Strong Angel III – 19th August 2006

Day before the official “cold start” opening day of SA III.

I realised to my horror that Gay Matthews gave me a big hug over breakfast yesterday and that in my jet-lagged state of mind, I had neglected to reciprocate with the warmth she obviously showed me after having met each other for the first time. Managed to transform first impressions by talking with her at length, during which discussions I brought up the issue of gender mainstreaming into a lot of what SA III set out to do in the coming week.

Looking at the assembled tech heads, geeks and those with some serious humanitarian experiences, there were two dominant impressions – they were white, they were male. Hopefully, this composition will change for the better in the week ahead.

Eric Rasmussen gave one of the best opening speeches to an event I have heard – setting a tone of compassion and sensitivity to the real world situations we were attempting to address through the controlled chaos of SA III, setting the foundation for dialogues between the civilian humanitarian groups and various arms of the (US) military present at SA III, and strongly asserting, as I have most passionately in my own writing, that what is more important than snazzy technologies was the communication between (and within) communities that the technology would engender and strengthen.

Seeing Gabriel Coch, one of the minds behind what I believe is one of the most powerful collaborative GIS solutions, Toucan Navigate, was fantastic. Gabe and I have talked about the design of GIS systems sensitive to the debilitated communications of communities affected by large scale disasters, and to first responders unable or unwilling to use complex collaboration tools such as Groove in the field. His work in extending the footprint of GIS to mobile phones and the web, in designing solutions to take out and bring in data from Groove (a notoriously difficult thing to do) and to, in doing all of this, extend the power of sophisticated tools such as Toucan Navigate to processes that do not need all stakeholders to install and run high end software applications that are wholly unsustainable without donor dollars in the long term, is truly noteworthy.

A dysfunctional ID card printer resulted in long lines to get one’s ID – I waited for over an hour in line, but found it a useful opportunity to speak with and exchange ideas with those around me in the same predicament. To those who shifted uneasily and complained (on another absolutely perfect day in San Diego) I offered the thought of starving IDPs, with no idea what had happened to their families or property, who had escaped bullets and shells, with physical injuries cauterized by emotional trauma, waiting in line for a bowl of rice and a bottle of water in the sweltering heat and humidity of a Muttur or Darfur.

This nearly always shut them up.

I was interviewed for TV on what I thought of SA III and why I was here by an anchor obviously more interested in getting soundbites of how good SA III and Microsoft were – but the interview overall was useful and I hope is used for purposes that aren’t commercial, but bring attention and value to the work done by Microsoft Humanitarian Systems group to help those embroiled in the heady world of humanitarian aid.

Speaking to a consultant to the US Department of Defense, not perceived widely as an institution in support of peacebuilding and conflict transformation, I was humbled, as has happened many times before in similar interactions, by how progressive individuals within governmental goliaths like the DoD could be – in their appreciation of conflict transformation, their understanding of the issues related to peacebuilding, human rights and reconciliation, and their belief in non-violent methods for resolving conflict. It is however difficult to open up fully to them – one is driven by a Hollywood instilled notion that no one in an institution like the DoD can wholly against the policies of the incumbent administration.

Then again, within the larger context of SA III, it poses the core question that will hopefully be addressed at many levels in the week to come – how civilians can interact with the military and intelligence communities in a manner that reflects a shared appreciation of each other’s work, that designs and deploys communications frameworks that respects the privacy of all parties and yet helps them share knowledge and information on issues of mutual interest, that engenders collaboration at all levels by creating accountable and transparent processes of information sharing, and at the same time creates secure networks that allow highly sensitive information to be exchanged without fear of loss or theft.

These in fact are some of the central challenges InfoShare deals with in its work in Sri Lanka – most notably in the design of information architectures in support of peace negotiations and processes such as One Text.

Finally, SA III is a melting pot of experience and technology. This is not a conference or workshop. This is a real world exercise in the design and deployment of technology that is able to strengthen the work of first responders, aid workers and peacebuilders and at the same time explores new and creative ways to exchange information between agencies and sectors.

At 0800hrs Monday, it all begins.

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