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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

How can humanitarian response be decentralized?

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

For a long time, it wasn’t possible to include everyone’s voice in planning or decision-making without impossibly large amounts of time. There was no way to listen, at scale. So aggregation and centralization became common, especially in times of urgency, even with the troubles these tend to cause.

But now, with the technologies we have, we can *listen*, in high resolution and in high fidelity. But technology isn’t a silver bullet. We also need the political will and the personal values to make that happen. With Aspiration’s new Digital Humanitarian Response program, we get to support some of the rad people willing and able to make these movements happen. In May, we hosted the Humanitarian Technology Festival at MIT. The Digital Response Wiki provides resources and notes, and here are some top-level highlights from the event:

Disaster and humanitarian issues don’t happen in a vacuum

Notes from the Humanitarian Technology Festival

Groups like Public Lab help lay the groundwork (both socially and technically) for fast-cycle disasters, via their ongoing interaction with communities around environmental justice. This also provides scaffolding for handing off responsibilities after an extreme event. Kathmandu Living Labs, a group committed to mapping the infrastructure of their geography, is an excellent case study in this. When the Nepal earthquake hit, they were able to jump into action quickly due to pre-existing Open Street Map communities, workflows, data infrastructure, and (most importantly) social ties. Kathmandu was then capable of making use of (and maintaining) the updated data after the fact. Simply by being (and being allowed to be) active in affected communities on a day-to-day basis, organizations can support communities in becoming more resilient to disasters.

That said, preparing for extreme events before they happen can help mitigate the severity of impact on people lives. We explored the idea of games to make what might be considered dull more fun. No need to start from scratch (though that can be stimulating as well!). Climate Centre makes such games, and publishes them openly over on their website.

We already have much of what we need

One of our spectrogram statements was, “We already have all of the technology we need.” While we were divided in our responses, we acknowledged that the ability of groups of people to make do with what they have in disaster is astounding. And our preferences apply here technically as well as ethically. Distributed, federated systems both for technology and for communities/governance are more resilient than centralized systems (as well as addressing human rights in general). There are a few of these rad systems being built, NYC Prepared being one of my favorites.

Data and consent are deeply linked

Data use with populations that are vulnerable (based on their history, their current circumstances, or both) is still a big question, but not one we need to face on our own. OpenGov, Missing Persons, and other transparency-related initiatives have figured an awful lot of that out, and we should take note. Additionally, while consent is different in high-stress situations than in long-term advocacy campaigns, it should still be a strong consideration in any plan or intervention.

We looked at the Framework for Consent Policies which came out of a Responsible Data Forum in Budapest, and suggested advocating for a “notify this set of people in case of emergency” embedded into social platforms, similar to Networked Mortality or ICE contacts in some phones. This way, people would be consenting and determining who would be their contacting associates in case of disaster (unlike what Facebook recently did). Consent is a component of accountability, both of which highlight how frontline communities might be the architects of their own rescue.

Accountability is just as important in precarious situations as it is in everyday life, if not more so

Accountability is sorely lacking in humanitarian aid and disaster response. Fantastic organizations exist to track where spending is going, but money is often considered misspent. Frameworks exist for deploying aid in ways which alleviate, rather than exacerbate, conflict and tensions. However, these frameworks and mechanisms are still sometimes insufficient, as even well intended groups remain in regions for decades while populations become reliant on them, rather than becoming self sufficient.

Rather than come up with an external group to hold response groups accountable, we figured the frontline community could state whether or not initiatives are working, and those reports could be sent directly to the response organizations, their donors, and relevant constituents. This factors in strongly to the Dialling Up Resilience initiative grant of which Aspiration is a part (Yes, it’s spelled with 2 L’s. They’re Brits). More on that soon.

You can find more thorough notes from Humanitarian Technology Festival on (you guessed it) our wiki. Reach out to us if you have any questions about this ongoing work. Contact us here: / @willlowbl00

Digital humanitarian response: Meanwhile, in Nairobi…

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

I was in Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of April participating in various happenings across humanitarian response spaces. From interactive gameplay to resiliency indicators, here’s how we focused attention on frontline communities through digital means.

