Is there a digital response ecosystem?

Originally published on the Aspiration blog

We have been working on a map of the digital response ecosystem here at Aspiration. While we still have a ways to go, I wanted to pause to reflect on why we are working on it and some things I have learned along the way. If you’re so inclined, the closing section includes a request for feedback and a way to be in touch.

The current state of affairs

Disaster and humanitarian response happen in a chaotic and low-information environment. Even if historical context, accurate maps, and up-to-date data existed before a shock, an extreme event will have disrupted that baseline in dramatic ways. Response organizations deploy into these environments seeking what we call “situational awareness,” sometimes wondering about who to ask about the location of vulnerable persons, other times wanting to know which roads are still navigable. In order to know more about their physical and logistical environment, many response organizations and community groups are beginning to make use of digital tools. There are also digital tools which allow us to do truly new things in addition to information gaining and sharing. Digital tools might be in the form of crowd-sourced maps about needs and outages made from Twitter updates with hashtags, or images composited from a drone for an overview of an affected region for locating the most damaged areas, or heavy statistical modeling based on datasets from multiple sources for more precise resource distribution. The introduction of these new people, processes, and tools for digital response can increase the chaos of response or alleviate it.

Official and specialized actors such as United Nations Office of Coordinated Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) stand to benefit from the new skills of digital tools and the processes they enable when they are able to fold these new tools into their existing structures. When they are able to do this, we all benefit from their increased capacity. Frontline populations in affected regions continue to use digital tools like Signal and Facebook to organize themselves and coordinate response. Community groups such as churches and schools are using their existing digital community infrastructure to organize larger local relief efforts. Digital responders help to clean, structure, and utilize the massive amounts of information generated in times of crisis so those in the midst of the chaos can have more visibility to the requests, offers, and other factors in play around them.

Is there any signal in this noise?

What does this flurry of activity look like, and how can it be improved? How can we someday make crisis response boring? What are the patterns in who does what, when, and how do they coordinate with each other? While some official organizations have name-brand recognition, there is little understanding of local, emerging, and digital sectors. Their contributions and challenges are often rolled up into the official response organizations’ documentation, if it is documented at all. The flows of information, communication, and other aspects of coordination are poorly understood, even by those within the ecosystem, and especially in regards to the smaller and newer groups. Is it feasible to have a roster of all local groups with capacity related to response? Who would build it and keep it up to date? Would we trust the data it contained?  It is this complexity which is partly to blame for official response organizations not being able to have situational awareness and to relatedly struggle to meet local needs. So when an extreme event happens, groups spin up locally and remotely because of pressing need and the invisibility or inadequacy of pre-existing response groups. Those new groups persist, morph, merge, or dissolve through response and recovery phases of the disaster cycle. It used to be standard for several hundred response groups (pre-existing or otherwise) to respond to a crisis. Four thousand responded to the Haitian earthquake. The desire to involve technology in this mix has increased the number of factors to consider by adding in tools, active remote and local people, and even new abilities. Most people also point at the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as the first instance of digital tools making a discernible impact in crisis response. While this is a moment of potentially increased chaos in a space sorely needing alignment and sharing, it is also a moment of potential. What if we bring our ideals of openness and co-equality to the table? What if we trust the network (frontline community members, official responders, volunteers, remote assistance, etc.) to understand and sort itself out, adapting to challenges as they emerge?

Making the invisible visible

With acknowledgement that the digital response ecosystem is a living and changing thing, a map of it could provide a shared view of current actors, the tools they use, the data generated and used by those tools, and the resources we build from and contribute back to. Our hope is that this shared view might help us to provide better ground for refining information flow, to discover possibilities for collaboration, and to devise shared infrastructure. We could thus begin to think more holistically about response, get insights into how to make response infrastructure and mechanisms more sustainable and scalable, and be able to easily share an overview to newcomers or other interested parties. It is with these hopes that we started asking for help in building a map of the digital response ecosystem. Through calls with allies and structured activities at Humanitarian Technology FestivalHumTechthe Doctors Without Borders Logistics Day, and at the June 2016 Digital Responders’ Meetup, the map is slowly beginning to take shape. Here are some things we have learned along the way. 

This is a volatile space

Crisis response is by its very nature generally unpredictable. A rare caveat are hurricanes, as our weather science is getting better and better so we can approximate their strength and direction. But because we still do not understand what is going on with the earth’s crust and seas, earthquakes are still widely considered impossible to predict. Droughts are often just as political as they are about complex environmental factors, so anticipating them is somewhere in between. This means it is difficult to get any sense of predictability to rely upon or plan within for crisis response. Our data model needed to factor in the components which trigger a response group deploying or emerging from a frontline community. Activation could be based on geography (local, regional, national, international), based on the part of the disaster cycle, or based on an explicit request (from an international agency, national or local government, or a community group). Some groups (like Doctors Without Borders) are not activated from external cues per se, but instead based on their own mandates. And each of these groups focuses on different topics, ranging from accountability to mapping to data sharing to telecommunications infrastructure. To try to show connections and flows between these different entities which also bridge geography and time cycles can be somewhat daunting! Too much granularity and the whole thing is overwhelming, but too little and no patterns can be picked out.

Our sharing gaps are significant

Open (and responsible) data, libre source code, and collaboration are heavily advocated for in humanitarian and disaster response. We often hope to work miracles on shoestring budgets and with little awareness of what our comrades are up to. With a few shining examples such as Kathmandu Living Labs in the 2015 Nepal earthquake and Crisis Cleanup for Sandy, efforts to share our knowledge and intentions with each other are more often stymied than not. It is a common story that the country office of one international response nongovernmental organization does not know how (or even what) the office in another country is doing. This means it is even less likely their partner organizations or other groups in the same deployment know what they are up to. During a crisis, sharing and communication occur by force of function, but also in hugely inefficient ways because other priorities are at hand. UNOCHA has done a lot of work in this space, making it easy for deploying groups to upload and view data in a shared space through the Humanitarian Data Exchange and the Humanitarian Exchange Language, along with their traditional Cluster Approach. However, much of this work is targeted at established and dedicated response groups who know how to look for each other and have potential funding infrastructure which requires their collaboration. The smaller, ad hoc, and digital response groups do not have the context or infrastructure for their sharing and collaboration amongst themselves nor with larger response groups. There is still a lot of work to be done in sharing data and plans within and between organizations, across different parts of the response cycle, as well as with local community groups.

