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?

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.

Trustworthiness in response

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

When I came on with Aspiration in January, it was clear in my soul why the joining up made sense. But not many folk in the disaster and humanitarian response circles I run in pay much attention to the overlap of activism and response. It took some time to make it clear and explicit. Back in May Anne from Hirondelle asked for a vizthink for a talk she was going to give, and for the staff working on the project to have a common view of all the moving parts of the program. Anne works in the overlap of response and journalistic integrity1, and has far more experience in both DOING and in EXPLAINING this overlap. I hope that by showing you our drawing and by talking about her case study this overlap can become more clear to even more people.

Getting the Word Out

Hirondelle works in radio programming in austere areas. Radio programming can be for music. It can also be to get information out – information about health, politics, and community action. Radio can be used to propagate messages inspiring violence through rumors or outright instigation. Messages can also be used to disseminate messages of truth, care, and empowerment. Radio broadcasts were used to coordinate after the Haitian earthquake. It’s a consistent medium used in a lot of places to a lot of different purposes.

Communication gets more expensive the further away from a radio tower you are, as outreach has to happen about the radio programs even existing and/or install additional towers. Anne also pointed out that “it’s not just a question of expense. If you’re out of range, you’re out of range. Radio silence.”

Enter Bluetooth. The consistently increasing number of people with phones, including the Nokia 1100 and other ‘dumb’ phones have started exchanging media files via Bluetooth. Even when there isn’t any internet, it’s still possible to transfer files directly from one device to another2. But people can only transfer what they’ve already got. And so Hirondelle works with a local women-run NGO Media Matters for Women to set up places called Listening Centers, where media programming is delivered by bicycle. People socialize, listen to a program together, and take the audio files with them to share with others3

Messaging and Trust

Mostly, these Bluetooth ‘podcasts’ are about maternal health, domestic violence, and education4. Hirondelle’s ongoing dedication to development and humanitarian response (“slow” disasters) means they’re trusted in most of the communities they’re in. Which means when conflict hits, they often continue to be trusted. Trust is more complicated for other groups, as organizations like the UN might also set up a radio tower and offer programming during extreme times, but their transient nature, close alignment with ‘official’ voices, and not being in the local language inhibit the deep bonds associated with trust from forming. Local radio stations which are in the local language often end up aligned with (or coerced by) those instigating violence. Hirondelle being independent while still close to the communities they serve, with newsrooms that reflect the diversity on the other side of the microphone, means the trust in groups like Hirondelle is deeper. That’s vital for effective response5.

This long term investment in community also means that when something as terrifying as Ebola breaks out, there are infrastructural ways6 to distribute trusted messages. The female journalists in their network used the same capacities built up for their physical and digital safety when speaking truth to power for making informed choices during the Ebola outbreak. The skills to think critically about messaging, how to check in with community members, and how to disseminate trusted knowledge outward to others also applied in both contexts. Even the messaging and response to Ebola is politicized, with who people go to for help depending on networks of trust. And in places like Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone with long histories of civil war and authoritarian governments, official messages about how to deal with the spread of the disease weren’t trusted – even if the information they contained was right. Our means must match our purposes, and vice versa, and the capacities we build in calmer times bolster our resilience when the world gets complex and dangerous. By taking care of our present selves, our future selves are better off.


  1. Which has become activist, strangely/sadly, as truth-telling becomes a radical act.
  2. The ability to transfer files to each other directly – something inhibited on many devices through firmware.
  3. Copyright (or Copyleft) activism is vital to our ability to create media which is our own / held in common, so we might share it outwards. Can you imagine “oh, this program might help you teach your abusive partner that what they’re doing isn’t ok, but you can’t share it to your sister who might be experiencing the same thing because DRM.” Yuck.
  4. They also work with locals to create the programming, and have all sorts of amazing stories about how their programming has changed relationships and cultures, but sadly that isn’t the point of this blog post.6
  5. Being trusted by those wishing to disentangle or opt out of conflict has to do with also having a history of truth telling, especially to power. Activists do this. So do efforts like Hirondelle. Ergo, Hirondelle is activist in a very subtle way.
  6. Mesh networks can’t be disaster-only, because people won’t trust them and won’t know how to use them.
  7. Means of production. People are not just consumers of media or of technology… to co-create is an act of empowerment which more closely strikes at the root of societal issues.

