Thoughts on the launch of InSTEDD


InSTEDD works with universities, corporations, international health organizations, humanitarian NGOs and communities. Together, we work to identify or craft and then field-test technologies for better data collection and analysis, more efficient communications, and more effective response. InSTEDD will, for example, be adapting new social networking capabilities for humanitarian coordination, and testing inflatable satellite dishes able to be carried in a backpack.

InSTEDD’s mission is to discover, develop, test, deploy and share information about technologies that buy critical time. Through better disease detection and response times, outbreaks can be contained and possibly prevented. Through better disaster response, more lives can be saved. Through collaboration better answers can be found. 


I was delighted to hear of the public launch of InSTEDD from Dr. Eric Rasmussen , its CEO, last week. The full name of the initiative is admittedly a mouthful to say out aloud and the acronym begs the pun that they should have chosen another instead of InSTEDD.

Jokes aside, in close upon a decade of applied research, writing and embedded work in the field of ICTs  for peacebuilding, (violent) crisis management and disaster response, InSTEDD, in its constitution and vision, is by far the most significant initiative I have encountered.  I have no doubt that we will look back at the launch of InSTEDD this year as a defining moment in the creation of innovative approaches to and frameworks of ICTs to prevent, mitigate and respond to crises – man made or natural.

I have known Eric Rasmussen and some of his team at InSTEDD from our work in the 2004 Tsunami response (download After the Deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami for paper on this work) and from our use of Groove Virtual Office in the One Text initiative in Sri Lanka.  Subsequent and frequent email conversations with them on shared interests in using technology to support and strengthen everything from Stability, Security, Transition and Reconstruction (SSTR) and civilian – military interactions to better humanitarian aid systems taught me a great deal.


Eric Rasmussen, Robert Kirkpatrick and Eduardo Jezierski are just three at InSTEDD who between them have more practical, field experience and knowledge of ICTs for crisis management that exceeds collective wisdom of many larger organisations engaged for far longer in similar work, including some agencies at the United Nations (as I have discovered over the past year for myself).

ICTs that really work

InSTEDD already showcases some innovative technologies on its website. Of note is the Directory application they’ve developed atop of Facebook.


As noted on the website,

In the future, we’ll add features, including integration across multiple social networking sites, support for other mapping applications (the current Facebook application uses Google Maps), enhanced access to the service via text messages, and the ability to take portions of your social network within the Directory completely offline. 

This application reminded me of an email I penned to Scott Rechler at the Ashoka Foundation way back in May 2005 in which I said in response to a fundamental problem the Foundation was facing at the time – the inability to locate Ashoka Fellows around the world on a sustained and regularly updated basis,

If you are searching for a technology hybrid that allows you to plot where fellows are in the world, what they are doing, who they are doing it with, what they are using, what they need and most importantly, want fellows to update this system as often as possible, nothing is simpler than using the one device that most fellows will have access to and use far more frequently than their PC’s – their mobile phone.

It is easy to create vernacular (Spanish, Sinhala, Tamil, French, German, Swahili etc) voice menu systems that easily get the information required from Fellows (from toll free numbers where possible) and then give them access to this information through a website that plots all this information in real time if necessary on GIS maps and other ways that help nourish each other’s work by a greater awareness of the Foundation’s impact in a given region or context.

Another idea could be to link this tool with a site such as Dopplr, to which I was introduced to by Dan Gillmor during GK III in Malaysia late last year.

The most exciting aspect of InSTEDD is their emphasis on in-situ, field development.

We have named our lab a ‘Field Lab’ to remind ourselves that InSTEDD will not be sitting back and designing in a perfect world. The people who will use our technology face complex challenges: extremes of temperature, weather, transportation, exhaustion and information overload. Our work will be useful only as long as we stay closely connected to real world conditions..

I only wish more organisations followed suit. It’s not always easy to follow and understand the language of expression on InSTEDD’s technology products site, but what is stated is simply (a long overdue) paradigm shift in the manner in which ICT solutions for crisis response is conceptualise, designed, tested and deployed.

As noted in their site,

We each have some experience in the field, and we’ve all been offered “solutions” that are nothing of the sort. Often those solutions are so fragile they won’t work in the field for more than a short while, and so InSTEDD has banned the word “solutions” from the office

This resonates fully with my own approach to and belief in ICTs for humanitarian aid and peacebuilding as articulated here – Complex Political Emergencies and humanitarian aid systems design

Some concerns with the Facebook Directory Application

Though the Directory application has a clear disclaimer that information on it will not be shared beyond that which is made possible by Facebook, it’s still the problem for me. Facebook is not a platform I trust with mission critical and highly confidential data and though I have begun a citizen journalism forum to complement Groundviews on it, I’m still to be convinced that it is a platform that demonstrates the potential for mission critical applications without compromising information security.

