Communications for Humanitarian Aid Relief: An Interview with Gregg Swanson of HumaniNet (transcript)

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What kind of technology works best in disaster relief?  What social web tools have been used successfully and what still needs to be developed?  HumaniNet's Executive Director, Greg Swanson, answers these questions in the transcript below of my interview with him for the Netsquared Podcast.

Gregg Swanson: HumaniNet was founded just over five years ago. I came from Silicon Valley. I spent 14 years there as a manager, doing a whole variety of things, and I know that there was a lot of goodwill and potential in a lot of ways, of technologists, not just software developers but many others, but I wasn't able to translate that into a real project until I went to Portland, Oregon.

I moved there in the year 2000, looked for something different to do, and wound up in an NGO, which means Non-Governmental Organization, called Northwest Medical Teams. They needed help with a variety of things: web sites, email lists, listservs, things that they were learning about. I was able to help them in small ways, but the real breakthrough came after 9/11, when they sent a team to Afghanistan, where there was a threat. There was a very risky situation there, and they asked me to help with the communications from the remote area in Northern Afghanistan.

Well, one could go on CNN and see that it was a difficult situation. There were no communications, no phone, no cell phones or anything, and I realized that there was something called satellite communications, but I didn't know much about it. I called around and I discovered two things--I was on staff at this point, I was no longer volunteering. The first was that the answers were out there in industry. There were a lot of people who wanted to help in humanitarian relief, but they just didn't know where to plug in, including large companies.

The second was that other NGOs, other humanitarian and relief organizations, had answers to a lot of these questions, but there was no provision for cross-tell.

And that became the genesis of HumaniNet, simply a clearinghouse of information, a help desk if you will, for humanitarians to call, or email, or come on in and ask their question, and we could find answers for them. So that is pretty much the basics of what we do. We are an information service. We have done some other things that we can talk about here on the podcast.

Britt Bravo: What are some examples of technology that has really worked in disaster relief, some success stories?

GS: One of the ways is simply getting connectivity from the location, whether it was the tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, Katrina, or many of the smaller-scale disasters. By the way, there are many that we never hear about. The Red Cross counts hundreds of what they consider large-scale disasters. These are landslides in Laos, floods in Mozambique, things that we don't, or most newspapers don't even carry. Several hundred a year. We hear about the big ones that are closer to home as a rule, but the people that go in there--and I have heard stories, for example, of people that would be several weeks in an area without phone or Internet, had no idea how to order supplies other than go get on a helicopter and fly to the capital city.

So there are many success stories of just bringing email to these remote areas, as happened in the tsunami, satellite communications, and also in sharing information. This is the real frontier of humanitarian relief: to get the right information in the right place at the right time. But most of our success stories with HumaniNet are fairly small-scale. It is people going into the remote Amazon. I just talked to a fellow this morning who is heading for Ecuador, into the Amazon basin, he needs email when he goes in there, otherwise he is out of touch. There are projects all over Africa, Asia, South America, and some right here in the United States, where people just want to get connected and they don't know how to do it.

Other success stories are around the ways that we manage this information. We have an online resource which we call "The Community Center," with a login which we can provide to any non-profit person or manager. People can go in there and explore, get the answers to their questions, basically do their homework on things like satellite communications, wireless, how to set up a wireless network in Uganda or anywhere else, power management--what kind of solar panels would work, and where do you go to get answers. That is our primary resource for humanitarian relief and aid people, just to get smart on the subject before they run off and write a big check.

And by the way, one of the things that we are the most proud of is that in working with service providers, big and small--some are multinational, some are very small-scale organizations--they often are willing, they are very willing, to give discounts to non-profits, saving a lot of money.

And finally, there are lots of tools, software tools, email tools and things, that will shrink the expenditures, the expenses of these organizations radically. One of our missions, one of our crusades, if you will, is just to get that information out to people so that they are not spending those hard-earned donated dollars the wrong way.

BB: Can you give some examples of social web tools that have been successfully used for disaster management and humanitarian assistance?

GS: There are a few, and some of the bigger NGOs actually use that to a great advantage. Part of it is simply putting the word back to their constituency about what is going on in a disaster scene. In the year 2003, right after Christmas, I think it was December 26th, there was a major earthquake in a city in Iran, in Bam, that some of the folks on the podcast might recall. It was devastating, a huge loss of life. A team from World Vision went in there in a hurry, and because they had a satellite terminal that we had helped them procure, they were able to send photographs back of the devastation. People had a much better understanding of what the relief teams were up against.

The other part, perhaps a different sort of answer to your question, is the people that go out into these areas, whether it is the coast of Indonesia after the tsunami, or whether it is a more routine aid mission in the Congo, where there are risky situations, and lots of the world has those, is that they are able to simply stay in touch with family and friends. We have been told many, many times how valuable that is, essential really, for people who have dealt with distress, with disaster, with death unfortunately, with problems of every kind, places like Darfur, that we hear about a lot, to be able to simply communicate with their loved ones back home, and also with each other.

Because they form networks. These people move about from organization to organization, from geography to geography. We all admire tremendously the work that they do, and simply by staying in touch, by being able to send email to their husband, who might be in a different country, to good friends back in places like Portland or Oakland, that helps their morale immensely.

