RELIEF summary part II

Co-authored post from Ella and Willow

Yesterday, you read about Civil Air Patrol and the basis of RELIEF. We continue that conversation today into security and the complexities of mismatched cultural backgrounds.

On the security side, Rogue Genius’s George Chamales and Geeks Without Bounds’s Eleanor Saitta spoke with RELIEF attendees about their systems. While the military and agencies like the State Department have experience with security in other arenas, recognition of the importance of security in humanitarian assistance and disaster response situations is an ongoing process. Security often isn’t intuitive, even for development groups with mature products. Beyond that, the landscape is often changing rapidly, as evidenced by the current state of mobile security. Just like in all areas of security however, outcomes are what matter, more than any theoretical state of security.

One of the most concrete security outcomes of the event, from George, was the creation of a test install virtual machine image of many of the open source tools in the humanitarian space, which can now be distributed to security testers. This will allow testers to quickly jump in and find potential vulnerabilities without needing to learn how the tools are installed and configured, reducing the overhead associated with pro-bono testing. Efforts like this one will feed into the larger project of professionalizing the VTC community’s approach to security-centric peer review and testing.

In addition to the longer-term work on the community process, Eleanor and George both had a number of specific conversations with different teams present at the event about the security of their tools. Some of this was skill-sharing and some of it resulted in actionable guidance for both the product development teams and the operational field groups. Apart from the technical concerns, understanding the cultural difference between how government organizations think about security and how the more Internet-centric security community thinks about it was productive for all parties.

It’s no accident that the cultures of different communities keep coming up here. One of the most valuable parts of the RELIEF experience for GWOB was learning the culture and the language of the government attendees. This is a wildly different crowd than the sort of people Geeks Without Bounds usually associates with and supports. While it was great fun to try to persuade someone from DHS to let us take a picture of a #HOPE9 Hopeland Security patch next to the real patch on their shirt (“of course we won’t get your face in the photo”), that’s not an approach that a lot of folks will be comfortable with.

Learning how to speak each other’s languages doesn’t mean that the cultural mismatch will magically go away – GWOB’s decentralized, bottom-up approaches are still going unnerve someone coming from a culture that expects strict hierarchical oversight. However, it does mean that they’ll at least understand what’s going on. On our side, we’ll have more of a clue of what their alphabet soup means and where we can find room to act and cooperate. One of the big open questions for the humanitarian world is what happens when these two cultures work together. Does one eventually override the other, or do we both come to an accommodation where we can both be productive and our ethics and their orders can live with each other?

Figuring this out is vital to the future of humanitarian response. Whole systems approaches are critical in the face of more frequent and larger disasters with increasingly complex infrastructure, and this includes both the scope of the response and its form. We need tools and structures that break down the silos that response groups can fall into. More than that, we need to let people cooperate directly — to encourage true decentralized response, where all of the resources on the ground can be brought into play. We can’t afford to rely on solutions that don’t allow people to self-rescue when that’s possible, and we must bring in affected populations with deep local knowledge as peers in our efforts. On the other hand, at least for major disasters within the US, the DoD will be providing the majority of heavy lift and logistics response capability. We all have to live and play together.

RELIEF was a small but important step in this direction.