Who will (and can) show up changes

Because there are so many factors in who can deploy where, when, and why, investing the time in building relationships and channels for communication and sharing could be seen as a waste. It is even more impossible to have a plan that will be of any use in this circumstance than in nearly any other, and to rely heavily on rigid plans rather than adaptability is a recipe for disaster. But planning is still necessary if we are ever going to get better at response than we are now. Rather than rigid plans and expectations, we can instead focus more on the sorts of response groups that show up, the types of local groups which emerge, and the patterns of their interaction. Resources for these categories and personas have to be generalizable enough to be used, improved, and updated by anyone in that category or of that persona. Mapping the ecosystem is not just about having an easy-to-approach description of the space, but also about discovering the most strategic communally-held resources to create (or to find and share).

Where to from here?

We are moving towards a stable draft of the ecosystem map, and we want your feedback! You can attend the August Digital Responders’ meetupjoin the mailing list, or just ping us directly.

We would like to thank all the folks who have already spent so much time and energy on this concept with us. I have especially benefited from conversations with Devin Balkind, as well as referencing past collaborations he had a huge hand in, namely Aid Badges and Resilience ColabHeather Leson has been a huge contributor and supporter. The attendees of Humanitarian Technology Festival, the hallway conversations at HumTech, the participants of the Doctors Without Borders Logistics and Clinician Day, and cohorts at the June Digital Responders’ Meetup have also added a great deal of information and structure to this data. Because we are doing this together, it can grow beyond a proprietary or bottlenecked resource into one useful for the entirety of the space.

The technology of Doctors Without Borders

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

After HumTechFest and the Humanitarian Technology Innovation Conference, I headed up to Toronto for the Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières / MSF) Canada Logistics Day. This is a day where MSF showcases and explores the ways they currently (and potentially could) do logistics. This happens in tandem with the Clinical Day, where the doctors, nurses, and other clinicians of MSF share their technology and practices. I have been a big fan of MSF for years — their delivering basic human services into regions generally abandoned by anyone else shows a level of dedication and gumption I find admirable. Medical service delivery to these areas comes with challenges even beyond standard response. Public attention has often waned, leaving a gap in funding, donations, and international accountability. Stigma is often attached to those gaining access to basic human rights, as MSF provides medical care to civilians and militants from all sides of a conflict. Many of these regions are extremely remote. The doctors and nurses delivering these services are called medics, and the folk who back up the medics are logisticians, sometimes called “Logs.” Both sets work remotely for some tasks, while other tasks require them to be in the field. The set of Logs and Clinicians in the field and remote are linked together through communication and practice, often facilitated through technology.

One of the reasons I see MSF as so amazing is because everything they do puts the patients first. The rest of their logistics, technology, and even governance systems are designed outwards from that. Any new technology is assessed in a highly pragmatic way including questions like “what impact is it likely to have?”, “what is the failure mode?”, “who is already doing this?”, “is it worth the overhead of asking skilled practitioners to learn this new thing?” It was from this progression to the the Plateau of Productivity in the hype cycle that we looked at 3D printing and then did an overview of many different technologies, including contributing to our ecosystem map of the digital response space

An honest look at 3D Printing

I have to admit I am hugely skeptical of the promise of 3D printing. While I lived in Seattle, there was a friendly competition between Mark Ganter at UW in what strange materials he and his students could make work through proprietary machines versus the hacked-together machines themselves produced out of Metrix Create:Space. This framed my understanding for what intellectual property battles were being fought around machines and material, how to think about material science as related to structural integrity, and what (if any) actual utility beyond prototyping 3D printing might provide. So when my host Chris Houston at MSF indicated 3D Printing was to be a topic at MSF Log Day, I balanced my desire to be skeptical with my trust that MSF is made up of realists. I was not disappointed.


Let us say you are a field practitioner working at an MSF hospital in Afghanistan. If the brackets on a baby incubator break, the entire expensive and needed piece of equipment becomes a doorstop because one of the walls that would keep the baby from falling out will not stay up. To work with your Logs to get a new set of brackets possibly requires

  1. order forms to be filled out with specifications,
  2. for that order to fit into other work flows,
  3. for the company to be willing and able to produce you new ones within a decent time frame and budget,
  4. shipping those tiny pieces in with massive amounts of other goods (meaning what box it goes in matters so you can find it later),
  5. those boxes likely getting held up at customs for an unknown amount of time, and
  6. needing someone to figure out how to swap in the new working parts,
  7. (often on equipment which is highly proprietary).

This can take weeks if not months (if it happens at all). All that time, there is not a safe place for babies you are delivering and care taking.

Field Ready (as represented by Eric James) is helping field practitioners both with those one-off items through 3D printing and with relying less on an international supply chain. By putting engineers and industrial designers in the field with production skills and tools, conversations open up about what can be manufactured locally — with 3D printers, desktop milling machines, laser cutters, and through pre-existing local facilities. Someday there may be no need to order 20,000 buckets from Geneva and wait for them to be made, shipped, and clear customs when there is a local bucket manufacturer. This would also keep funding and capacity local. 3D printing is shiny and new enough that it opens up these conversations about what can be made more locally and why (or why not), whether it is with a 3D printer or in a manufacturing center.

Field Ready@FldRdy

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I am excited about this Field Ready because they are training up locals on the equipment, increasing technical capacity in-region. They are working to keep international aid money local, as well as strengthening those production ties to the international response scene. And they are honest about their abilities and intentions.


Another use case which is worth the fickle nature of 3D printers and works within the structural integrity of the objects they produce is prosthetics. The creation of prosthetics is a time consuming and artisanal practice, requiring weeks to produce something which a child might outgrow within months. By introducing new scanning and production techniques, well-fitting prosthetics can be produced in days and at significantly less cost. This means those in need are more likely to stick around for the process, and are more likely to have better fitting pieces (which means healthier physiology) over the course of their lives.

