my thoughts shared

1 note &

Orchestrating our way out of Humanitarian Information Management Gridlock

Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend a Global Solution Networks event in Brussels where I was part of a panel with Thomas Hale who spoke about the concepts of Orchestration and Gridlock. Although he talked about these topics in relation to climate change and other thematic issues, I started reflecting how they relate to humanitarian information management. First I read a paper entitled Orchestration and Transnational Climate Governance that he authored with Charles Roger. Then I read a book he co-authored entitled Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing when We Need It Most with David Held and Kevin Young. Although they are focused on specific topics, I found several parallels in humanitarian information management and the challenges that we face today. I also realized that some individuals are starting to “orchestrate” within our field, but we can do A LOT more as organizations.

The authors defined gridlock as “the growing gap between our need for global solutions and the flagging ability of multilateral institutions to meet that need. This represents a breakdown of global cooperation that we call gridlock” and outlined the paths to gridlock as having been: multipolarity, institutional inertia, harder problems, and institutional fragmentation. Sound familiar to any of you information management practitioners?

How big is the challenge becoming? In 1909 there were 37 intergovernmental organization and in 2011 there were 7,608. According to Yearbook of International Organizations, international nongovernmental organizations had increased from 832 in 1951 to a whopping 56,834 in 2011. Mancur Olson noted a truism in his book - The Logic of Collective Action - that “the larger the group, the less it will further its common interests”. Such numbers make it much clearer to me why coordination is extremely difficult, yet very critical. So, if we have grown this big, how does the formal humanitarian community find a way to move forward without completely grinding to a halt?

But you asking: “Are we really in gridlock?” Perhaps we have been there for so long that we don’t know the difference. When working in a political entity like the United Nations, a information management officer must respect the sovereign rights to a country. If a country does not want us to respond to an emergency, we cannot (we have to be asked). We have to be VERY careful how we draw borders on maps. Often we cannot release products publicly without fear of government reprisal. We often stick to official numbers released by the government even if other sources contradict them. But, with the technology available in today’s age, the barriers to entry into humanitarian information management have dropped drastically. It means that groups can be quickly created and be completely virtual while not having to respect an affected countries sovereignty (e.g. to help a local NGO if they want). The Digital Humanitarian Network helped a local NGO with inter-organizational coordination during floods in India where the UN was not asked to respond. ACAPS, a non-governmental organization, can undertake and release analysis about emergencies (like the Syria crisis) when the UN cannot do so publicly. Are these kind of groups the mechanisms to help us escape gridlock?

With such actors maturing quickly, international organizations face the possibility of orchestrating our way out of humanitarian information management gridlock. What is orchestration exactly? International Organizations “engage in orchestration when they enlist intermediary actors on a voluntary basis, by providing them with ideational and material support, to address target actors in pursuit of IGO governance goals. Orchestration is thus both indirect (because the IGO acts through intermediaries) and soft (because the IGO lacks control over intermediaries).” Essentially, I see it a matter of aligning the goals of different groups to achieve a set outcome. It is neither delegation nor simple outsourcing. 

So, could the DHNetwork and other NGOs become the intermediaries for the international humanitarian information management responders? Absolutely. Of course we will face challenges related to authority, data security & privacy, and legal frameworks. But, several of the DHNetwork members are further ahead in thinking about and finding solutions for these issues than most formal humanitarian organization. Beyond helping the international responders, groups like the DHNetwork can bring the world to help with complex challenges we often only assign a handful of people. Not a bad idea - no?

In my experience of pushing in the direction of bringing more people (virtually) to help me with hard humanitarian information management problems, I have learned a couple things that we need to keep in mind. First, we cannot simply consider them volunteers and we must recognized that they will often give more than 100%. Second, we need to value and support them. What can the UN and other International Organizations bring to the relationship? We can bring convening power, provide coordination support, lend legitimacy, enable ideational factors, and release material & intellectual resources. Simply put, we can provide the entrepreneurial environment to foster such work and collaboration.