We’re not even sure you need that

In talking to someone I would rather see as both infallible and immortal about going under the knife, I lightened the situation by telling them they could be altered within several deviations of themselves and still be tolerable. Bantering with SJ around what are organs even for, if you don’t need entire parts of them, lead us somehow to my drawing this image.


Thank goodness for humor.


Advancing Visual Thinking / Graphic Facilitation

I’ve recently launched bl00viz, a way for people to hire me for my graphic facilitation and visual thinking skills. This is the third in a 3-part series. The first part covered various sorts of vizthink, and the second covered the tools used.

So, I do these live drawings while people are speaking in order to demonstrate their ideas. I started doing visual thinking in earnest when someone turned left in front of me, causing a shattered radius. Since, it’s become my primary method of note taking, and a wonderful way to augment written notes.


Now that I can record the process of drawing, it’s even more fun to show ideas develop through the process itself, rather than just the completed ideas overlaying each other. So far, I’ve figured out how to tell a story on top of a drawing, like for Galway’s Ignite:

And taken an already-done talk, drawn it, and synced back to the audio:

This takes more energy, but I’m really pleased about the storytelling style.


The next bit that I’m super interested in exploring is that of how to collaborate together in drawing. I’m looking forward to the next unconference I get to go to where others are willing to play with me in this space. Whether in physical space on pieces of butcher paper, or in the collaborative editing capabilities of Prezi, I can’t wait to further explore this space. SO EXCITED.

Cohort and fellow Berkmanite Primavera showed me the Kopfschlag project, a persistent, collaborative, online drawing tool. You can play at the link, but here’s a time-lapse:

Kopfschlag from kopfschlag on Vimeo.

In the same way people have taken quickly to collaborative document editing, I see those of us who are visual thinkers sharing drawing space to express ideas in new ways.

VizThink Overview

I do these live drawings while people are speaking in order to demonstrate their ideas. Orginally mentored by James Carlson, I started doing visual thinking in earnest when someone turned left in front of me, causing a shattered radius. Since, it’s become my primary method of note taking, and a wonderful way to augment written notes.

Different Things to Show

Charts!At its most basic, visual thinking is a way to show workflow and charts. Rather than explaining in lengthy and complicating words, a drawing can often demonstrate relationships and interactions between components. Charts can be serious and examinging:

Value Based Chart

Or they can be silly and humorous:


Individual IdeasOften, when people are speaking or beginning to flesh out an idea, it makes sense to draw the individual components or speaking points as just that – individual parts. Using Adobe Ideas on my iPad, I do one layer per point. Often, these just end up as a collection of strangely-shaped references to ideas, which can then be arranged (remember, different layers!) to look nice nested within each other. This is, I suppose, a form of graphic design. 

 If there are enough components, or enough detail, it’s worth embedding into a prezi and defining a path for the viewer. More on that later. And Conflating IdeasIt also helps to de-complicate what is a part of a workflow, what isn’t, and where confusion is coming in. This is the part of the conversation or explanation where we start gesticulating or arranging things on the table to demonstrate a point. For instance, I was frustrated that a bunch of digital disaster response groups wanted to list all the other projects that were going on for a certain topic (in this case, Hurricane Sandy). This is bulky because then there are many places to update if a project changes, completes, or dies. After spending 40+ lines of text in chat trying to explain what I meant, drawing this picture helped much more.

One reason the internet is amazing is because of the ability to point sections of a webpage at other webpages (RSS FTW). Not doing that was over complicating matters, but so what trying to differentiate via text rather than in a drawing. 

Building a Story

Now that you’re able to deconflate ideas as well as delineate them, it makes sense to move on to how components of a story interact with each other. Rather than moving from node to node, this method takes layers in Adobe Ideas and stacks them on top of one another. In this way, you can start to see how ideas flow into each other, and how they interact.