Dan Southwick of the Faculty of Information (supervisor is Matt Ratto) provided a reality check on both of these promises by giving a very blunt overview of both the limitations on 3D printers and the contexts into which they are deployed. 3D printers are fickle, needing what is closer to a lab (controlled) environment than what a humid, buggy, and high-stress field environment might be capable of maintaining. A group he and Matt have worked with, Nia Technologies, encountered a girl wanting a second left foot as her prosthetic, as the only right foot available was not a skin tone match, and there is a cultural stigma with a missing limb in that region. While a 3D printer could have printed out a new one, knowing to bring a variety of colors for printing material is important. The culture and environment in which we work matters, and cannot be glazed over. Computer Numeric Control (often just called “CNC”) machines like 3D printers and milling machines were also created to get people out of the chain of production, as people are unpredictable. Rather than follow this pattern of pushing people out of the process, the Critical Making Lab has worked to involve them. This also maintains a long chain of knowledge and increases local capacity.

These pragmatic and committed individuals are working hard, often together, in order to ease the complications in the field by MSF practitioners.

The rest of the day

But the day was not even over yet. Brains and bellies full, we dove into the end of the day with a rapid review of other technologies MSF had been making use of for the past year, including telemedicine, mapping, mobile diagnostic tools, and an MSF app.


Human beings are complex, and the things that can go wrong with our bodies are hugely diverse. When working in the field, you may be one of only a few medics for hours and hours, and the special cases which crop up can be far outside your knowledge. There are no specialists to send someone to. Store and forward is a way to benefit from specialists who are far away. Images and descriptions of cases can be sent outward for either verification (it is comforting to have someone else say “yes, that is fatal” when you would otherwise be the only person who could make that call) or diagnosis and suggested treatment for something you have never seen or read about. MSF has been using this system for a couple years now, to great success. Each response takes a few hours, so your patient is often still present for response and treatment.

Another form of telemedicine has to do with increasing capacity through ongoing communication between emerging local practice and clinicians elsewhere. More real time, this is about conversation and skill building rather than edge cases and verification. I am excited to see both models being deployed, and how it starts to cover the complicated vastness of medical service.


Knowing where to go relies on local knowledge and maps. Some parts of the world are not even mapped! Using satellite imagery, MSF has been working with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and the Red Cross on mapping these regions which have not been mapped before in a program called Missing Maps. Digital volunteers review satellite imagery and trace objects likely to be houses or farms, which can then be reviewed in service delivery plans to make sure more people are being reached. (Side note that the map-tile categorizing tool Map Swipe which folds into Missing Maps did a user test at our digital responders’ meetup on June 16th.) 

Mobile Diagnostic Tools

Medical equipment is bulky, expensive, and often single-purpose. With more and more sensors available via open hardware, smart phones, and wearables, MSF clinicians are experimenting with the possibility of other diagnostic tools. We heard from someone who was working in a region with higher-than-normal rates of epilepsy. In a “normal” hospital, the patients would be diagnosed by wearing an EEG cap attached to a bulky and expensive piece of equipment that would analyze the brain activity. But she was now able to process the data directly on her smart phone, eliminating a single-purpose piece of equipment which is expensive, has to go through the supply and logistics chain, and is just as prone to breaking as anything else.

Guidance mobile app

MSF has a lot of guides for various parts of their practice, but these are in paper format and often are either locked in a cabinet or are over-worn from use. It is not searchable, and any given clinic may not have the whole set in the most recent version. Asking forgiveness rather than permission, a set of MSF-ers transferred this knowledge into searchable and cross-linked information in a smartphone application. It has since been expanded to include telemedicine aspects and the layout of clinics. The use analytics show where training might be lacking, or where an outbreak may be happening. They are using that data to improve their overall feedback loops.

A web of technologies

All of this technology comes together in a web of communication and practice between clinicians and logisticians, often as facilitated by technology. Commitment to the end user, interoperability, and ease of use are the core components to these various technologies easing the suffering of others, rather than weighing practitioners down even further. Aspiration is eager to see how our ecosystem map and ongoing work in the digital response space can help (or at least not get in the way of) these efforts from Doctors Without Borders.

Community organizations in times of crisis

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We have been working at Aspiration on our digital humanitarian and disaster response program for a year and a half. On June 4th and 5th, we hosted our second Humanitarian Technology Festival as an interactive and participatory event for practitioners, students, designers, etc. to gather and contribute to the current state of response. Deep thanks to all the participants, especially those who took notes so others could benefit from what we learned. We played a gametook care with ourselves, and enjoyed the outdoors.

But I do not care about humanitarian or disaster response

We all have enough to worry about without adding in disaster preparedness, even if research points to it being worthwhile (PDF). It is difficult for community groups to know how to prepare for (let alone know how to support in) a crisis. The existing resources are for enterprise-level businesses, or are focused on individual response. There is not much in the way of resources for the groups that Aspiration considers itself in solidarity with. (If you have found some — please do let us know! We would love to point at those resources.)

This challenge came up at both a session at the 2015 Nonprofit Development Summit and at a skill share at California Technology Festival Watsonville. A project started forming around how to be an active organizational participant in crisis response and recovery — without becoming a response or recovery organization. Our dream is that response, recovery, and humanitarian aid will look more like civics than a specialty, and that means embedded capacity in the existing network. Getting started on this path might look like a guide for community groups during a crisis. But a new challenge emerged — I have never been a part of a community group which has responded to a crisis. I have always been outside help.


Moshing the ideas #humtechfest @aspirationtech

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Together, we know a lot

Palante Tech has been a community group supporting their pre-existing network in crisis, however. During Superstorm Sandy, Palante kept the groups they already served up and running, when possible, as well as providing information about what neighborhoods had what functioning communication infrastructure (and why). They would like to know how to do it better in the future. The Humanitarian Technology Festival (#HumTechFest) was lucky to have Jamila from Palante in attendance, and they led a session about how to better understand and document the needs of community groups in a crisis. Our goal is to come up with a lightweight guide with some suggestions which are manageable to deploy in advance of a crisis, as well as some guidance in how to deal during and after a crisis. The session was also attended by some folk who work with New York City for small business preparedness, an international aid networking person, and a creator of games who is generally interested in response. They talked through the arc of the disaster cycle, faith-based volunteer organizations which activate in response, and the specificity required in interacting with formal organizations.

