Strong Angel III – Final observations

Now that the melee is over, I can finally pen down some reflections of Strong Angel III.

It’s been one helluva week. Simply put, SA III was the most interesting meeting of minds, ideas and people I have been to thus far in my life and needs to occur at a regular interval in the future as well. With over 820 people passing through the SA III site over 5 days, the event was chaotic, frustrating, enlightening, humbling, educational, innovative and cutting-edge. No doubt in my mind that the core team of incredibly experienced people who put together SA III were, much more than the technology on display and deployed, responsible for the fantastic interactions between people and tech solutions.

SA III, was as Dan Gilmor calls it, mind-boggling. The thoughts that follow don’t really capture the rich texture of collegial partnerships, friends, alliances and strategic social networks created during SA III, but they aim to stimulate interaction and debate between those who attended SA III and a larger public.

All my other posts related to SA III can be found here.

Mash-up, mash-up, mash-up
SA III was all about mash-ups – hardware, software, social.

The exercise itself was the largest and most interesting real life mash-up I’ve ever encountered, and quite frankly, that I believe has ever been held. There was a mix of local and international participants, a mix of theory and practice, a mix of civilian and military, a mix of mobile and fixed, a mix of print and graphics, a mix of offline and online, a mix of platforms and programmes, a mix of exchange and storage – the ideas generated at SA III, saw for instance, competitors such as Google and Microsoft work closely together and 5 or 6 of the fiercest GIS competitors share information and work with each other.

This level of interaction, interoperability, and platform agnostic information exchange was unprecedented and, as expected, led to many migraines as companies used to proprietary data standards jostled with each other to accommodate information delivered and produced in rival data formats. For us practitioners on the ground who have long since sought greater interoperability between disaster response, humanitarian and peace-building platforms, SA III was a joy to participate in and see vendors cast aside their bickering and working together for a common goal.

Data transports, such as Microsoft’s SSE, were in high demand, and were shown to effectively move data from one programme / platform / device to another. Notable is SSE’s open nature – the technology is completely open source and to hear Jack Ozzie, Ray’s brother from Microsoft say that he was fully supportive of open standards and throughout the experiment, stressed the need for interoperability with as many systems as possible, was alone worth the participation at SA III.

But what’s simple to Ray Ozzie, the creator of SSE, isn’t necessarily simple to the rest of us – few I feel saw the potential of SSE and though SA III was a test of this embryonic technology, a proof of concept, directed at the layperson / NGOs, would be useful in helping those other than geeks understand what is made possible through it and how it can under-gird disaster support operations.

GIS was huge at SA III. Almost all of the big names in GIS – ESRI, CH2M Hill, Intergraph, Information Patterns, Google Earth, Microsoft Visual Earth were all present and working together. I was splendid to meet Gabriel Coch for the first time and share ideas based on a common understanding of conflict and developing country contexts, which really was rare amongst the tech / geek community at SA III. The amount of mash-ups using GIS was mind numbing – many used GPS devices – dedicated GPS devices, devices embedded in mobile phones, connected via bluetooth to mobile phones, and other location data including SMS / MMS, to plot, often in real time, the movements of various teams in the field and feeding in information to the Operations Centre. Mitre’s solution was particularly elegant and one that I hope developing country mobile phone companies such as Dialog in Sri Lanka can take up to support peace and humanitarian initiatives.

While Sahana perfected its Volunteer Registration Module, a Singaporean group tested a web based social network mapping solution. Paper cutouts at the entrance ramp to the main staging area of SA III reminded participants that paper based solution were the most resilient to network outages. Gay Matthews was seen with a business card reader to capture the organisational information of the hundreds of those present at SA III, but the last I heard a box containing the business cards went missing – which is a valuable lesson in itself given the number of times important information – electronic as well as print – goes missing and is lost in real world scenarios of humanitarian responses and peacebuilding.

What I would have liked to see at SA III but didn’t was ways you could visually map relationships. I truly think that we have long since reached the limits of pure textual representations of complex, dynamic and changing (social) relationships – visual mapping methods such as the Visual Thesaurus, the Semantic Navigator for Groove or the library at the Dropping Knowledge Initiative seem worthy of further exploration, development and adaptation to fit the needs of humanitarian and peace-building contexts (see also Social networks poised to shape Net’s future & information visualisation).