System Interaction

Life isn’t linear, and at times it is difficult to express all the moving parts while not losing the trees for the forest. While all models are incomplete (but they can still be useful), having a drawing can acknowledge the boundaries of a systems model while not dwelling on those limitations.

Similar to storytelling and individual nodes, we still see the individual components. However, in a System Interaction drawing, we see how those components play off of each other, and see where leverage points might be.



I use an iPad and an electrostatic sock over a chopstick from this dude:

Sometimes I pick up a stylus from a store.

Adobe Ideas

Is what I draw in. It provides many useful components while not being so overwhelming as to be ungainly, nor difficult for new users.

Graphics are vector, though the canvas isn’t quite infinite. It exports as PDF, which can be surprisingly versatile once you get ahold of them. And, it imports nicely into Prezi. It’s also available on Android, but a bit laggy.


For general note-taking, and text-heavy talks, Notability is also pretty great. It’s what I use for some IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference notes, because it nests drawings in with text in with images all in the same document. It’s not useful for the Prezi-zoom interface, but it’s much better for in-depth blog entries.

It also does this great thing where it will record audio and sync your notes to it. Personally super useful, especially as you become reliant upon including drawings in some way.


Prezi is what a lot of this work goes into. It lets me guide the way people move through notes – nested ideas, eastereggs, and all. That is probably a tutorial in and of itself, but here is something about how my brain works around it:

Becoming Structured

Feeding off the Pixels and Paintbrushes blog entry. Interested in that transition space between the analog and the digital. It’s funny, liminal has long been my favorite word, rivaled only recently by penumbral. More and more, I get to look at and live in that space. But now I see it more as the space of transition, not just as space between/at the edge.

So this thing happens, where we have formal structures, and the informal takes up the space between. As in the previous entry, each of these has its purpose and strengths and weaknesses.

This drawing based off a conversation with Galit, a cohort and roommate.

This drawing based off a conversation with Galit, a cohort and roommate.

As a reference, let’s take the limited work I’ve done with Occupy Relief efforts. I act as human API – if you need something from a formalized organization, including them getting out of the way, let me know. Then there are posts like this one, which is totally legit. But it puts me in a strange place of saying “I stand with you politically, but if you want this taken care of logistically, then let’s do that.” Something that keeps me in the relief space is how stark a relief differences are thrown into1. The choices that have to be made, and what is considered important when, and what cultural artifacts are created by those choices. A big part of how adaptable and powerful Occupy is, is based upon their NOT being defined nor legible. More and more I wonder how to make groups like FEMA legible to Occupy, rather than the other way round.

Reading Seeing Like A State, if you can’t tell. So very good. And then, I got to see Douglas Rushkoff speak about his new book, Present Shock. I think a HUGE part of these ideas overlap.

He equated the quest for the upper right quadrant in Capitalism with the Singularity as an example of existing world views being applied to new ways of considering the future. Rushkoff also brought up the feminist media theory of storylines and plots of male vs female orgasm – one is a single escalation and then easy bell curve down. The other being complex, multi-apex, etc. The only way we’ve known for things to be predictable is with the storyline we could track – the male orgasm model2.

Now we have the ability to see, track, understand the complexity of “actual” life3 through big data4 in a way that understands as it emerges, rather than forces adherence to a predictable, and thereby incomplete, model. And instead we are applying the same two-dimensional, simplistic pattern to it, and cutting off the long tails of a bell curve we’ve forced everything into. We’re bringing the legal system of documents and MAYBE spreadsheets to a database and RDF world5. We are not allowing ourselves the nuance of the paintbrush, digitized through the use of high-density pixels. We’re making ourselves bland and bucketed instead. A low-res snapshot of culture, of which the mere act of capturing makes us fulfill it more closely. Through quantified self and things like Prism, we’re stealing our own souls, at least as things are set up now6.

