Last week I delivered a keynote address at the 3rd International Conference of Crisis Mappers held in Geneva, an annual meeting of the practitioners, academics and some of the best minds in the world involved in shaping the future of humanitarian aid and post-disaster relief work. My involvement and enduring interest in this field is accidental. At the time of the Boxing Day tsunami, I used a programme called Groove Virtual Office to support a political initiative called One Text that brought together actors in, what at the time was the peace process to thrash out issues in a virtual, mediated environment. Groove was to PCs of the day what Mihin Lanka is to our economy, a beast that sucked dry every available resource and gave little in return. But what it did was, at the time, unprecedented. It offered key actors and their proxies – some of whom could not be seen together, many of whom were out of Sri Lanka – the ability to in real time or asynchronously, communicate ideas, conduct discussions, upload documents for review, jointly edit them, map out positions and interests of political parties and non-state actors, flesh out and debate public stances and be informed by a range of decision support tools, including a library I curated with resources on peacebuilding. When the tsunami hit, the local and international networks connected via Groove were in a matter of hours turned into a decision support system for relief and aid work. At its peak, over 300 national and international entities, including the Prime Minister’s Office, Sarvodaya and even the US Southern Command, involved in relief efforts in South East Asia, were part of the Groove workspaces set up in Sri Lanka. Unsurprisingly, my laptop, which hosted most of the content, summarily crashed and was only resuscitated at the Groove Headquarters in Boston, days after the disaster, during an internship planned before the tsunami entered our vocabulary. The workspaces had situation reports from UN agencies, eyewitness reports, media updates, video, maps and other geographical information like map layers, photos and other documents. Two or three weeks after the tsunami, the Sahana Disaster Management System was, from scratch, coded into a platform that helped coordinate aid work and included modules for missing persons registration, volunteer and camp management and matching requests for aid with offers for help. Nothing of the sort existed, and programmers in Sri Lanka had not attempted a venture of this nature and scale before the tsunami.
Why should this not just be a topic of interest for the motely array of individuals who inhabit the IT industry, or relief world? To be sure, relief and aid work involves hard, physical work. No amount of or advance in technology will negate the need for search and rescue teams who risk their own lives to rescue those trapped in the completely chaotic hours and days after a large-scale disaster. And yet, from the vital updates via SMS sent after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka to the development of Sahana, from the Ushahidi map after Haiti’s devastating earthquake to the compelling Lord’s Resistance Army Crisis Tracker website, ordinary people, with no prior humanitarian experience including those affected by a crisis or disaster and volunteers thousands of miles away from the centre of the devastation or crisis working for little or no money are bearing witness to ground realities and offering their assistance, knowledge and expertise to relief and aid organisations, including the UN. Increasingly entering the domain of humanitarian aid are also serious programmers. Advances in mobile technology, the web and the Internet propel much of this.
Why is this important, why must Sri Lanka embrace it and what challenges confront us in doing so? The shift is important globally because it represents a fundamental change in the culture of humanitarian aid, from conception to on the ground delivery. Technology is tearing open a conservative, conventional domain, allowing those affected by a disaster to bear witness to not just the devastation around them, but also the actions of humanitarian aid workers. The same technologies that under-pinned the Arab Spring are those that are helping aid workers better coordinate their work, within and between agencies. The same mobile phone that captured the dying moments of regimes in the Middle East are those able to capture those alive under rubble, missing children, damaged buildings, map critical infrastructure after a disaster, help identity safe passage and refuge, match on the ground needs to aid in-flows and help make humanitarian aid agencies more accountable to those they serve, and are funded by. That last point is a sticky issue. Technology is embraced when it helps efficiency and effectiveness, but shunned when it opens the log and financial books of aid agencies. This is where this shift is important locally. Civil society, which is critical of government, as well as government, often virulently critical of civil society are increasingly open to scrutiny by the ubiquity of technologies that capture and disseminate performance indicators both would love to hide. From undelivered food supplies to poor quality rations, from camp conditions to government bureaucracy, from the waste of aid agencies to the gender discrimination in aid delivery, those once considered mere victims have an increasingly powerful voice and media to air their concerns. This trend will continue. Embracing it allows Sri Lanka to become more responsive, agile and accountable. If and when the next large scale natural disaster hits Sri Lanka – a flood, tsunami, a burst dam or bund or landslide – those who are best placed to alert aid agencies of ground conditions will be those affected by the disaster, and not relief workers who go in post-disaster. This is a seismic shift in how we plan for, generate and deliver humanitarian aid. It means that governments and aid agencies can potentially plan better, deliver and store without waste vital supplies, and even prevent, in some cases, a larger disaster. Ordinary citizens, and not just humanitarian aid workers or industry experts, are not just part of this new aid paradigm as victims or those in need of relief. They are the ones guiding logistics, providing on the ground information, shaping aid agendas, holding those responsible for relief accountable, re-engineering what has for decades been a system closed to outside input or scrutiny. How can this help in Sri Lanka?