Who do we need to make orchestration happen? We know that there are willing partners in the DHNetwork and several information management NGOs. The DHNetwork has even created guidance on how to collaborate with them. But we need more “orchestrators” in the formal humanitarian organizations. These need to be risk takers, innovators, and have a desire to improve the system. Shadrock Roberts, when he was with USAID, was a perfect example. We need more Shadrocks. These are the kind of people who need to be organizationally recognized, be protected by central innovation units and be allowed to fail occasionally. And we need more creative partnerships so that at the time of crisis, when an organization’s culture becomes malleable, orchestration can happen.

When I reflect on my work in UN-OCHA and co-founding the DHNetwork (in my spare time), I have realized that orchestrators are going to be the ones who grow the symbiotic exchange between the bottom-up (DHNetwork) and top-down (UN) camps. As Patrick Meier mentioned, in his introduction to my keynote at the International Conference of Crisis Mappers 2013, I have become somewhat of a “translational leader”. We need more people who are willing to actively straddle the two sides to make things happen. We need strong leaders who advocate reform that can lead us beyond gridlock. Will you be one of them?

This problem is hard. A few people will not be enough. 


1 note &

A Digital Humanitarian Aid Currency

Having been loosely monitoring the development of cryto-currencies like BitCoin over the past few years, I have often thought about the possibility of having a dedicated digital aid currency. I suspect that such a solution is still a bit fanciful although things will begin to change when power becomes more predictable in emergencies and technology, like smart phones, become part of the standard aid package. When such services are in place, we may be ripe for a crypto-currecny dedicated to humanitarian aid.

Providing a stable, sustainable digital currency would be no easy feat as anyone who has followed the ups-and-downs of BitCoin recently. From exchange bankruptcy, to price stability, to virtual currency regulations, to a string of thefts , to dedicated exchanges & being listed on Bloomberg, to Apple pulling all BitCoin wallets (resulting in speculation of their own interest in cypto-currencies), to rags-to-riches stories, to Virgin Galactic accepting BitCoin payments, to generating over $1 million USD in sales over its first two months of accepting the currency. Bitcoin legality varies around the world. But, for those watching the crypto-currency space may already know, BitCoin is not the only player. Auroracoin, for example, is a crypto-currency aimed particularly at Iceland and is set to launch soon. And, the director of Google Idea believes that crypto-currencies are here to stay.

Even with the current Bitcoin volatility, companies like Circle, which is a payment platform, is working to make it easy for businesses and consumers to use Bitcoin and other digital currencies. By the time the humanitarian community is ready for a digital currency, companies like these will have mature solutions and many of the cryto-currency challenges will be addressed.

But, what is so good about a digital currency? Generally put, it is because they can facilitate (online) payments at lower costs and with greater security and privacy than existing electronic payment methods. One potential draw for merchants is avoiding the fees and risks of fraud and charge-backs associated with credit cards. According to Circle, “There’s a tremendous opportunity to make payments easier, more secure and less costly for consumers and businesses. Digital currency can dramatically reduce the friction and costs currently experienced in the world by merchants and consumers.”

Two more technical benefits that interest me are: 1) the ability to program the exchange of currency and 2) the ability to trace exactly where the currency is spent.

While responding in the Philippines, I interacted with the Cash-Working-Group on a few occasions. One of the major struggles that the group faced was how to monitor unconditional cash transfers. As I have noted before [PDF], I doubt that donors will not be overly happy in the future to simply give money to aid agencies who somewhat blindly give money away without having a clue on how it is spent. And, this is where the ability to trace a digital currency becomes of value. Not only can we monitor how money is being spent, but we can quickly see if prices are escalating, if there is any theft, and if there is any corruption. All of a sudden, we have a technical tool that can help monitor a response, combat corruption, and give us a trove of data to analyze. And, if we had a Kickstarter-like humanitarian fund, enabled by such a currency, each individual who gave to the emergency could see exactly where their money ended up.

Is cash-as-aid really that big to worry about? I was quite surprised in the Philippines about how much cash programming was happening (compared to just 4 years earlier in Haiti). And, apparently, the World Food Programme expects that almost a third of its assistance programmes will be delivered in the form of cash, vouchers and new kinds of “digital food” through smart-cards and e-vouchers delivered by SMS. As a comparision, between 2008 and 2011, the number of WFP cash and voucher projects increased from five in 2008 to 51 in 2011. In that year WFP set aside US$208 million for distributions using cash or vouchers, but still spent over one billion dollars on food. If we translate this rise across the humanitarian community and imagine that we will eventually move beyond SMS as as the delivery mechanism, having a solid digital currency to use will be critically important.

