Snippets of my world of humanitarian data and the people processes, successes and challenges that lie ahead

IMG_0331time rushes by, and rarely stays still

Humanitarian crisis and disasters grow in size and frequency at a pace that is surprisingly dwarfed by the swirling sea of humanitarian data. The expectations that we all have for data and its use in effective decision-making, accountable actions and durable change are daunting but a necessary pressure to change the system we are in.

I rarely finish a blogpost from crisis to crisis or from ER shift to ER shift. I’m currently post overnight from a very very busy shift –  one that reminds me of why I live for and enjoy the uncertainty of high acuity situations. But this is the time for me to finally hit the publish button on the series of blog posts suspended in draft format that I have written over the past couple years.

I hope this will be an opportunity to reflect upon, pull, and share snippets of my streams of thought on humanitarian data, information management, people, politics and progress.

I hope that a slice of my world will spark conversations across communities. For there is much learning we all need to do— to make this world a better place

Where do those products go? And what does it mean about our contributions?

I just revisited this post created just less than two years ago. It’s amazing how much has change, and perhaps how much has stayed the same. What do you think?


A good colleague of mine posted a great blog recently on the challenges with understanding the impact of digital humanitarian activities during humanitarian crisis.

This is certainly not a new question. It’s one that has been resonating amongst digital humanitarians, some traditional humanitarians, researchers and policy advisors alike.

My good colleague Kenny Meesters has an insightful views about these challenges as well.

Many of the digital volunteers wonder about the use of the products. And while through the existing exchange and communication channels feedback is received, for example with thank you notes, anecdotes and even some ‘success’ stories, some wonder how these products are actually being used, deep in the field.

To some degree the publicity and communications over the years have established an expectation that the great work that digital humanitarians have contributed over the years is more frequently linked with direct impact, and at times with “saving lives”. While for…

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

A brief revisit of a prior post. It’s great to see how this continues to evolve.


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…

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One-story: The outcomes of volunteer digital humanitarians, field mapping and supporting connectivity in the field

(Draft ~1 year ago) There’s been a lot of conversation around what is the true impact of digital humanitarians.

I believe we’re getting closer to understanding the different types of chain of events that link digital humanitarian volunteerism and related outcomes on field operations.

A good place to start is to begin to look at individual scenarios and to trace the chain of events so that we can really see what’s under the hood of how this great remote work can link to humanitarian operations.

Here’s a story that I want to share about an experience we had at NetHope with one digital volunteer group, the SBTF  for our response operations in West Africa for the Ebola crisis. We also had been working with GISCorps for months creating maps for our ongoing work.

It began with a great idea from an emergency response director. The idea was that we were having field staff going to different locations in Sierra Leone to determine and assess opportunities for identifying organizations with needs for internet connectivity. This was part of a larger operational project already in motion. But the idea was…could we engage with volunteers and co-design a feasible way for an organization with experience with searching for information on the internet could identify other potential NGOs in the same area that needed support. Information including organization names, the location, latitudes and longitude, and contact information could be collected and organized by a group of online volunteers. And that the data collected could help complement the organization’s field assessments.

In a matter of less than a week this experienced digital humanitarian volunteer group identified over 200 locations in Sierra Leone.

This data was then taken by an incredibly dedicated GIS expert at NetHope and myself and transformed with various other streams of data (including the amazing work of GISCorps) to fit the specific need and timeline of the field team. This last mile was crucial… transforming volunteer efforts into an operational product.  The 2 page document included a map and a table with many organizations and their contact information. The document was sent via email.


Example Field Map

Days later, one of our amazing field staff shared an assessment report which identified these 2 volunteer-identified sites as eligible sites for connectivity.  In collaboration with a few other organizations with highly technical experience they have now connect these 2 organizations to improved Internet.

And in brief, this is the theory of the chain of events

  1. There was a trusted and pre-existing relationship between the requester and a volunteer digital humanitarian group.
  2. An opportunity was identified for which digital remote humanitarians could support field operations, and an ask with a linked anticipated outcome.
  3. An organized and skilled group of standby volunteers searched the Internet for specific information with the goal of being able to provide contact information and location-based information for field staff.  To help them identify organizations who would benefit from connectivity during the west Africa Ebola crisis.
  4. The digital humanitarian volunteer group is contacted and agrees to be activated.
  5. The design of the project is implemented with creative iterative adjustments.
  6. The resulting data set is filtered and transformed by the NGO team into a format for a series of maps and tables that are sent via email to the field staff over days based upon their travel itinerary. Some are sent via a 2 page PDF document which shows a map of locations and a table with contact information. Among all of this information are 2 volunteer identified locations, one in Makeni and one in Bo.
  7. The field team replies after their assessment that this organization is eligible site for connectivity, and provides additional field on site information to support the potential decision to connect this organization to improve Internet services.
  8. Weeks later a collaboration of organizations working together in this project setup and install the necessary equipment to connect this organization to the internet.

There are now two sites just like this and we anticipate more to be connected everyday. This is a story of the outcomes of volunteer efforts. The impact on the lives of those affected by the crisis and the lives of those in recovery is still unknown. But this is a great start.

From an academic standpoint there is certainly a fair number of assumptions that go into this chain of events and to be sure many will begin to calculate numbers to see if this was “worth it”.

But this is a compelling story. And it is more than just story because it happened

And I can tell you that as one of the managers of this project, I believe it was worth it. And we thank you for your support, because in the end, if we can take as many steps as we can to support either directly or indirectly those affected by the Ebola crisis, and now support the hard work that needs to be done towards recovery— this is a great contribution, and we are grateful for your efforts, and your dedication to helping those affected by this crisis.