We still have a lot of questions

Could such a guide document the needs of non-response community groups in such a way to make those needs visible and easy to process in order to get available and needed aid from official response organizations? Better yet, is it possible to do so in a way which will hold those organizations accountable?

  • What questions would you have about how your organization could be more resilient in times of crisis?
  • What measures have you already taken to deal with a possible crisis?
  • What have you done to keep your doors, or the doors of your constituents, open during a crisis?
  • How do trainings provided by groups like Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster fit with your needs (or not)?

Send your answers (and questions!) our way. We are excited to build this resource with you, but we cannot do it on our own.

Thank you to the HumTechFest attendees, to Jamila in particular, and to Ken for broaching this topic at CA TechFest Watsonville.

Civic tech and digital response

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We are preparing for the Humanitarian Technology Festival on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass. This participatory event is for field practitioners, media makers and storytellers, technology developers, information security practitioners, members of affected populations, researchers, and everyone in between. We are hoping for a strong contingent of civic tech and civic media folk as well, for reasons we hope this post will make clear.

Humanitarian and disaster response deals with exceptional situations. But whether through historical happenstance or through poor design, response also tends to be short-sighted and deeply siloed. As crises are by definition beyond the capacity of “the norm” (existing infrastructure like governments), responders are often military or nongovernment organizations (NGOs). We deploy into places we do not fully understand the histories of, where we are not well connected with pre-existing efforts, and when we leave we often take our data and gained understanding with us. We too often make poor choices which deeply affect the future lives of a frontline community because “it is better than doing nothing.” I generally find the whole thing paternalistic and incremental when we should instead be focusing on systemic interventions to long-term issues of inequity by working with local populations to increase their capacity. A combination of coping with exceptional circumstances in a way which actively works with, depends on, and returns to pre-existing efforts is what I see in the overlap of civics and response.

Where one ends and the other begins

Civic tech is technology which enables engagement or participation of the public for stronger development, enhancing citizen communications, improving government infrastructure, and generally improving the public good. Civic media is any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents. Then civic media and tech are deeply linked with digital disaster and humanitarian response. All are about how people work with each other and with institutions, each is about more intentional infrastructure, and each is about having an empowered public supported by institutions and a global public. The excellent book Building Resilience gives a precise overview of the strength of social capital and community ties as the leading indicator to a region’s ability to cope with shocks and stressors, regardless of access to other resources. We anticipate the scenario we will be playing through at the event will get at these social ties as well as laying a baseline of understanding for those new to response.

From that background theory, the practice looks like responders working with already established civic infrastructure in order to bolster those networks of trust, to benefit from that knowledge, and to have a place to return created data and delivered resources into for post-response sustainability. But where do humanitarian aid/development, civic engagement, and disaster response transition into one another?

Civics and humanitarian aid

Digital humanitarian response could be seen as civics in places where there is not yet established technical, physical, or possibly even political infrastructure to bolster or route around. In this case, considering how the civic tools you are building apply to other locations is a useful theoretical framework. Perhaps more importantly — how could tools built elsewhere apply here? (Spoiler alert: Kenya and Tanzania have had mobile money for a looooong time, and we are only just starting to get it in the States — we have plenty to learn from other places.) Improving infrastructure is more and more grounded on baseline data, which can be collected for development purposes or as a means of civic engagement. When the creation of baseline data is happening for civic reasons, it indicates those social ties are being formed around local political empowerment, versus (the still worthwhile) baseline creation by intervening groups like UN OCHA for the sole purpose of response. Our goal in response is to only be around for as long as we are needed, but civics is about investing in a longer-term view.

Civics and disaster response

While humanitarian aid is (in part) about the creation or improvement of long-term infrastructure, disaster response is about existing infrastructure being disrupted, and not even in the questionable type of disruption from Silicon Valley, but in the sense of “nothing is working the way we planned because the power and internet we have come to rely on are down and I can’t find my child.” In these circumstances, building tools which allow for (or even encourage!) off-the-grid communication or storage-until-able-to-update matter. As in, tools which would also work in low connectivity areas like humanitarian deployments are often better suited for crisis response than other everyday-use tools. We will be thinking about how to perform such coordination at HumTechFest, too.

An aside here seems necessary, to point out that the chaos of response is in this disconnection from the infrastructures on which we depend. The chaos is not in the form of people. People are amazing, often even more so in a crisis. While most of the field of Disaster Sociology points this out, a shorter (and easy) read is A Paradise Built in Hell.

The square you start from matters

While we can talk all day about the technology we use in our everyday lives and in times of crisis, the purpose of that technology is to help us connect with one another, to help us have safer and happier (and I would argue more dignified and coequal) lives. Social connections bolstered by mediating technology is how communities help themselves. Take Civic Hall‘s Noel Hidalgo, and his Coworking Map during Sandy response. It is from those spaces so many of the preexisting civic tech was reapplied to the new crisis circumstance, and that people found each other in order to address their unique concerns. The strong civic ties allowed for a more robust response. The same is true of the success of Occupy Sandy, grown from the ties created during Occupy Wall Street, and for the listening centers in West Africa which became essential for information distribution during the Ebola outbreak. Caring about sharing data in advance means you can more readily ask for external help… and then hold those responding accountable because there is a baseline.

Deepening the connection

We would love to explore this overlap further, and be more intentional in things like data hand-off and collaboration between existing community-based groups like Public Labs and Open Referral and NYC Prepared, official response organizations like FEMA and local Offices of Emergency Mangement, emergent response groups like Occupy Sandy and Boulder Relief, and back to those long-term civic groups. We would love to think about how those communication patterns might look, and what resources we can create to expedite the process. We have a lot to learn from groups like Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Kathmandu Living Labs. As Heather Leson said in this blog post on Civicus,

How can maps and citizen-generated data empower civil society organisations to bring about change in their local community? In some parts of the world, existing physical layer maps are inaccurate and outdated. Imagine walking around your neighbourhood – do you know the names of all the streets, or where the nearest school or hospital is? With this kind of data, people are in a better position to plan futures for their communities. OSM enables each of these data items to be downloaded freely, making it a valuable civil society resource.