During the week, I wondered whether mash-ups provided a very useful way to develop humanitarian aid systems that were responsive and sensitive to different cultures. For instance, face to face meeting, virtual or physical, often result in dynamics wholly different to a text based (email, IM) based interaction between the same group of people. This is especially true in mixed sex groups – where in some cultures, men & women in visually interactive virtual simulations / interactions, for fear of the loss of face, agree to things they are uncomfortable with or downright opposed to, rendering the understanding of agreements reached at the end of the meeting quite useless. Some cultures are deeply uncomfortable with synchronous communication, while considerations of age, language and education render some modes of communication better than others. In this complex web of cross-cultural interactions, that form the bedrock of any humanitarian and peacebuilding initiatives, many mash-ups offer multiple ways of communicating and displaying information – ranging from text to video, from synchronous to asynchronous, from printed to electronic.

It would be interesting to see the further exploration and development of (multimedia) mash-ups as culturally sensitive approaches to the development of humanitarian aid systems, as well as those in support of peace-building initiatives.

Products vs. services
I believe that services will be more important than products in peacebuilding and humanitarian aid. Ideas such as the Nobel Peace Laureate Foundation’s Peace Tools provide a set of services for stakeholders in a peace process – from information and knowledge management to peace negotiations decision support systems. Services such as Microsoft SSE, RSS, web services that connect products together (a)synchronously and under-gird mobile / PC mash-ups are far more interesting and useful than standalone products that, by definition, are limited in what they can do.

I didn’t see as many services as I would have liked at SA III, apart from the obvious plug on SSE. Again, this was perhaps because of the lack of communication between the needs of NGOs on the ground and the assumed needs of such users by developers and designers. I’m really interested to see the development of web services that allow me to use FOSS software on devices such as the OLPC initiative’s laptop, now called the CM1, to plug into a range of information services ranging from situational awareness to resources and needs matching.

Treating failure as success
Many of those who came to SA III with the aim of fulfilling a certain task or objective failed to do so, sometimes after repeated attempts. SA III was structured in such a way that failures were as instructive, if not more, as the successes. Humanitarianism and peace-building are inherently iterative frameworks, with only satisficing solutions realistically possible.

The framework for treating failures as instructive was a unique feature of SA III, giving even seasoned industry specialists an opportunity to take their solutions to the limit and see the cracks appear in the real world application of lab tested models and solutions. As the week progressed, many who came to SA III under various assumptions – the availability of bandwidth, central command and control, help to set up and move things around etc – were forced to accept the chaotic realities of SA III’s operational framework, which attempted to mirror as closely as possible a real world scenario.

Failure is a dreaded “F” word in many corporate cultures – you are simply not promoted on the basis of how many times you’ve failed, as The Apprentice shows us so clearly. And yet, the very nature of humanitarian support is that you will inevitably support to match the expectations of the affected populations, and those of your own as you set out to help. Missing targets is anathema in corporate circles, and yet, ascertaining why these targets were missed is extremely important in any process of institutional and individual learning in humanitarian aid.

I don’t know to what effect this lesson was learnt by the bigger industry names present at SA III.

Gender @ SA III
Gender, as defined in the Sphere Handbook, is defined as:

Gender encompasses the socially defined sex roles, attitudes and values which communities and societies ascribe as appropriate for one sex or the other. Gender does not describe the biological sexual characteristics by which identify females and males are identified.

SA III was, most regrettably, not gender sensitive. It did not mainstream gender considerations in the design, adaptation, application and the monitoring and evaluation of solutions developed during the exercise. The rich textures of experience, valuable insights and interesting ideas of the women in the Executive Committee were hidden to the majority of participants at SA III. The majority of those developing solutions were male – some with absolutely no experience of humanitarian disasters and the special needs of women and children (including how even within conflict / disaster affected communities, how precarious their human security is).

While SA III lead Eric Rasmussen specifically mentioned the importance of gender during his briefing on the second day, much more could have been done to push the participants to recognise that gender is a vital consideration of any humanitarian and peacebuilding initiative.

Civilian – Military interactions
Something that I never expected I would do at SA III was to interact with the military and the intelligence community. That both occurred surprises me still and was in one way testimony to the social interaction design of SA III that brought diverse and in the real world, quite disparate communities, under the same roof for a week to interact with each other.