Facilitating gameplay to model for resource allocation

Game materials to indicate water points

I attended the 9th International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation (CBA9) with the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre in Nairobi on April 24-30. I was there to facilitate a game which simulated the citizen reporting of water resource status and distribution in an area to better inform allocation.

The game stems from Taarifa, a free software project that has been widely deployed to collect, visualize, and map infrastructure information. The Climate Centre is well known (and appreciated) for their distillations of complex climate, environmental, and social systems into fun-to-play games, which are available on their website.

Often, these games start simply, and then complexity is layered on as each set of rules is understood by the participants. There are additional challenges when designing a “pervasive game” like this one, which is a game that extends play out into the wider physical world. All the details needed to be written on one piece of paper and accessible across languages, and players need to be able to join at any point, and without a facilitation start-session. Phew. We did our best, and you can view our materials here.

Day one was focused on re-creating the system as it is now – everyone had to find the rest of their community, their malfunctioning water points, and engineers. Some would know the problems in space and time, but others had the tools to solve them when and where needed. How to link problem and solution? Communication was intermittent, if it happened at all. Information sharing was consistently one step behind of the facts.

On day two, we introduced the ability to SMS update and query, thus enabling a faster and more efficient match between broken pumps and the engineers who could bring tools and parts to help communities have safe water. People now only needed to find each other to make exchanges, and they were able to document and share in real time where water points were and what the status was.

How’d it go? It was confusing… just like life. There was slow uptake… just like life. Only one group used the technical assist (i.e., SMS)… just like life.

This game showed what we think we already know— that having a solid technical tool doesn’t mean anyone is going to use it. But as community-based adaptation practitioners, we often need to (re)learn what we kind-of know, and ask some tough questions, such as ‘why are available solutions not being fully embraced by those who can allegedly benefit from them?’

In Tanzania, the Taarifa team had a chance to both chat with end users about what their hopes and concerns were, as well as work with local software developers to localize the interface. That activity alone increases buy-in, as well as increasing appropriateness.

This game created a space for conference participants to see the same lack of uptake in their own behavior that pervades climate and development work, rather than it being an externalized problem space to grapple with during program design and implementation. It highlighted our collective need to better tap into the social systems around digital solutions, and rethink how to enable genuine embracing by those who can benefit from them. The Climate Centre will be taking the game forward into Zambia, where climate change and infrastructure are already under intense scrutiny.

Supporting community-driven indicators of resiliency

We are taking part in an initiative to build locally-driven strategies for resilience to extreme events such as drought. Our focus within the “Global Resilience Challenge” is on local indicators, or measurements, of resilience.

“You get what you measure,” as systems thinker Donella Meadows once said. When we talk about indicators of resilience, things like gross domestic products, income, and education come to mind. But that doesn’t work for everyone in all places. Actually, we often find that “more” (higher GDP, more trade, etc) is a dangerous synonym to describe “better” when we are trying to evaluate resiliencey.

In response, a few groups have worked on measuring other things, such as the happiness index. Similarly, what matters in resilience is that frontline communities are the ones describing what their own environments look like, what is important to pay attention to, and laying boundaries in how to interact. If communities have the ability to determine their own indicators and carry out subjective measurements within open data frameworks, large-scale understanding can also happen across communities.

What do we even mean by subjective? My favorite “subjectivity” delineation occurs around “framed” and “open-ended.” For example, we could set out a frame of the top five things we think are related to resilience, and then ask community members en masse how they rate their own standing on those things. Or we can ask people what they think is important to their own resilience. Both are subjective indicators.

To make this project happen, we are collaborating with the Overseas Development InstituteNational Drought Management Agency (Kenya)GeoPollDataPop (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and MIT Media Lab), CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, and the Center for Civic Media. We’re reading a lot, talking to community partners, and beginning to ramp up various ways of both examining what questions we should be asking as well as how we’ll ask (SMS surveys, household surveys, call centers, other). We’ll try some of these things out and meet again in June or July.