Projects like Promise TrackerTaarifa, and the Riffle provide that strong baseline data which can also be useful in times of crisis, as well as the surrounding communities of practice. How excellent would it be to have all the capacity needed to respond already in any given location?! So rad. Because then it is not a crisis. When we frame response on strong civic engagement rather than a traditional perspective of short-term interventions, we are acting in a more efficacious and coequal way. We are acting in solidarity.

Join us in building this new world

We hope you will join us to be a part of this responsible lifecycle on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass at the Humanitarian Technology Festival. If you want to carpool up from NYC, we are happy to help with gas. If you are on the West Coast, we would love to see you at the June 16th Digital Responder Meet Up in San Francisco. And if you are remote to both those places, we have an ongoing mailing list and semi-regular call-ins you can join.

Deep thanks to the Aspiration teamHeather LesonMatt Stempeck, and Ethan Zuckerman for helping make this piece exist.

Drafting an introductory handbook for Digital Response

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We’re getting ready for the Humanitarian Technology Festival in Cambridge, Mass June 4th and 5th. We’ve already talked about our potential sessions (let us know if you have more ideas!), how civic tech and media are related to response, and the scenario/game we are going to play. Another opportunity presented by having so many diverse folk in a room is that of creating an introductory handbook for digital responders. We will benefit especially from having folk present who haven’t been through a response deployment before.

A surge of interest and attention

Humanitarian and disaster response sees large influxes of attention and funding during high-stress situations, the navigation of which creates one more factor for those already doing logistics. These sudden influxes are called “surges,” and the sudden but disproportionate shifts in what is possible with those increases is called “surge capacity.” Digital response sees an even larger influx of attention, as it’s easier to log in to a readily handy device to sort data than it is to fly to an affected region. But while much of traditional response has some history in coping with and utilizing surges through protocols and expectations of how volunteers should (and shouldn’t) engage in the field, the digital space lacks that onboarding infrastructure and expectation setting. What if we had a communally-held introductory guide/handbook to send the wonderful new people invested in helping out digitally when things get additionally chaotic through people’s good will? The next layer to add to this is how we can be better prepared to contribute both digitally and locally to disaster risk management. Imagine that digital contributors collaborated in parallel and, even, inside local and global organizations to help make a difference.

The beauty of seeing ourselves as global citizens

But what is digital response? The excellent Heather Leson has already said it far better than I ever could in this WeForum piece:

Seeking a way to “do something,” more and more people are answering the call to action on social media after each emergency. Digital responders or “digital humanitarians“ immediately log on when news breaks about a natural disaster or human-created catastrophe. Individuals and teams “activate” based on skill sets of volunteer and technical communities (VTCs). These digital responders use their time and technical skills, as well as their personal networks in an attempt to help mitigate information overload for formal humanitarian aid in the field. The terms often used to define these contributors in the humanitarian space are remote help, citizen engagement, citizen response, localized community, civil society and global civic technology. Some participants are new to online humanitarian response, but have found a topic or location that drives their passion to get involved.

This surge of action by participants is often just as chaotic as the actual physical emergency response. People are compelled to work, at a dizzying pace, by the fact that many parties involved in first response require valid, urgent and usable data. Focused on the needs of the citizens in affected areas, informal and formal networks collaborate and sometimes collide in an effort to make sense of and identify needs or stories from this user-generated content. With a combination of will and skill, they create updated maps, datasets, information products, and even communities (both online and offline). The global growth of these activities is based on access to information, connectivity and language skills as well as digital literacy levels. These groups are making efforts to become more inclusive while respecting local language, culture and knowledge. The mantra of most digital responders is “support” not “supplant” local citizens, humanitarians and emergency responders.

The complication of churn

As a coordinator across these groups, with their new members, and for unaffiliated individuals coming across a response overview and wanting to jump in, much of my time is dedicated to helping to onboard newcomers, matching their skills to the ongoing and chaotic efforts of a whole slew of response groups. There are data standards, politics, and various communication channels, and the whole thing is extraordinarily difficult to self-navigate. While self-assigning one day might happen with something like the Participatory Aid Marketplace (please someone build this), we’re not there yet. In the meantime and in open source fashion, having an introductory guide would go a tremendous way towards helping everyone involved. Newcomers do want support in getting their bearings, and we could codify what we’re up to, rather than spending valuable time in urgent situations on something which is able to be systematized. Of course we want to be supportive and human and present for new folk, but we also need to be able to focus when at all possible. Heather did some basic needs framing here for her talk at Understanding Risk which can be perused here.

Join us on making a way forward

Join at HumTechFestto work on on just that — an externalized handbook, which can then branch that into smaller pieces on a bonus day following the event. We need to know what your newbie questions are, what your jaded “I’m tired of onboarding and wish you knew the following things…” are. Heather already started on a Table of Contents, and we welcome your thoughts on what could be consolidated, added, or prioritized.

Can’t make it to Cambridge? Come to our West Coast meetup on June 16th in SF! Can’t make it to either, or want to join the ongoing conversation? Check out our mailing list!

Communicating and coordinating without the internet at HumTechFest

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We are preparing for the Humanitarian Technology Festival on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass. During our initial discussions, we connected with Heather (Text on Techs), Nathan (Guardian and Wind Farm), Jamila (Palante Technology Cooperative and SciFi Action & Apocalypse Preparedness Queer Club), Damien (FemmeTech and the same SciFi Action Club), and Mikel (MapBox). Our hope is to discover and bring together those working on the core challenges of digital humanitarian response in effective, interesting, and playful ways.

During humanitarian and disaster response, taking care with people while in the midst of chaos is the name of the game. Core challenges to delivering goods and services are coordination and communication. Instead of market-created scarcity, people have to decide how to send what limited materials have been delivered on a narrow runway out over damaged roads and with limited gas. It’s also about knowing where those limited goods should be going. Many might theorize about how to get what is called “situational awareness” (knowing who needs what and where in a chaotic situation) in order to deliver resources accurately, but being in the chaos is different. Because (thankfully) only a few of us have experienced that chaos and need ourselves, it can be difficult to build appropriate tools and workflows for response. But if we’re going to work on just that while at the Humanitarian Technology Festival, we need to be sure we’re grounded in at least a proximity of reality. A big chunk of our first day will be comprised of playful workshops.