I am no expert on the topic by any means. But, I believe that we need to start thinking about it in a serious way. I am hoping to have someone join me this summer to start digging into the matter in much greater depth in order to see what might be feasible, what kind of partnerships would be needed, and how others can contribute to building out the concept. In November 2013, I had a great conversation with Richard Bon Moya and Ivory Ong of the Philippines Open Data team and I am hoping to engage them…after all, isn’t the Philippines an ideal place for a humanitarian innovation?

If you are interested to join in the initial conversation, let me know.


0 notes &

A Powered, Future Information Information Center?

In the past UN-OCHA would established a humanitarian common service called the Humanitarian Information Centre (HIC) aimed at servicing both the national and international responding community with data, information, and product services. Those days are behind us, but I wanted to ponder the idea of an information center aimed at serving the affected community in the early days of an emergency.

In recent years, the idea of effectively communicating two ways with the affected population has really taken off largely as a result of the promise that modern technology could make it happen. Still, the focus has often remained with sharing information out to the community as the puzzle of receiving (i.e. crowdsourcing) and actioning information from the community has not yet been solved. So, what if the humanitarian community setup a multitute of information centers throughout a disaster zone? Such features often exist inside an evacuation center or camp, but I am thinking well outside those “boxes”.

Having a distributed set of networked centers, would allow responders to collect information in a structured way as people visit (think standard forms), to give our technology as aid (see When Will Smartphones be Aid?), and to provide a wide range of services aimed at benefiting the community.


The power challenge. With our growing dependence on technology, the availability of power to charge even the basic devices like a feature phone becomes a challenge. Many affected populations have found creative solutions ranging from hacking car batteries, to pay-for-charge generators, to daisy-wheeling power cables from one power source, to mobile companies offering free charging stations. But, the question that always came to my mind was how can we scale such solutions and make them predictable for future emergencies. Recently, Aimee Wielechowski, a former OCHA colleague, introduced me to Volt and my optimism greatly increased. 

One of the things that I like about Volt is that they are a new company (2011) and are looking at the Mobile Recharging experience differently than others that I have come across. Rent, Charge & Exchange. Although their current focus is providing a recharging service for smartphones at festivals and similar events where traditional power sources are not easily accessible for longer periods of time, I think that they may be onto a model suitable in disasters. For those who have been in a sudden onset emergency, does “traditional power sources are not easily accessible for longer periods of time" sound familiar? To learn more specifically about Volt, check out their introductory video. The great news is that apparently Volt is starting to explore how their approach could be used in emergencies.

Of course, I believe that such a service would need to be married with other power solutions. For example, LG gave solar panels to help power major evacuation centers in response to Typhoon Haiyan. Imagine an emergency where the responding community provide distributed Volt-like services with LG-enabled solar farms in central locations.

Bringing power to the affected community will result in both the obvious and the not-so obvious. Most importanntly, it will enable information exchange both ways. People will want to come to the center for their power needs while staff can query for structured information. The visitors can ask for information - about missing persons, aid distributions, security, employment opportunities, etc. By providing a service that the affected want (and can come when they want), we can collect more structured input from the community than we have ever before. And, being structured, such data enables us to do much more analysis and enable more decisions than ever before.

These centres would not have to be fancy or elaborate places. They would not have to be expensive. They could be centrally supplied and serviced so that outposts could be quite simple. Not a lot more than the Globe charging stations deployed in the Philippines to Typhoon Haiyan. They could become the focal points who liaise with the Digital Humanitairan Network thus enabling remote volunteers to more directly help those in need (find services, translate UN materials to local languages, connect with family abroad, etc). In areas with specific needs, specialized staff could be present to help answer unique questions or demands. They would become a real, on-demand service center for the affected. And, if managed correctly, they would enable the responding community to have their “finger on the pulse” at all times.