BB: What are some of the kinds of tools that you think need to be developed to do the kind of work that you do?

GS: There are a great many. One that comes to mind, and this is perhaps the Holy Grail of humanitarian work, is what I call an intelligent bulletin board. Or something that Holly Ross described this morning that is the share a ride concept. Which is...would be expanded into this space. So that the people after a disaster, who have resources, whether it's clothing, water, volunteers, anything that might be of benefit in the relief, could be matched up with the need.

Organizations for example might need a volunteer team who are experts in wireless networks, to go to Mississippi following Katrina and set up that network around the city hall or a church. Somebody else might need simply a truckload of water to be delivered at the right place at the right time. Something that would match the need with the solution would be of immense benefit. That's one reason I'm here [Aspiration Non-Profit Software Development Summit] and my colleague Teresa Crawford, is to see what the development community could say about smart ways to do that.

There are I think many valuable social networking tools that we could employ. We have used Flickr. We have used Blogger.com. And at the risk of rambling here I'll just talk about the first ever series of what we call Sim Days that we conducted last year.

We did the first one, sort of a dress rehearsal, last year in Portland, Oregon last June. It was very successful. Techies, wireless folks, amateur radio people, people interested in humanitarian work, assembled and put together in a matter of hours a wireless network that covered an entire parking lot connected by satellite to the rest of the world to the Internet. We thought, say that was fantastic, we could do this on a bigger scale.

We did it again in September down in Mountain View, in Silicon Valley, and got a lot of attention about how that is possible. And then I traveled to Java, Indonesia last October to work with an organization called ADRA Asia to do it on the side of a volcano, Mount Gede, south of Jakarta, in a fairly realistic simulation of a volcanic eruption. A real emergency, but in a controlled environment. And we tested out some of these tools from there. I sent blog posts back over the satellite, pictures that I had taken that same day, again back over the satellite and onto our website.

In the coming year here in June we're going to do the same thing with more experimentation and utilization of Web 2.0 tools, in the next ADRA Asia simulation, which will be from the Katmandu valley of Nepal. And then in October we're going to do it again from northern Thailand.

So this is a test bed. We're working on smarter ways to use these tools to advantage. Not only for the operational organization of the relief effort, but so that the folks who are concerned, the donors, the supporters, the family and friends, the constituency of these relief teams can be better informed about what they're facing and what's going on.

So we're really excited about the possibilities of these tools, and we're going to learn a lot here at the Dev Summit I think about smart ways to go.

BB: How can listeners get involved with HumaniNet?

GS: Well we're always looking for volunteers. We have a number of research teams looking into a whole variety of areas, for example, power management, solar sustainable power. One volunteer has taken the lead on that team and learned a lot about foot pedal power because although we're fairly used to having electricity when we get up in the morning, most of the world is not, and this is one of the great concerns.

We have partners and good friends over in San Francisco at a company called Inveneo, a fantastic organization. They have learned a lot and can teach others about how to run a whole network off of a 12-volt battery, or a series of batteries. Green WiFi participated also in our Sim Day last September.

We have research teams looking at information and management tools. And we're looking at actually re-engineering our web ecosystem as well. So we are always looking for people who have a good understanding of open source software.

We have a Plone based...our community center that I mentioned earlier is based on Plone. And Teresa is leading an effort to look at Joomla! as one possible advantage. So we're always looking for Joomla! experts and people who understand open source collaborative tools. That would be very helpful.

We have another effort underway in geographic information systems, GIS. In fact we'll have a session here Friday afternoon to discuss that. One of the things we found in operation, "Java Lava", as it was called last October up on that volcano in Java, is that people didn't have maps.

The folks arrived by truck, one or two days into the scenario, and one fellow had on a piece of paper a pencil sketch of the map of the area showing the roads, some of the villages, which he didn't know how to pronounce or spell, but he had made a homemade map. And that was the best they could do in this simulation.

Well my thought right away, and I'm a former pilot by the way, I flew in the Air Force so I know about maps, I thought, gee, people in Oakland, or anywhere in the world could find a Google Map, or some useful map with a road base, and could then transmit that, or post it for download. People in Jakarta could print it before they left, and they'd have a map. Little things like that.

So that's a long answer to a good question about all the possibilities. Anything that might be...that might help these relief teams who are always hustling when they are in the field. They're usually under difficult circumstances. Heat, rain, dust, difficulty in getting water, difficulty in getting power. To make them as prepared and as capable as possible for their own safety and security, and simply to make them more effective in their mission in saving lives.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about HumaniNet's work?

GS: We invite anyone out there and everyone out there to check our website HumaniNet.org, and to subscribe to our e-update newsletter. We're going to keep people posted on the events coming up. The Sim Days in June as I mentioned in Nepal, and in Thailand in October.

And for those in the Portland area, up in the Northwest, we're going to have a little gathering, informal, no host happening in a pub in Portland on March 6th, and that's on our events page on the website. So I look forward to meeting more folks and possibly some volunteers out there.

*HumaniNet would like to thank Telenor Satellite Services for their sponsorship of their work and the Asia relief simulations.*

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