Myanmar: The urgent need for communications and collaboration

Everyone’s got their knickers in a twist about Myanmar. No laughing matter this. Tens of thousands already dead, a casualty count that could go up to a mind-boggling 100,000, tens of thousands missing, millions displaced and a brutal junta that governs the country to boot. A disaster within a disaster. 

I’ve been forwarded or CC’d into literally dozens of emails this week by those who want to do something. Anything. INSTEDD sent me intimation of Sahana they’ve now got up and running on one of their servers. They are working hard to localise it in Burmese and though most of the modules are up and running (the SMS / email module is not), I sadly haven’t seen any real data on it as yet. INSTEDD’s also working on deploying some interesting technology that can support and strengthen collaboration. Eric and his team I have no doubt will play a significant role in coordinating and collaborating the disaster response. I’ve been sent some amazing KML files of medical and other logistics locations and hubs. Amazing because they are as comprehensive as one can get in a black-hole of a country where no one really knows anything for sure.

However, all the emails I’ve got have are littered with might, may, possibly, if, by chance, hopefully, could be, not sure, I think, last time I checked. Few are certain about anything other than the monumental challenge of addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of affected communities with a regime that’s not exactly helpful. Fewer have actually any experience of dealing with a repressive regime that’s as bad as the Burmese junta. By coincidence I came across an article today on the World Socialist Web Site that notes:

Since the cyclone engulfed Burma on May 3, there has been an incessant campaign in the international media to push for foreign militaries, along with aid officials, to be allowed into the country. Article after article contrasts the paranoia, incompetence and callousness of the Burmese junta with the supposed willingness of the US and other major powers to generously provide humanitarian assistance.

The Burmese junta has clearly demonstrated once again its repressive methods and callous disregard for human life. But the claim that Washington and its allies are acting purely out of concern for the Burmese people is simply a lie. 

The article goes on to make a simplistic case against US intervention that I don’t agree with, but I was partial to the essential critique of aid dynamics. Restraining myself to the dozens of emails I’ve got from some actors who want to do something in Myanmar and their ideas for information and communications technology support, I recall what I noted during Strong Angel III in 2006:

Given the paucity of bandwidth on the wireless networks and the intermittent connectivity in general, much of the information on-site has migrated from the world of bits to the world of atoms. I Information markers in the form of billboards, butcher paper, ribbons, printed maps, cardboard cutouts and scraps of paper have taken the place of the sophisticated information exchange and social networking built into the SA III website, which is by and large inaccesible on-site. This, in and of itself, is a valuable lesson.

For around a week, we had in the staging grounds of SA III more bandwidth that I could have commercially mustered in Sri Lanka. Theoretically, that is. In reality, we couldn’t even connect to the internet. The conflicts between the myriad of system, each in and of themselves offering the promise of connectivity yet together offering only confusion and conflict, was incredible. Collaboration remained a great idea, simply because models of collaboration based on ICT collapsed. We were reduced to physical meetings and Post-It notes. 

I have noticed that some of the same people involved with SA III (and for the record, they are good people with good intentions) are now agog with ideas on communications provisioning for Myanmar. Everyone wants to go guns blazing – which during SA III was precisely what brought down comms for everyone. Spectrum allocation and technical disputes that could have been easily resolved by advance planning and moderation simply did not occur or post facto, were too complex to manage. 

I am not alone in my frustration that the desire to do something often trumps the need for collaboration and a more robust understanding of just what we want to do, how we want to go about it, with whom, why, where and the context we operate in BEFORE we parachute in with money, equipment, love and fresh air. There are others who have expressed their disquiet with what are essentially marketing strategies in the guise of humanitarian relief. 

It sounds cruel, but perhaps people need to die for change to occur. Perhaps we should have taken the word of the junta that all was hunky-dory with its disaster response. Perhaps we should have left it to manage on its own and concentrated our efforts to maintain the fickle interest of global media over the longer term. 

But if that’s not really an option, what can we do? 