The one question some will ask is about security. How do we make these centres safe for staff. For those in the UN-like world, it will probably seem an unsurmountable problem. But, what if we take a different approach? What if we define the model and then open-source it for anyone to implement? The model would include details on the minimum product & services to provide and the necessary agreements (tools to use, security of personal data, sharing of structured data with central body, etc). This approach would get around the UN-security restrictions as it would allow almost anyone to run an outpost center. It could be a small international NGO, a large natioanl NGO, a university, a mayor’s office or a chambre of commerce. In an insecure environment, it could be run by a group who are considered secure in the environment.

The key to such a solution will be defining the model, finding a way to open-source it, and developing key predictable partnerships. As I have said before, it will be Partnerships + Emergencies = Innovation. The big question from me is how many more emergencies will we see before such a solution is put in place?

Anybody keen to get started?


Update: on 15-April-2014 as part of another project, I read the CDAC Network Update #5 on Typhoon Haiyan where First Response Radio (FRR) “reported that a lot of people are listening to the radio on mobile phones, and also that charging stations and aid distribution points would be a good place for information provision

0 notes &

Philippines: An ideal place for an humanitarian innovation lab?

As I wrap-up nearly 3 months in the Philippines in response to typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, I am starting to reflect on my work and on the humanitarian response to the emergency. Although there will be many lessons learned, best practices identified, and studies of the response, I have started thinking about the Philippines and what it could enable in the humanitarian community.

From an OCHA Information Management (IM) standpoint, we implemented many new solutions and approaches that we had not done before in an emergency of this scale. But what I have come to realize is that the Philippines provides the appropriate context to allow us try.


I have been writing and promoting innovation within the humanitarian arena for quite some time and I realized that the Philippines provided at least five attributes that would truly let it be a major humanitarian innovation hub. What are these traits you ask? Quickly put:

1) Disasters, Disasters, Disasters. A couple years ago, the World Disaster Report ranked the Philippines as the third most disaster prone country in the world behind a couple small pacific islands. The Philippines has regular emergencies across the country. In 2013 alone there were 4 emergencies that UN-OCHA responded to - a typhoon, an earthquake, large floods, and internal displacement from conflict. This “regular disaster” scenario has created a culture of people who remember, know what it is like to be affected, and are generous to fellow citizens. Humanitarianism is built into the Filipino culture.

2) Failure. What amazes me about the Philippines is that it has a culture that accepts failure. How many times has the country’s president been removed early or been deemed corrupt. I lived in Manila through EDSA II in 2001 and have loosely followed their politics since. To me, the politics in the country is like a Hollywood drama complete with real life gossip and rumors. Yet, the people do not give up on democracy. They keep trying time and time again despite the politicians’ failures. The same applies to private industry and civil society. They have built failure-tolerance into the culture.

3) Techies. The Philippines has a huge tech-savy population. I remember arriving in Manila in 2000 and being startled at how many people had cell phones and how most could send an SMS message without looking at the phone. Today, they have a vast number of young developers who are keen to help. So, not only is this group technical, but they have grown up in a humanitarian, failure-tolerant society.

4) OpenData. One of the first meetings that I had with the government in the response to Haiyan/Yolanda was with the OpenData group. The meeting was not in a government building or in a UN office. It was at a hackathon. Although a relatively new group, the OpenData group has been moving quite quickly in their efforts to open government data. I sat with the CIO of the group and had an amazing chat. We talked about a Kickstarter for Emergencies and we even aligned on ideas for a digital aid currency. These are people who are thinking forward.

5) Thankful. In all of the countries that I have visited as a humanitarian, I have never met such a friendly and thankful society. I was driving around with an Ormoc city offical and his first words were of thanks and praise towards the humanitarian community. He did later ask about what I call the humanitarian branding war, but overall he was extremely positive. When departing the Philippines, I was given a ‘Thank You’ card by the customs offical. Never have I received such thanks. No matter where I went or who I spoke to, they were appreciative of the help from the international community.


Putting these five cultural features together creates a perfect country for a humanitarian innovation lab. The population has a humanitarian nature, accepts failure, is full of techies, is pushing forward on OpenData, and is truly appreciative of people even trying to help. If you are still a bit skeptical, step back and ask yourself: “How many other countries or organizations have you seen with such a perfect combination of traits?”.

As an international community we keep responding to emergencies in the Philippines. Perhaps it is time that we stick around a bit longer to collaborate with the Filipinos under the specific aim to develop innovative humanitarian practices that could be applied around the world.

What do you think?