SA III opened my eyes to the US Department of Defense Directive 3000.05 for Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations, which aims to bring about, on many levels, greater interaction between civilian and military operations to engender stability in violent regions. This directive, repeated many times throughout the week, seems to be a powerful mechanism that is propelling the US military towards a complete revolution in the way it interacts with civilian agencies such as NGOs in the regions it deploys in.

SSTR, in sum, is the new buzzword for “civ / mil” (as it is called) cooperation. Though overtly positive, the greatest danger of 3000.05 lies in the possibility of conflating military objectives with the long term stability operations that involve (I)NGOs, and by extension, for those opposed to the military objectives to also see (I)NGO personnel, by virtue of the perception of their association with the military, as prime targets. We have already seen this in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if the frameworks of civ / mil collaboration aren’t clearly drawn up and communicated effectively, it may well be that the growth of such incidents prove to be a damning stumbling block to the effectiveness of 3000.05.

I brought up a few points in two civ / mil meetings during SA III, such as the lack of gender sensitivity in the current approach to civilian interactions – men who looked like Hulk with electronics and kevlar guarding every orifice hardly look approachable, humane and trustworthy for women and children traumatised by war. On the other hand, some participants said that the military could bring about confidence in security and stability in certain war zones – especially those over-run my terrorist groups and militia in civil garb.

I also asked the military to stop looking for a coordinated body or voice from NGOs – coordination was not a forte of NGOs, who often struggle with collaboration. I submitted that the technology at SA III could possibly help greater civ / mil collaboration, since the very perception of collaboration with the military would, in many instance, put NGOs working with certain non-state actors and in humanitarian aid in conflict zones in harm’s way. To this end, I also said that though the military wanted full disclosure from NGOs on where they were operational in and what they were doing, very often, this information could be used to impose sanctions against NGOs working with certain actors, even though these interactions were absolutely crucial in the specific geo-political context to maintain access to humanitarian aid.

The sheer complexity of SSTR operations, I strongly feel, is not something the US military is fully aware of – an observation supported by the viewpoints of those from other countries serving in the military who acknowledged the difficultly of SSTR in long term humanitarian operations and the need to create frameworks of institutional trust in the relationships between the military and civilian actors.

I also called for a sense of larger history at these meetings. While greater mutual respect between the military and civilian / NGO sectors needed to be encouraged, I asked those present at the meeting to not forget the burden of history of US militaries and their nefarious deeds, that in many instances the grim socio-political and economic effects of which many NGOs were struggling to address – thus putting them in direct opposition with the institutional memory of the armed forces and indeed, their raison d’etre.

There was also one particularly irritating CIO from a large and well known INGO that cares for a lot of people internationally – obviously without much field experience in post-disaster scenarios. Over the week, I heard him say many things that gave a skewed idea of (I)NGOs and their modus operandi – for instance, that many NGOs would like to rely on and willingly participate in army reconnaissance to ensure greater security for staff on the ground in turbulent areas. I put this nonsense down to a latent inferiority complex, but it was a stark reminder that the same stupid arrogance one often associates with the military can also be found in the NGO sector as well.

As a result of these interactions, I was asked by two representatives of the Swedish military for a series of video conferences on the situation in Sri Lanka and how armies can better prepare for the exigencies of a long-term humanitarian aid effort that over time interacts with and necessarily needs to support existing peace-building initiatives in a country or region gripped by ethno-political strife.

In conversations with Ambassador Daniel Stauffacher, hugely experienced in facilitating global policy making, I also stressed the need to engender protocols of information exchange between the military and civilian / NGO sectors. While the technology for secure communications already exists, the protocols of information exchange – by whom, for what limited purposes, confidentiality of sources, institutional agreements that don’t rely of personal largesse, ownership of information, the manner in which it will be shared, why and with whom etc – are issues that need a global compact between States and trans-national civil society, so as to support SSTR operations and at the same time safeguard the operational processes, complex relationships and human security of NGO personnel working in conflict zones.

I found these interactions tremendously useful and hope that someday, SA III is recognised as the genesis of progressive frameworks between the military and NGOs that help safe lives through greater information sharing in post-disaster operations and long term humanitarian aid efforts.