Who needs what, where… and getting it to them

First, let’s talk about coordination. Affected populations and responders have to deal with scarcity. Rather than having the option of picking up what someone needs from a store or website, we must instead find those materials on site from people we already know (or are willing to get to know). It’s fun to think about this like a recipe: finding individual components and interacting with others to combine those components into what you all need to survive. Maybe one person has a generator, and another person has gallons of water, and a third has a backyard farm. People in crisis don’t all actually go rogue (sorry, Mad Max), but tend to join together to help one another out, those in our example would make soup together. Pre-existing networks of trust make this easier, but issues of scarcity and access still arise which require people-interfacing and problem-solving skills. It’s hard to know what these circumstances are like until you’re in them. Or until you pretend you’re in them.

The SciFi Action & Apocalypse Preparedness Queer Club has devised a live-action role playing game for just that – problem solving through the self-imposed limitations of games. They ran one of these games one day in NYC this past year, and we’re thrilled to be working with them on this project and to have access to their gaming framework to help HumTechFest attendees have a safe but proximal experience to a response situation. 

Hello? Is anyone there?

Secondly, let’s talk about connectivity. When we are connected, we can communicate about what we need and what we have, and we can coordinate with each other about matching those haves and needs. When the communications infrastructure (the internet and/or cell phone data) we’ve come to rely on so heavily goes down (or was never there to begin with, as in some austere areas), issues of timing (sometimes called “gaps”) emerge—a request for food in one region might be addressed through other means by the time the message reaches its target audience, or perhaps diapers become even more necessary than soup as the soup delivery starts on its path to the point of stated need. If communication infrastructure is up, the delivery person can be called to come back or to reroute to a place that needs their payload more.

If the centralized data pipes go down in these times, what are ways folk work around them?

Some excellent initiatives exist based on addressing the challenge of connectivity without an internet backbone, like Commotion Wireless and Project Byzantium, as well as many proprietary services. But these often rely on either long-term embeddedness with a community (like how the community Commotion Network in Redhook mattered during Superstorm Sandy response [PDF]) or rapid (read: expensive) setup through official channels which is also often proprietary and only for state-sanctioned response groups. We have ongoing political struggles with corporations like Comcast about the ability to set up community mesh networks and local internet service providers, and it’s worth continuing to build better tech and to push on that issue from many angles. (Those include our work on right to access as with our work with the Media Democracy Fund, as a political issue as with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or as an issue of public health and safety in disaster times). However, we arguably have everything we already need right in our pockets.  Wind Farm is incredibly useful for this context. Instead of a network being static (you’re not prone to moving your internet modem around the office), it assumes people have tiny storage and sufficient connectivity options in their pockets via their phones, and will be near each other as well as moving between synchronizing points. Based on this, we should be able to propagate communication and therefore coordinate with each other even when the backbone is down. Hirdonelle’s Listening Centers with Bluetooth file transfer is an example of what these networks might look like in practice. And when it comes to updating and using maps, OpenStreetMap’s new Portable OSM might come in handy.

Join us

We’ll be stitching all this together to create a safe but proximal way for HumTechFest participants to base conversations in a shared experience. We will be doing a workshop at HumTechFest to playfully discover how we would communicate and coordinate while facing scarcity and an internet blackout of sorts.

Register for HumTechFest June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass.

Planning better disaster response with the Climate Centre

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre is an interesting organization, tasked with advising all the different Red Cross and Red Crescent groups, whether country- or topic-based, to understand and reduce the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events on vulnerable people. Some of this has to do with understanding long-term trends and shifts, some of it with training about how climate works, and some in specialized support and resources. I’ve gotten a chance to work with them in the past, both before my time with Aspiration, as well as with Aspiration. Together we recently published an animation explaining something called Forecast-Based Financing, which we’re excited to share with you!

Climate science, like most sciences, is often communicated poorly and is therefore less than fun to learn, let alone act upon. The Climate Centre crew doesn’t just focus on what they communicate, but also how it’s communicated. They’re also exceptional in bringing trainees into a space of active engagement around climate-based issues. They primarily do so through games (which are all also presented in easy-to-use formats, under creative commons, be still my Commons-based heart). Many of these have been developed through working with those affected by and/or responding to extreme events. Participants are asked to describe the systems in which they interact — the delays, costs, resources, and goals of their community or organization. These descriptors become an easy-to-communicate set of game rules. The randomness of success is externalized for discussion — two people making the exact same choice might end up in very different places simply because one person rolled a 6 (a flood), and another rolled a 4 (a healthy amount of rain). The associated feelings of self-righteousness about “right” and “wrong” choices can then be explored safely. Additionally, after playing through and understanding the game, participants are asked if they would make any changes to the rule set — which must then be expressed concisely and agreed upon by everyone. Iterations of the game are then played with those rule changes. Did it help out the entire system? If so, what would it take to actually enact that rule change?

One such game is called Paying for Predictions. From their website, “the humanitarian movement under-utilizes climate forecasts for a number of reasons, some of which include:

  • These forecasts are not always disseminated to the appropriate decision makers in the movement.
  • Red Cross Red Crescent employees often do not understand the forecasts.
  • If the forecasts are understood, employees are often unclear on what types of action could be taken in preparation for a potential disaster.
  • Employees fear “acting in vain”, ie: taking disaster preparedness measures when a disaster does not manifest itself.
  • Funding is often not available until after the disaster has already occurred.
  • Playing this game is one step towards helping publicize the potential value of these forecasts, and helps break down some of these barriers to their effective use.”

By playing this game across the engagement spectrum from frontline communities to official responders to funders of programs, a change of rules was suggested on every front, now called Forecast Based Financing. This rule change means instead of always reacting to extreme events after they happen, funding should be made available based on forecasts, which allow us to take more precise action in advance of a likely extreme event. This would diminish both suffering and costs, while also increasing organizational effectiveness. This proposed rule change in the game is now being implemented by funders, communities, and responders alike!