  • From an ICT perspective, we can stop marketing our products and start figuring out how to work together. Everyone brings value to the table – the question is how to build synergies, strengthen complementarity, ease conflicts and augment interoperability and best practices.
  • Business can help humanitarian aid, but the questions I raised at Strong Angel III on commercial enterprise and its engagement with relief work and the guidelines drawn up by UN OCHA need to be taken into consideration. There’s a delicate balance between in-country ad hoc solutions and pre-planned international best practices that can feed into deployments. Often, the best laid plans go awry minutes into deployment.
  • Collaboration helps. A powerful transmitter able to provide blanket coverage to a wide footprint but buggers local communications isn’t all that helpful. Spectrum management, bandwidth allocation with multiple pipes, clients both mobile and fixed, data security and P2P network transports are just some of the headaches deployments will have to plan for as much as possible. Strong Angel III’s communications team may be able to help along with others. 
  • Marketers with little understanding of and no interest in collaboration should shut up and bugger off. 
  • Global media, when more robust ICTs are deployed in-country, must take care to not hog the bandwidth better used to save lives. 
  • Sadly, nobody on the comms side is talking with Burmese socio-political experts to bounce off ideas whether plans for in-country collaboration with government and NGOs will actually work. Surely there must be more than a few in the West who can offer this kind of vital feedback? Western assumptions about aid and relief rarely gel with local cultural, social, political and religious contexts.
  • We also know that multiple wifi / wimax deployments without any kind of technical management and spectrum dispute resolution almost guarantee that no one gets connected at all. So why are we still talking about a hundred and one different ways of getting wireless connectivity into the country with little interest in harmonisation of available bandwidth?

The case is often made with great passion and vigour that we must do something to help Myanmar. That’s good. But the responsibility to protect is not just about going in without host nation support to do good. If it comes to that, the international community and the ICT community in particular need to be certain that they don’t add to the choas, are able to provide vital comms support for relief operations from the get-go. 

I doubt that this confidence exists. Is it a case for doing nothing? Clearly not. But I just wish that those who want to help today remember that the same desire led, ironically, to severe communications breakdowns in the past.

Lessons identified perhaps, but not learnt?

8 thoughts on “Myanmar: The urgent need for communications and collaboration

  1. I’m happy to see this. Many people share the uncomfortable ambiguity. The localization effort of Sahana for example is still a lot of *maybe, if, perhaps* away from real impact. As a note, the hosted instance is available but was not intended to host any data – rather to have a place to see it and a place to configure the VM that could be shipped in-country, to run locally with less need for international comms to be established and more accessibility by the Burmese-speaking. Will it be used? -“maybe, if, perhaps”.

    The comms breakdown at Strong Angel III I think was a lesson learnt – you see many parties today explicitly saying ‘let’s not do another SA3’. It was learnt because it gave a name and shared experience of an anti-pattern to a community of practitioners. I agree with you that if the dialogue has included the burmese, it’s not clear how. I can’t speak for them, but it seems like even though good paths aren’t clear yet, there is common understanding of where some cliffs are.

  2. Hi Ed,

    With regards to Sahana, I hope very much that INSTEDD’s example will inspire people to use it. Is there any evidence for this to date? If not, I think it would be interesting to explore why not. That’s certainly something the ICT4Peace Foundation, if I can speak as their Special Advisor for a moment, is interested in from a neutral observer status. From the conflict within the UN viz. R2P to the multiplicity of others actors and their own technologies, techniques and agendas, collaborative rapid deployment and crisis information management still sadly seems some way off. The experience of OCHA and the Sector Clusters after the Pakistan earthquake may help in this regard, but again the problem here is that no one really has the time or inclination to read turgid UN after-action reviews.

    What’s needed I feel is a sort of expert system that gives actors rapid feedback on whether what they propose to do – whether it be in lift and power or in ICT provisioning – falls into established best practices. Again, that’s something I and the Foundation are interested in engaging with in the future.

    I’m happy to hear that SA III has inspired some to sit back and think collaboratively before they act. It certainly was an eye-opener for me. Just on this point though – did the comms team at SA 3 (Doug et al) come up with any document on lessons identified and learnt? We had some great meeting during the exercise that I remember brought up the myriad of problems faced by them, and a not too technical report would I think be very helpful to some of us.

    Keep up the good work and warmest,


  3. Had Sahana not been translated it would be a certainty that it could not be used. Now that it is there is at least the possibility that it can be used. A case of “if you build it they will come”

    With respect to “Lessons Learnt” we in the Royal Navy have not used this phrase for a long time. The process is now firmly called the LI process (ie Lessons Identified); this not to say that we never incorporate previous errors into our planning but a recognition that this is an ongoing process. Incorporating even a single piece of information is rarely a “one off” event but something that has to be repeated for different situations or by different groups.

    As long as the “Lesson” remains “Identified” and publicised everyone will be able to learn.


  4. Sanjana,

    Good to connect with you again. I enjoyed our connections during the tsunami recovery and Nias Earthquake event.

    The Myanmar Resilience Network has successfully completed its Phase 0 assessments. During Phase I, we are playing with SAHANA as a possible extension of the Myanmar Resilience Networks. It is not clear if it is useful or not yet to the NGOs we are working with in the Irrawaddy Delta or not.


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