Spooks at SA III

The plethora of defense, intelligence and military agencies at SA III was both heartening and disconcerting. It was on many levels disconcerting to mingle with the same folks whose agencies grill me upon entry to the US and have lain waste to economic, political and social futures of so many regions and countries across the world. On the other hand, it was heartening to see, on an individual basis, what seemed to be a genuine willingness to talk and exchange ideas on how their agencies could help in humanitarian aid.

There was some notable, and not entirely unexpected, instances where they really did piss me off – for instance, in including Sahana in an initiative championed by the US Department of Defense called Harmony Web, with no consultation whatsoever with the representatives of Sahana who were present at SA III, and a brochure distributed by a US defense contractor based in Huntsville, Alabama that was ostensibly in support of SSTR, but used images of US soldiers in full body armour and none whatsoever of friendly interactions with civilians and / or humanitarian aid workers coupled with some text that beggars disbelief.

At the same time, there was the recognition that the capabilities of these institutions and actors could easily be transformed into powerful disaster aid mechanisms – for instance, de-classified information on social, political, cultural and economic factors and actors in a disaster region that no doubt many of these agencies possess in great detail could be of immense utility to backstop humanitarian aid operations.

InfoShare has tested tools developed for the highly controversial Total Information Awareness project (TIA), such as the Semantic Navigator by ISX Corporation‘, but in no way endorses complicity with intelligence and defense services, given the largely incompatible modus operandi and objectives of each sector.

However, as noted in an earlier post in this blog, from the internet onwards, many of the technologies now used or considered for peacebuilding and humanitarian aid are precisely those that were developed for war and combat operations. SA III was useful in this regard, in helping create embryonic links between those who developed cutting edge technology and those who could envision its use in ways that the developers themselves did not foresee or plan for, the resulting symbiosis the foundation of what would hopefully be a constructive dialogue in support of satisficing solutions for humanitarian aid and peace-building.

The ethics of leave-behinds and their long term implications

SA III stressed the need to leave behind technologies, equipment and solutions to help address the needs of communities in San Diego. Because the central SA III scenario was largely a first world pandemic scenario (or was interpreted as such by many of those present) considerations of the ethics of leaving behind technology and alien frameworks were not discussed as fully as I would have liked.

Some issues I’ve pointed to in earlier writings as well are:

  • What are the ethics of leaving behind a framework of dependency on particular technologies that may not be sustainable in the long term?
  • What are the commitments to long term training of staff?
  • Does the spirit of collaboration and interoperability that lasts in the first phase of the response a guarantee of long term systems that continue to share information based on open standards in the affected regions?
  • What are the implications of leaving behind proprietary hardware / software solutions, that may have worked impeccably during the first phase, but are an ill fit to the larger systems present in the region?
  • What are the social, political and cultural implications of leaving behind technologies? How does one map the consequences?
  • How does one reconcile the expectations of the community and what is really left behind?
  • What are the ethics involved in the branding of leave-behinds? How does one ensure that such branding does not undermine the development of local expertise & technology?
  • Do leave behinds require high maintenance – if so, how are the associated costs going to be met?
  • What are the ways through which the potential uses of leave-behinds and the continued commitment to region can be communicated to affected communities and their governments that prevents the growth of negative perceptions?

Most of the tech gear at SA III was tremendously expensive on the open market. Eric Rasmussen noted that there was more than $35 million worth of equipment at SA III, which is more than the combined budget of many in-country aid agencies and peace support NGOs in developing countries. The cost of a single large plasma screen used by some of the GIS folks was alone more than a couple of years of my salary. In this light, is it more useful to set up a training academy for local aid workers and peacebuilders rather than leave behind equipment?

Furthermore, the problems associated with leaving behind equipment with market costs that dwarf the economic structures of communities affected by disasters are worth exploring with far greater emphasis. I would submit that the long term costs created by the real and perceived economic imbalances created by the influx of post-disaster aid and a callous leave-behind policy can wreck havoc on the socio-political dynamics of local communities – well worth taking note of when entering a disaster zone.