In order to further express this idea, I worked with the Climate Centre team to produce this animation:

Forecast-based financing: an animation from Climate Centre on Vimeo.

What do you think? How would focusing on lower-cost but slightly-less-assured choices change your organization’s work flow?

Humanitarian TechFest 2016 East Coast Sessions

This originally appeared on the Aspiration blog

The Humanitarian Technology Festival session list will be co-developed with participants, facilitators, and partners in the time leading up and during the Festival.

The agenda will be designed and facilitated using Aspiration’s unique participatory model, in an environment where powerpoint slides are discouraged and dialog and collaboration drive the learning.

Sessions likely to be on the agenda include…

Data Flows: These interactive sessions will explore existing data flows and gaps in response as it is now:

  • What data is useful?
  • Is responsible data in disaster and humanitarian response different from any other circumstance?
  • Open data standards
  • Data lifecycles across the disaster cycle
  • Overwhelming data

Cross-Sector Collaboration: There are many local groups not related to response which already know a region, its people, and its needs — how do they communicate with response-specific organizations?:

  • Frontline situational awareness, institutional resources
  • How to know what might be beyond your capacity
  • How to know who to ask for assistance
  • How to hold responders accountable

Privacy, security and data: These sessions will explore the risks and responsibilities incurred when using technology in disaster and humanitarian response, along with ways to maximize control of information and technology destiny:

  • When–and When Not–to Trust “The Cloud” with Your Data
  • Managing Your Universe of Organizational Data
  • Securing Your Online Accounts
  • Managing Constituent Data: The Dream vs. The Reality

Social Justice in Response: while the primary focus of the event will be tech and tech strategy, we’ll also take time to learn about and reflect on how we can continue and amplify our social and environmental justice purposes, even while things are urgent

  • Listening to frontline populations in priority setting
  • Using response as a way to advocate for other ongoing efforts

Participant-Led Sessions: More than half of the agenda will be built by participants before and during the event, covering topics, tools, themes and issues proposed by those present.

Learning by Making: Hands-on workshops for sharing essential technology skills, with sessions including:

  • Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Tasker, with participants learning the interface for contributing to maps around humanitarian issues
  • Mapping the Digital Response Ecosystem, to create a shared view of data and people flows
  • More, more more! Tell us what other hands-on tech skills you would like to learn, and we’ll try to find facilitators to get you there.

Tell us what should be on the agenda and how we can make this event more relevant and valuable for you!

Join Us!

We strongly encourage you to join in the fun at this unique and interactive gathering!


We welcome questions, inquiries, suggestions and requests.

Unified in our plurality of voices – Global Voices Exchange

originally posted on the Aspiration blog

Global Voices is “a border-less, largely volunteer community of more than 1400 writers, analysts, online media experts and translators.” They’ve been around since 2005, weaving together locally-produced stories from all over the globe. They also have a translation community called Linguafight against censorship and for freedom through Advox, and their Rising Voices section works to empower civic journalists with microgrants, training and network-building. They deliver a huge amount of news in a startling number of languages, and they do so with humor and humility. Because they’re invested in the everyday experience of people, the community is also wide enough that when major news (like the beginnings of the protests in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey) breaks, a community of trust and support is already established around local reporters. This post initially appeared on the GVeX site on March 2nd.

Global Voices Exchange

One of the projects recently launched by Rising Voices is Global Voices Exchange (GVeX). It aims to develop, document, and disseminate methodologies for digital advocacy campaigns in the Global South. In its inaugural phase, GVeX brought together women leaders working in digital advocacy and activism from the Global South to share, document, and refine their practices into a shared methodology—and to explore points of difference that might require a more country- or context-specific approach. The several-month-long project was accented by a workshop held in Marseille, France from February 15th to 20th, and I had the honor of facilitating.

Our event goals were to strengthen the network of advocates in the Global South, to scope and design preliminary content and structure for a strategic campaigning and advocacy guide for leaders moving into online advocacy in the Global South, and to form an action plan to test and review the guide after the workshop. The participants represented eleven countries each with a unique political and economic climate, specific concerns around equality, and a rich history. Each of them has an active hand in some form of training and advocacy within their own countries, either locally or remotely.   

A (nonuniversal) guide

Every attendee had at least some experience with many of the amazing guides and manuals out there for building campaigns, for security, and for digital tools. Each of them was able to give at least one example of ways in these—supposedly universal—guides had either not fit their situation or offered information and advice that could put them at genuine risk. Would it be possible, then, to create a simple frame or scaffolding that someone in the Global South could use as a basis for exploring their own circumstances and designing a campaign tailored to their specific needs? The many guides that already exist provide a solid set of modules from which we could select. We explored this (and many other) questions while together.

Global Voices is ideally positioned for projects such as this—while much of design thinking, protocols and standards, and other aspects of technology aim towards one agreed-upon way of interacting, Global Voices takes the alternative view that sometimes the one thing that unites us is that we are all speaking our own unique and specific truths. And this isn’t simply a nice theoretical framing—it’s practice the community has lived for over eleven years, and counting.

Unifying a plurality of voices

Even though Global Voices successfully walks this talk, devising a guide based on that framing is a new and somewhat daunting task. Thankfully, with twelve women leaders and members of the Global Voices network putting our heads together over five days, the beginning skeleton of the guide now exists, as well as pockets of detail and a huge repository of documented knowledge waiting to be deployed wherever it’s needed. We learned, for example, about the ease and relative accountability of fundraising in Pakistan versus the illegality of obtaining resources for nonprofits and civil society in Venezuela. We now understand why people decide to remain anonymous in LGBTQI campaigns in Zimbabwe and walk together in Cambodia. And from our Palestinian participant I learned how to draw a tank, something I’d thankfully not yet needed to know.

