available.
By enabling humanitarian community with the right skill sets (e.g. analysts) and partnering with modern entities (e.g. Digital Humanitarian Network), we have a great opportunity to begin to demystify future humanitarian emergencies by operating in a modern, networked manner.