As a recent article published in the Guardian notes,

And does Facebook really connect people? Doesn’t it rather disconnect us, since instead of doing something enjoyable such as talking and eating and dancing and drinking with my friends, I am merely sending them little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace, while chained to my desk? A friend of mine recently told me that he had spent a Saturday night at home alone on Facebook, drinking at his desk. What a gloomy image. Far from connecting us, Facebook actually isolates us at our workstations. 

Final thoughts

Just as with InfoShare’s path-breaking human rights reporting tool, that once we develop it further this year we want to release free to the global human rights community, the essential reason I am so excited about the launch of InsTEDD is capture by Eric’s inaugural blog post as its CEO,

… I look forward to hearing from those who can help us design and build simple, robust, effective, and free tools for the humanitarian community.

I’ve been waiting for someone with the intellectual and financial wherewithal to say that for a very long time.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the launch of InSTEDD

  1. Sanjana, thanks for your most kind words. We can only promise we’ll do our best. And even though I’ve been following your blog for a while, there’s a couple of great posts you link to that I had missed – I promise I’ll read up and hope some of the wisdom brushes up on me. 🙂

    I think we all agree and can assume that facebook-as-base-platform will not be the end result of this.

    The reasoning for choosing Facebook as part of our early proof of concepts went as follows:

    1. Can we use friend/contact graphs to help humanitarian workers become a more integrated community of practice, and have more control over their own privacy? (we think so, as tighter relationships IMO is one of the best outcomes of Strong Angel, for example)


    2. Where do people have existing ‘contact graphs’ they are maintaining that we can use to integrate with our systems? (I don’t know about you but having yet-another-contact-and-relationship site doesn’t quite appeal to me as much as re-using linkedin/facebook/ning/etc – would love to hear your thoughts on this, and bounce ideas around)

    The directory information on and anything that is shown in the Facebook up today is conceptually firewalled. Also, the information you see in the facebook app and may send via twitter is kept on our own server farms. Facebook – the company or the website- does not have access to this information. In the proof of concept we just use facebook to know which other people should see you location ONLY IF you chose to show your location to your ‘friends’, but the information is just fed straight from our servers.

    Let’s discuss – what could be the roles of these consumer systems in the directory? What are the tradeoffs and alternatives that should exist?


  2. Hi Eduardo,

    As an initial response to #2, I’m sure you would have taken a look at DataPortability – Microsoft’s also expressed an interest in it. See

    #1 assumes humanitarian aid workers use Facebook. As a platform for serious purposes such as that you envisage, I think FBhas some way to go. Getting Google Gears, for example, integrated into your tools that you build for FB, if that’s at all possible, would be a great leap ahead. Alternatively, or in parallel, suggest integrating your tools with the mobile FB interface or by creating a mobile thin-client for it, along the lines of the supremely capable, efficient and lightweight Gmail client for mobiles.

    Off to New York for a month on 29th – will have more time to think on the flight to the US and while I am strip searched at Immigration…



  3. Sorry for the delay! I moved RSS readers and didn’t get to see the new response from you.
    #2 – agree – we actually have implementations in standards to represent this info e.g. FOAF which could help moving this data around so any system could consume it(eg Sahana)

    With #1 – I disagree the directory assumes humanitarian workers use facebook. That would be a weird assumption IMO – I’m new to the space but I already feel sure saying not one social networking site will be the end-all be-all for the humanitarian aid space.

    The *concept* assumes that most humanitarian workers will have ‘some’ technology use where they have ‘some’ contacts – Skype, email lists, messenger contacts, linked in, facebook. Our pilot was about learning how people use these ‘graphs’. For our *pilot* FB was an obvious place to start.
    Doing this pilot even in FB has already taught us important design considerations. For example, ‘near you’ is important to people, but just as important is ‘places you care about’ (Feedback that I heard from multiple places but best articulated by Michelle Rebosio who has worked many years in the field doing humanitarian aid). For example, you probably want to get notified of arrivals of contacts and help introductions in Sri Lanka – even if you are in New York. If we had waited to have the Facebook-agnostic implementation we would have not had the time to ‘listen’ early enough. The value of the feedback makes the dependency on FB of the pilot tolerable.

    Offline: absolutely. Mobile- yes. Gears – we have used it but it won’t be the first offline implementation we tackle, but we expect to have contributions there too.

    What are your favorite aspects of gmail mobile reader?

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