Where we are at

We still have a lot of work to do, but you can look forward to seeing a draft of the guide at some point in the future. It includes things like measuring and communicating value. Many activists and advocates have difficulty expressing exactly what changes will happen in the world if they “win.” This section helps users explore their own hopes, what is culturally relevant, and what is possible to measure in order to demonstrate the effects of their campaigns and actions. Risk analysis (and response)—those operating in the Global South face a very, very different set of risks from people in other parts of the world, be it repressive regimes, violence against women, or a lack of connectivity. To design and implement culturally relevant campaigns we need to embrace these specificities. We also developed a module around building trust in worn-out communities. As a result of the same issues mentioned in risk analysis, trust in many of these communities is worn down. People working in these environments have experienced the actions of infiltrators, complete loss of institutional legitimacy through changes in political leadership or legal structures, and violent shutdowns of campaigns and organizations. To rebuild trust under those circumstances demands integrity and persistence—and the exercise we did on this topic produced some of the most charming drawings I’ve seen in a while, from our own Marianne Diaz.

Pathway to ‘trust building’ vs ‘trust destruction’, an outcome from our discussion at #gvex— Sopheap Chak (@sopheapfocus) February 18, 2016

What would you want to see out of such a guide?

Whether you’re from the Global South or not, tell us in the comments what would you want to see from such a guide. We have a huge amount of experience and intelligence in this beginning set of contributors, but as future users of such a guide, we want to be able to factor in your needs and ideas.

Thanks to the participants and organizers

Major thanks to the Global Voices crew of Eddie, Georgia, and Ivan for conceiving, driving, and most of all trusting this project. Mad props to Abir, to whom I already wrote a bit of a love note over on my blog, and who opened up her city and her heart for us to feel safe and stimulated during our time. Thank you to Tamara for her directness, to Arzu and Tanya for their facilitation, to Marianne and Sarita for being open and honest, to 88.8 for their venue and recording skills. Thanks to Sopheap and Zarah for jumping in with such enthusiasm and joy, to Nighat and Natasha for your leadership, to Mashiat for your hugs and insights, to Indira for your warmth, and to Dalia for always keeping things real and approachable. Thanks to Eric, Paul, and Liat for all your adaptiveness and translation skills, and to Gillo for his deep understandings of security teaching methods. I’m looking forward to seeing what we create together.

Dialling Up Resilience

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

At the end of April I was in Nairobi doing several things related to digital humanitarian response. One of these was a program called Dialling Up Resilience (yes, with two Ls in “Dialling,” because it was a British-centred team), which looks at local indicators of resilience. This blog entry explores why subjectivity is important in measurement, and how technology can help us parse through subjective information and combine it with objective datasets.


It’s possible to exacerbate or alleviate existing inequalities when designing and implementing response programs. As climate change alters the world around us, the people who have been historically marginalized often become even more so as those in power see scarcity encroaching on their livelihoods. When programs distribute resources without taking care with those previously in power, we also see backlashes and resource grabs. But the ability to hold people accountable in new ways through things like social media and community mapping are coupled with an awareness and effort towards the long bend towards justice means there are groups of people seeking new ways to better allocate resources to those most affected by those inequalities. Often, the groups working in this space are also in a post-scarcity mentality — that, when we work together wisely, we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. These are folk who think we can reach zero poverty and zero emissions (within a generation). These are the folk who see joy in the world, and possibility in these difficult situations we’ve backed ourselves into.

Resource Allocation

The resource allocation and accountability necessary for transitory steps towards a world that can survive and even thrive won’t happen in a vacuum. The formal and informal organizations of this space alike have entire supply chains, ways of listening (and to whom), and self-reflexive mechanisms to consider. In these are embedded corruption, paternalism, and colonialism. But also in these are embedded individuals who have been Fighting The Good Fight for decades, and have added useful checks, amplifiers, and questions into infrastructure. It’s into this environment we step when we do response work. It is, at its core, like any other environment — it has History.

It’s in this context that Dialling Up Resilience is such a good program. This project supports the need to adapt to climate issues while putting frontline communities at its core, and does so in a way which can be useful in historically convoluted contexts. 


When various organizations — be they international or local, government mandated or radical, formal or informal — wish to change a circumstance, having metrics can help show if success is being approximated. Hopefully, those metrics can also hint at where and how we’re failing. To adapt to climate change and other issues, we need to be able to see how initiatives are doing over time. We can then better allocate resources or attention. The way this is done now is primarily through “objective” measurements such as education level and income. These don’t work for everyone, whether because they are pastoralists or anti-capitalists (or both). In the same way that some schools shift away from standardized testing into more subjective ways to measure learning, Dialling Up Resilience re-focuses the evaluation of success more locally. This is how the frontline community is at the core — they’re determining what makes them resilient, as well as how they feel they’re doing in relationship to those self-defined indicators.

These metrics are then visible to the community (often we’re our own calvary, afterall), and the aggregate is visible to organizations acting in the area. What are needs they may have missed? Is a program having the desired impact? Because of the flow we set up, the information is even fast enough to potentially be for rapid response, with people in a region indicating a flood-related need then triggering alerts for response organizations to deploy those materials in time.

Working with Existing Communities and Initiatives

We worked with a few different groups directly working in Kenya, including the National Drought Management Authority (and their Ending Drought Emergencies program) and UNDP on their existing surveying initiatives and Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, as well as extending those survey abilities with international groups like GeoPoll (SMS), Taweza (call center), and Kobo (household) to assess how communities establish and track their own resilience. While we didn’t get the second round of funding, we hope in future to also work more directly with communities using tools like Promise Tracker and Landscape (a digitized version of Dividers & Connectors) to better expose a community’s data back to themselves, and to subsequently be able to have more agency over their own improvement as well as accountability.

What’s also exciting is that our means and our ends matched. I was again in Nairobi for a stakeholder workshop with not only the project partners, but also with the organizations which would eventually make use of the data. We conducted community workshops to test our basic assumptions and methods against reality, as well as to be sure community voice was at the core of each component we consider. We threw a lot out… and added some amazing new things in. We hoped to break down the gatekeeper dynamic of accessing communities in the Horn of Africa, and we wanted to be coextensive with existing programs (rather than supplanting them). It’s feminist and it’s development and I’m kind of super thrilled that we got to try this idea out, even if we don’t get to do it in earnest (yet). We’ll keep looking for opportunities to carry the idea forward, and the design principles will remain at the core of what we do. You can read more about the proposal and stakeholder workshop here, including that side comment about feminism around page 7.