Even a cursory scan of mainstream media over the past couple of years clearly flags that aside from the war, widespread flooding, landslides, erosion and drought have cost hundreds of lives, devastated livelihoods and laid waste large tracts of land. Technology isn’t going to stop any of this in the near future, but giving citizens the power to alert, advise and action risk reduction strategies, at a community level, leveraging the power and reach of mobiles phones and the Internet, can save lives that through centralised and opaque planning and relief plans are often lost. This is recognised in the crisis mapping movement globally, where technology’s focus is on empowering the field level, right down to the affected persons. This is a major shift from the “headquarters knows all” attitudes of the old guard of aid workers, who saw themselves as saviours of helpless communities. It is now these communities who are helping the aid workers, and keeping an eye on them to boot. And yet, the popular coupling of technologies for regime change elsewhere impedes their promotion amongst communities in our country facing the greatest danger, from coastal areas to those living with riparian risk. We are losing out on a global trend, and an exciting opportunity to offer our communities access to innovations in technology that can not just help them save their own lives, but assist in the saving of others, in others parts of the country, the region and beyond. By giving into the fear of political instability and not recognising or supporting the potential of citizens to help themselves – api wenuven api sans the bovine blather it is usually framed by – our government undermines its own efforts at disaster risk reduction, early warning, community resilience and disaster management plans. By not harnessing local knowledge – there are for example platforms today being developed at the UN that by aggregating, analysing and visualising hundreds of thousands of hunches and recording inklings are able to generate risk maps that contribute to early warning – governments, civil society and aid agencies who continue to believe that centralised planning and control is best able to save lives will actually contribute to lives lost.
And even if they don’t comply, these technologies will find their ways into the hands of citizens, compelling change, driving reform. When the flooding earlier this years inundated almost a third of Sri Lanka at its worst, a map created by a colleague on Google Maps – a free, web based mapping platform – generated thousands of views overnight. Anyone today is able to create a map no different to what was employed in Haiti by Ushahidi to map relief work and needs on the ground after a disaster. Tools like FrontlineSMS provide even the remotest communities the ability to record what they see, hear and need, in addition to what they get, how they get it, and when they receive it. These are all free, web based, mobile friendly tools. There is today a global movement involving over 180 countries, and tens of thousands of people – including from UN – engaged in discussions on how a new wave of virtual volunteers are joining forces with seasoned aid workers to protect civilians from violent conflict as well as help them after a disaster. Our own Sahana’s not caught on to the degree I thought it would in Sri Lanka, but the idea and movement it helped inspire is much larger, alive and growing today. We are now faced with increasing opportunities to leverage our tragic and long experience with disasters and crises into a valuable asset through technologies that connect us to other disasters outside of our country or immediate community. Driven by technological advances, this new paradigm – whether we are an accountant, university student, stock-broker, journalist, C++ coder or hacker – gives us an opportunity to be part of processes that save lives. It is, ultimately, about using tools a generation before us didn’t have in Sri Lanka to help ourselves, and others in distress.
Published in The Nation on 20th November 2011.