Corporate branding vs. humanitarianism – The imperatives of sensitive aid delivery
As I’ve mentioned in a paper I wrote detailing the use of technology by InfoShare in response to the tsunami:

It is grossly tactless to belabour the merits of a certain system and use it in the field for short term visibility, commercial capitalisation and marketing purposes in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The trauma and loss of life associated with large scale disasters cannot be the bedrock for marketing campaigns. Some of those who approached Info Share wanted us to promote the use of tools and programmes for their own gain, given that for them, this was a case study in the use of their programme that could not be replicated by any statistical model or hypothesis. Others wanted us to issue statements on how the use of their technologies helped communities to regain a semblance of normalcy. We refused all such requests.

The danger of acquiescing to such demands is that it creates in the minds of those who most desperately need assistance the impression that one is only trying to help for parochial or mercenary gain, instead of a deep seated commitment to help the community stand on its own feet. Any organisation or stakeholder rooted in principles of social justice and social empowerment would find this perception anathema and a death blow to any trust that can be built over the long term.

Humanitarian aid is emphatically not about commercial branding.

Time and again I’ve stressed how important it is to consider the side-effects of commercial branding in traumatised communities, the ethics of doing so and creating what may be really problematic perceptions between the brand and services provided (thus psychologically locking in communities to a particular brand not out of any inherent worth, but because they are hard wired into using it). We see this tendency in the medical industry, where brand names often mean an unconscious premium paid for by consumers who are ignorant of the actual drug (Panadol vs. paracetemol tablets for instance).

At the same time, as a participant expressed at the SA III debriefing, many commercial companies offer their service in support of disaster relief and aid precisely because it offers an opportunity to market their products – directly to the governments and civil society of the countries affected by the disaster, but also to those outside of the affected area by writing up partisan case studies that almost inevitably posit the product as the single most important link in the aid chain.

I’m increasingly aware of the parochialism of corporate agendas and, at a time of great need, the judgement call one has to make as to whether one invites a mercantalism into the aid and relief framework or eschews it totally and instead relies on initiatives such as Sahana that put needs of those affected first. While the sustainability of the latter may be question, the desirability and long term consequences of the former need also to be examined more fully.

It is as ever a compromise between solution vendors and responders from (I)NGOs active on the ground and one that, I suspect, can only be worked out on a case by case basis, though I would also submit that some yardsticks for CSR in humanitarian aid are imperative.

New media
Dan Gilmor’s presence for the first couple of days of SA III was tremendous – his ability to see mash-ups in his mind and his tenacity in getting developers to interact with each other in order to build what he envisioned created what little new media experiments in SA III (see my interview with him here). In many ways, the interface with community / local / ethnic media – bloggers, ham radio operators, local mobile phone users, local newsletter groups, podcasters, video bloggers etc – was abysmal in SA III.

This was disappointing as it debilitated the ability of the SA III demonstration to fully use the resources already present on the ground to support the relief efforts for the “pandemic”. Kathleen Reen and Mark Frohardt from Internews were particularly vocal on this issue, bringing them a vast experience of using media in relief efforts. I wish I could have used podcasts more and video interviews with participants and those from the field (to test the range of possibilities of using just my MacBook Pro to influence media awareness and decision making) but without a support framework, it was not worth the effort. As it turns out, entries on this blog exceeded the number of posts on SA III’s own website during the demonstration ! 🙂

This being said, Microsoft’s FM watches were really very interesting to see and use (see my podcast with Mark Frohardt here), Dan Gilmor’s efforts at creating a smart mob were noteworthy and there were also some interesting GIS / SMS / mobile devices / PC mash-ups made possible by RSS, SSE and SMS / MMS. For the lay-person, all this means that it is now possible to use mobile devices for location specific information in a disaster response. For me personally, the tech mash-ups show the potential of using mobiles to bear witness against human rights violations, to provide grassroots level viewpoints when mainstream media is prevented from going to a war zone by the combatants, help provide opinion that tempers propaganda, can aid in the modelling of IDP, refugee movements thereby assisting the planning for displaced populations and a whole raft of other uses.

Dan Gilmor’s kind offer to be of any assistance possible to my own endeavours in Sri Lanka was not just a measure of his willingness to truly help engineer old / new media frameworks to assist in peacebuilding, but was facilitated by the environment that SA III, that allowed people who did not know each other develop relationships that will last far longer than the exercise itself.

NGO developer interaction
Unfortunately, there was a distinct lack of structured NGO – developer interaction. For the most part, developers were in their cocoons doing their thing, while the NGOs were treated as an adjunct to the entire exercise, there to bring a touch of reality that many thought were unnecessary and in far too big doses.