And this is why I’m doing the research I am. I’m tired of us lugging our unexamined baggage into the future we’re building. In the past, institutions were where knowledge was stored. Now it’s stored in us, in a sharable and duplicatable way. Seeing Rushkoff was inspiring, because he noted that yes, it’s difficult to exist in the crevices, but it’s also totally worthwhile. Video and audio are up already on the Berkman site.


It’s the trying to fit new things into old methods. We have to be willing to embrace some unpredictability in order for the lives of others to be more predictable to themselves. Crowds becoming “less predictable” to an outside view, but they’re becoming more self-determining. Let go of the reins and let it guide itself. Isn’t that the point of having power? To push it outwards?

1. See why penumbral is a favorite word?
2. Sidenote that I just tried to find links to the academic background on this, but guess how useful the internet is for THAT.
3. Or at least a closer approximation than we’ve had in the past.
4. Which would be the crowning, and crowing, triumph of Sociology.
5. And the database model isn’t The Best, it’s just “better” than what we’ve had before, in that it’s more self-defining and adaptable.
6. Damn kids get off my keyboard.

HOPE and Awesummit

Spent the last three weeks away from Seattle – about a week on Playa, a week in NYC, a week in Boston. Was constantly surrounded by people I respect immensely and with whom I can’t wait to have continued interactions.

HOPE was incredible. I gave a talk with Diggz on Geeks Without Bounds. I sat on a panel about DARPA funding education and hackerspace programs. No chairs were thrown. It was pretty bitchin’. Saw the Byzantium project, and drank mate, and sipped whiskey with the No Starch Press folk. Went out for beers with an eclectic group of hackers and artists, talked about the future we were building, the holes that still exist, and how we might be less wrong.

I was blown away by the gender ratios (still not close to half, but far better, especially with the speaker line-up), and that the vibe was a bit less awkward and certainly less sexually charged than most of the other events I’ve been to. And the level of respect with which people approached each other in calling out inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and differences of opinion was phenomenal.

Exploried an old power plant with Borgatti. Nearly got caught. Knelt in the dark, breathing quietly, covered in brick dust and mud, and waited for people to pass by. Played Cards Against Humanity with some of my favorite humanitarians. Spent time with my Sunday Boyfriend and met his new cat. Made my way to Boston. Played in the park in bare feet, with a flask of whiskey, in the torrential downpour of heat finally breaking. Sat on a sea wall and ate breakfast, loosing track of time and wading back, coffee in hand and boots over my shoulder.

Went to the #awesummit, saw what opt-in taxes might look like. People who understand they are a part of a larger whole – giving their excess to things which don’t just entertain them, but also enhance the rest of their community.

It was *so cool* to sit in a room with people whose shred ideologies are so meta we often lacked the language and pattern recognition to pin it down. That we couldn’t say all the projects we supported were even the same sort. That the trustees were not all of a similar demographic, background, what have you. Not even our giving patterns were the same. Only one thing was shared – the word “awesome,” and the aspect of sharing, of facing outwards. To have a group of people that varied come together to talk about what we *were*, if anything, and what that *meant*, if we were something or if we weren’t. It was wonderful. There were a few moments of tension, mostly around the idea of trademark. It reminded me a lot of the conversations in hackerspaces. What do we all share, when we are so fiercely grass roots? What does it mean to share a vision but not a praxis? What is the value of making ourselves legible to the rest of society, or is that something we should actively avoid?

And my drawings ended up on the MIT Civic Media blog, which is kind of amazing.

All that was topped off by a dinosaur-themed party with cookie checks and cake. Saw massive ink pipes and the three-story press at the Boston Globe, bifurcated paper and quixotic diagrams. A private tour with a new friend through back doors and stalled robots and stressed editors. Taking the green line back to my dear college friend’s home, walking the last mile slightly buzzed, T-Rex balloon bouncing, happy.

Continued conversations around what comes Next, what are we building, how are we helping each other. I continue to be in constant awe of the amazing folk around me, humbled that they invite me into their community and projects. And to return to Seattle, to smiles and mangos and all of the hackathon planning ever.