Data chaos to perennial gardens

onward ho… transformations in progress.

I work in the realm of risk taking, details with big picture ideas and the expectation that they come easily. 

Crisis, disasters 

a belief that the world in the big picture should strive to be better, despite the deep challenges in the way.

6 months and it’s time to transform another space.  My garden, seeds and the elements. It’s a micrososm of detail… uncertainty and in my fortunate world with little risks

a lot of crude earth with large and small beauty, safe for failure – all one in the same. 

Thanks to spring, and thanks to the wider world out there that I can walk both of these paths. As they rejuvenate me and prepare me for the next challenge. A gift not to be overlooked. 

Thought of the day: watching people learn about humanitarian information management is pretty awesome

For many years I’ve been teaching & creating humanitarian technologies courses. Mostly in the academic setting with an increasing number of humanitarian practitioners who are seeking to learn more about what humanitarian technologies are all about. But what I’ve really enjoyed as the Crisis Informatics Coordinator at NetHope is watching people learn; volunteers, myself, staff on our teams, and likely our leadership.

Throughout my training endeavors before the Ebola crisis I complemented my work with consultancies and research, and being an ER doc in a busy urban center. Many of these experiences have had an opportunity to come together.

It’s been amazing to see people at different stages of humanitarian experience helping us take next steps with Crisis  Informatics in operational settings.

Some people have been very early in their stages of understanding the humanitarian system. Some struggled with understanding this reality and resolving it with their area of expertise. They asked honest questions about why the system was fraught with challenges in the way that it is. A few really struggled to move forward operationally.  Their new questions  (known to experienced humanitarians) about why needs, requests and datasets kept changing dynamically and systems were not in place sometime took precedence over finding unchartered workarounds to move forward.

For others, their disclosure of their lack of experience drove them to continue to seek and learn and try to adapt in the best way they could. And I would say all volunteers and staff that we have worked with have come with the motivation to do just that. They all managed to approach this new world with the motivation to learn and understand a quickly as they could. And we thank them greatly for their willingness to do this.

There are many times when I wish I could’ve just put on my educational and training hat. Because in many ways that’s what I thought many of our colleagues needed. And sometimes late at night I wish I could’ve just put that educational and training had on myself. During a humanitarian crisis operations time is so limited.  The goal is executing deliverables in a safe and meaningful way to the best of your ability, that abides by humanitarian principles and for the service and support of those affected by the crisis. Learning is inevitable, but often in a different format than traditional stable settings.

And as a manager it was my goal to support the needs of our operational staff with informatics, make that happen with a group of people with various backgrounds, degrees of humanitarian experience, and ways of learning.

The one thing I do know is that everybody on our team was awesome. There are a lot of lessons learned about how this could be done in the future. One thing I do know is the willingness and the approach to being agile is one of the requirements for this type of work going forward.

But the requirement does not end there, because we’ve learned the hard way in humanitarian action that “good intentions” do not equate to good outcomes.

But another component that I think is imperative is for us to begin to better train people interested in operationally focused crisis informatics. And finding more humanitarian practitioners who are executing operationally focused deliverables using crisis informatics to learn more from them.   Investing in preparing to take some of these individuals who have different types skills, and experiences is necessary.  And recognizing that many of them need support in understanding the basic humanitarian system and how data and information management plays out. This, at a minimum, will significantly prepare us for the future.

The below are some ideas for future blog posts that I hope to dive deeper into the things I think we need going forward.

  • We need to help interested volunteers and some staff gain a deeper understanding of the humanitarian system. Because who we’re looking for may have initially come from another discipline, but they’re coming into the humanitarian system with less professional training than traditional humanitarians. Why would we sell these highly skilled, motivated, and often extremely creative people short by not offering them the opportunity for basic humanitarian training that we are increasingly asking of traditional humanitarians.
  • We need to find those humanitarian information focused practitioners paving the way during crisis. We need to support them to learn from them and help them teach us all about what they do, and how they pave the way. They may be “information managers” but more likely also doing the work under another job title. And are likely overstretched and we need to find them and support them.
  • We need to take the experiences of what “lies under the hood” with dynamic data management. And provide an honest depiction of what I call “data wrangling”  A good colleague of mine revised it to say “its data chaos that we need to data wrangle.” We need to speak about it publicly and then ask the sea of interested and skilled individuals to see who wants to get on board with us to do the data wrangling during the next crisis. And now is the time to simulate with them to get them ready. We need to train people on the lived experience to build the solutions for tomorrow. Also when it comes to building tools, we need to know who’s ready to be trained and who’s ready to simulate with these very difficult painful and sometimes perceived “demeaning” experiences. For those who perceive themselves as the leaders of “solution” (for I hope many will be) we need to train and simulate scenarios with them to help them take a more realistic path to build the tools to fit these human behavioral environments.

Tangential of thought of the day: what if I placed Google glasses during my ER shift?

just about a year ago I was with my good colleague in the Netherlands and he showed me his Google glasses.  I was somewhat amazed and also afraid at the same time. But today as I’m standing in my office which is covered with papers maps, and spreadsheets and thinking about the other work that I do as an ER doc in a busy urban emergency hospital I came to this thought: what might make me as an ER doc someone who also works in the world of humanitarian information management.

Why would someone like me who came out of a shift last night which got quite busy in the last two hours …go back in the morning to look at spreadsheets, datasets and visualizations  and talk with different collaboators about fragmented often not updated,  and silo’d bits of information across different groups of users.

I then came to realize that perhaps if I took some Google glasses and put them on (much to the chagrin of my patients and nurses) that this in someway may give me a window into the world of information management & emergency care. 

Would this in someway provide some insight for me into why this unbelievably fragmented and chaotic humanitarian information management space has much room for improvement, but a full on regimented system may not be a solution for where we stand right now.

So in the last two hours of my shift we probably had about 9 to 10 new patients. Some that I was able to see; a few that I was not able, but know that were safe to be carried onto the next shift. If I had Google glasses on I wonder if there were probably over 100 blink of my eyelids facing a computer screen that I looked.  Not all the information was the same. Not all info was updated at the same time. Not all were placed in front of me with the prioritization list from 1 to 5. But it required me every 5 to 10 minutes to go back to the source of multiple information feeds scan, look for patterns, and turn around and have conversations with people, consultant services, patients, and our families. 

So from the perspective of data and optimal workflows, this is the environment from which I come from. In many ways this may be something that helps me see the bigger picture, but also at the same time may limit my ability to see automated ideal workflows in progress and fragmented humanitarian system in transition.

I continue to believe that workarounds and better system for acute decision-making will come to bear. But at the same time I also feel that I may not have sophomoric urgency — that it has to be done now with linear systems that seem to work for one but not for those who are pivotal in decision making . And fight against the wave that it should have should happen yesterday. Because in some twisted way much of it is happening now…it just needs to happen better in the future.