During SA III, some of the NGOs came together and drafted a set of guidelines / recommendations for the design of humanitarian aid solutions, that reflected some of my own. These were read out and distributed to all those present at SA III, but I’m fairly certain that they were forgotten at the end of SA III.

That said, it was particularly heartening to see several developers come up to me and ask me to sit down with them and go through their ideas and solutions, asking for my (trenchant) critique to help them better understand the realities of ground conditions and designing for humanitarian emergencies. A structured interaction – like an NGO bazaar, where we were challenged to put up our needs and ideas for the perfect system and have developers respond to them best they could – would have been tremendously useful given the wide spectrum of actors and technologies represented at SA III.

Face to face dynamics vs. virtual interaction
Perhaps a greater lesson here – meeting Eric Rasmussen, Nigel Snoad, Gabriel Coch, Ashok Hingurani, Gay Matthews and so many others from Groove, Microsoft and elsewhere with whom I had communicated and in many cases, become firm friend with online, for the first time in real life strengthened our friendship and changed the dynamics of our online interaction.

Even with the increasing ease of online communications, from email to VoIP, from video conferencing to collaborative platform like Notes and Groove, face to face communication brings with it dynamics of inter-personal interaction that simply are replicated in internet and web mediated communication. Non-verbal gestures, subtle facial gestures, eye movements, posture, silence, the warmth of a smile and the embrace – these are not thing things that are seen, felt and heard online. Perhaps many years into the future with developments in 3D imagery, holography and the ability to transmit sensual information electronically (as experiments in transmitting smell via the internet point towards), we may be able to do away with human contact, but how many of us today can contemplate such a life?!

On a related note, though a long time inhabitant of Second Life, I was struck by how detailed the Strong Angel Island sim, created by The Magicians, was when shown to us towards the end of the week. I have a separate post on this issue, but think that we are only beginning to explore the possibilities of using platforms such as Second Life to bring people together in simulations that explore, without bodily harm, responses to violent conflict and disasters.

The sim developed for SA III re-kindled an interest to see the application of Second Life sims in online dispute resolution (ODR), the treatment of PTSD, addressing issues of reconciliation and co-existence amongst youth and a range of other activities related to conflict transformation and peacebuilding.

Capturing the information and advanced social network visualisation
During and after SA III, the central challenge for those in charge of creating, maintaining and strengthening the social ecology of those present at SA III will be to farm the information, assimilate it, create the connections and then ensure that the resulting knowledge database is kept up to date.

This is a formidable challenge that I’ve been grappling with on a larger scale with the myriad of actors and factors involved in a peace process. Like the Dropping Knowledge initiative and the Visual Thesaurus, as I’ve written earlier, part of the solution may be in visualisation techniques for complex relational databases. Reflecting the changes in our lives, each record needs to be organic allowing for AI algorithms to farm through the information and create connections based on semantic analysis, geographic proximity, industry association, academic and research interests, product and services overlap, sex, age, nationality, expertise and any public domain information on the internet (such as CV’s and published papers).

The frailty of assumptions

SA III was interesting because it brought together those with field experience and those with little or none at all. Almost all of those who didn’t have any field experience where from the US, from big name corporate vendors of GIS and other hardware / software technologies. SA III offered them a taste of a real world disaster response scenario, that forced them to question many assumptions, including:

  • The availability of connectivity. Many who came expecting broadband availability were sorely disappointed – even though SA III itself was plagued with connectivity issues (for an entire week, I could not connect to the internet at a speed greater than 23kbps) this mirrored real life disaster responses in the chaotic first few days of setting up operations.
  • GIS – snazzy large format multi-colour maps are great for press and government briefings, but utterly useless in the field. The edge needs black and white, A4 size maps, with patterns instead of colours, that can be photocopied easily. The very different needs of the edge and the operations centre was a learning experience for many present from the GIS world.
  • Web based GIS – not everyone around the world uses, or wants to use, Internet Explorer. Yet a key example of web based GIS only ran on Windows XP and Internet Explorer. I was the only one at SA III who spoke out against this, and wondered aloud whether nothing had been learnt from Katrina.
  • The culture of corporate America vs. the humanitarian aid – Many of those present thought that big brands and the brash advertisement of products they felt fitted perfectly the needs of humanitarian aid would guarantee better coordination and more efficient information sharing. Problem was, there was more than one company at SA III that thought so. Seeing them jostle and finally agree to a common, platform / programme / device agnostic information sharing framework was fascinating.

I would have liked to see a greater emphasis on ethno-political conflict and its interplay with humanitarian aid in SA III, since it would have sensitised the participants to the very real conditions on the ground, where key personnel are wounded, killing, go missing, suffer from PTSD, sometimes go AWOL, where equipment breaks, is stolen, sabotaged or hacked into, where food and supplies run short, communications fail and RPG’s and tracers light up the night sky.

Technology can help in such instances, to an extent. For instance, in-country data-centres are a bad idea in conflict zones – peer to peer communications are far better. Technologies that are designed to be as redundant and fail safe as possible – from RAID to relays that transmit data even if others fail (replicating the essential architecture of the internet) are very useful on the ground, as are low bandwidth video conferencing tools such as Microsoft’s Portrait, VoIP (such as Skype) and asynchronous collaboration platforms, such as Groove Virtual Office. Furthermore, there were some cutting edge network threat identification systems at SA III, such as Bit9 (which unfortunately does not work on Linux or OS X).

These were just some of the lessons identified (and hopefully learnt) at SA III by those present who did not have field experience, and were engaged in the design of tools aimed at first responders and humanitarian aid workers.

Take back

I don’t think there was a single participant at SA III, from those who had little or no experience with humanitarian aid to those with years of experience, who went home without learning something new. The central challenge for SA III is precisely this success – how it aims to continue interactions of this nature in the future, without burdening Eric Rasmussen or relying on his incredibly powerful and engaging personality to bring people together, will be an issue the organisers need to flesh out.

While I would have liked to see a greater internationalisation in SA III’s pandemic / terrorism scenario, it by no means dilutes the appreciation of what was a definitive exercise in brining people and technology together to collectively address how we can do a better job when disaster strikes.

I think SA III was about 3 key things – ideas, technology and people.

SA III was a mash-up for ideas. People from all over America and a few countries from around the world came together in one place to grapple with the vexing question of how to design solutions for a humanitarian disaster. The sheer noise of conversation on the first day of SA III in particular, and during the entire week, was literally and metaphorically deafening. I got more ideas for the potential of satisficing solutions in SA III than I would have had staying in Sri Lanka for a couple of years – it was that good.

Truth be told, there was some cool gear and tech at SA III.

From touch screen plasma displays to mobile phones with built in GPS, almost every single table was brimming with cutting-edge equipment. Vsee had set up a entire rack of flat screen monitors on one end of the operations site, and for the entire week was engaged in video conferencing and other highly distracting experiments. The GIS corner was a melting pot of plasma screens and high end GIS visualisation interfaces that looked and felt delicious.

I would never have seen most of this technology in Sri Lanka. Seeing the technology alone is enough to kindle the imagination to put it to uses the developers may have never thought of, in the same way we used Groove Virtual Office in Sri Lanka to support the One Text process.

From a peacebuilding practioner’s perspective as well as that of a theorist involved in Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) and the design of humanitarian aid systems, I strongly believe SA III needs to continue at regular intervals in the future. It would be useful, however, to keep it to a smaller group – the sheer number of participants and interactions at SA III made it at times unwieldy and tremendously difficult to capture and learn from the knowledge generated by the social and technological interactions.

As Eric kept stressing through the exercise, SA III was ultimately about people – not about cool tech. It was a message that deserved to be re-iterated throughout the week, and again after the end of the exercise, echoing the sentiments I expressed in early 2005:

Natural disasters in regions wrecked by conflict can be the source of life. Ignorant and dismissive of ethnic identities, death can level entire villages and uproot millions. It is our response to the disaster that holds the promise of life and of renewed hope. Used appropriately in ways that strengthen local capacities, technology can act as a catalyst – channelling aid to those who need it, facilitating knowledge flows, engender trust, foster collaboration and rekindle a shared humanity forged by trauma that is felt by all.

Even though there remains much to be done to capture its role in more rigorous ways, Info Share, along with many other stakeholders in Sri Lanka and in other countries affected by the tsunami have irrefutably proved that technology can help relief and aid efforts – in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and also in planning for the medium and long term conflict sensitive planning.

We stand humbled at the injustice of history that inadvertently catapulted us to a position in which we used what we knew best to help those less fortunate. It is the work of ordinary individuals in the very heart of the affected areas worst hit by the tsunami that continues to inspire us in our work towards the creation of sustainable IT architectures that fully harness the indomitable nature of the one thing the tsunami couldn’t sweep away.

The human spirit.

Some related posts and websites:
Strong Angel III – Full coverage
Strong Angel III – Official site
Strong Angel III – Design considerations / recommendations for humanitarian aid systems
The military and the use of technology
Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding
Technology for humanitarian aid – 6 mantras

Social Change and Digital Games
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9 thoughts on “Strong Angel III – Final observations

  1. Sanjana, your social brilliance and heroic courage shine even through your discussions of technology. It was a privilege to meet you.

    Demi Rasmussen

  2. Sanjana, I can see that you did not sleep much on the airplane 😉 I enjoyed listening to your podcasts as well, thank you for the terrific coverage.

    There is one theme that continued to come up during the week, and I would like to know your thoughts on the debatable subject: Is technology neutral?

    (If you have discussed this subject before on your blog, my apologies.)

    As we have seen, technology can be neutral, and as you mentioned “technology can act as a catalyst to engender trust” in a post-disaster situation. It is also clear that in many situations, technology is certainly not neutral; technology can marginalize people, incite divisiveness, block knowledge flow. And by engendering trust, does that mean that technology is neutral? Is technology a neutral “tool” that is designed to carry out the will of the user? What are the repercussions of this debate for post-disaster and humanitarian relief operations? Does an affected population view the technologies and “leave behinds” as neutral? I think that this ties back into your question about what are the social, political and cultural implications of leaving behind technologies? How does one map the consequences?


  3. It was a great pleasure meeting you as well as using your blog to keep up to date during the exercise (because the official one was pants!).

    As a robot and macintosh wielding participant (and redhat and XP), as well as an observer, I feel the largest shortcoming was the general confusion- at many levels- as to whether this was a simulation or a demonstration. Related to military, medical, and NASA scenario development and observation we’ve done in the past, we tend to stick to the mantra that you can either be an observer or an observer controller- you can’t do both effectively or well. You’ve hit many of my own sentiments and the lessons learned from SAIII right on the head and for a integrated response touting ‘resilience’ I hope these points were taken to heart.

    Resilience is the broad application of failure sensitive strategies that reduce the potential for, and consequences from, erroneous actions, surprising events, unanticipated variability, and complicating factors. Such failures challenge organizations’ own models of where and how they are vulnerable to failure and create new opportunities for learning and improvment. The comms problems were a gret microcosm- the providers (no finger wagging) clearly had NO concept of their own operational limits, any abililty to degrade gracefully, and clearly were unable to monitor their own decisions and practices.

    These were the elements I was hoping to be able to interact with Shadowlite on- however it seems that all challenges and ‘improvised’ tests that were planned were scrapped.

    Whether it is in humanitarian response organization, first responder deployment, or command center control- the ability for the respective organizations to build expected, and known unexpected contributors to risk in ther planning and action- monitoring that the organization is operating nearer and nearer to safety/operational boundaries- is what monitoring and managing resilience is all about.

    Thanks for the great commentary and good luck!

  4. Sanjana .. superb write-up with ideas & thoughts that we all would do well to keep in mind. Your plea to continue Strong Angel annual is one that we should repeat loudly, I agree & hope we will do so.

    We should should also keep in mind that SAIII was an event created, led by, and organized by many folks with day jobs, most of whom were not compensated at all. It was truly a mash-up with deliberate planning in some areas & little planning in others. By-design decisions that we’d hoped would create some of the learning you express here. Had we more resources (the entire event was done with a ~$250-ish budget – which is admittedly a huge figure in the realm of hum relief – but miraculous for a 1 week event in San Diego in August) and more people, no doubt we could have done much, much more.

    On the whole your critique was fair & accurate with an overall sense of wisdom, experience & candor. Thanks for taking the bulk of your flight home to write instead of sleep-off the jet-lag.

    My great pleasure meeting you & spending the week learning from you. All the best as you return home to the challenges that await you.

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