It was Larry Brilliant’s TED talk over four years ago that first got me hooked. He spoke about the technology used by the Global Public Health Information Network (GPHIN) which had detected the outbreak of SARS months before the WHO by crawling the web (including blogs) for key words (symptoms) in multiple languages. “I envision a kid (in Africa) getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street. I envision someone in Cambodia finding out that there is leprosy across the street,” Brilliant said.
I was teaching a full semester course on Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems that Spring and watching the TED talk made me realize how far behind we were as a community. And by community I mean those of us working on conflict prevention and rapid response to complex emergencies. I’ve been trying to close this gap ever since by actively cross-pollinating innovative thinking and best practices as well as reality-checks. I’ve done this through consulting projects in the field like the Sudan and Timor Leste, applied research with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), the publication of policy reports, extensive blogging, joining Ushahidi, presenting at numerous conferences, co-founding and curating a new conference series on Crisis Mapping, co-launching the Crisis Mappers Network, etc.
I think both communities have come a long way but we need more bridge builders, as Ethan Zuckerman recently emphasized in his 2010 TED Talk in Oxford when he referred to my colleague Erik Hersman. We need builders who are comfortable in both communities, who are bilingual in both humanitarian and tech languages. I can only think of a handful of these individuals. This means the majority of technologists who respond to crises have little to no experience in disaster response or how to communicate with humanitarians let alone the disaster affected communities. At the same time, this also means that many seasoned disaster response experts and policy types ignore technology innovation altogether, largely because they don’t understand it. This is also an issues in the human rights community.
I’m planning to repeat this with the 2010 Crisis Mapping conference, which is also why we’ve decided to host it in Boston—the city with the most universities in the world. We need more students, both undergraduates and graduates, to realize there are career opportunities in this field and help them select appropriate courses and internships so they can become future bridge builders. Recall that the Ushahidi deployments in Haiti and Chile were both student-run. We also need to find ways to send techies to the field, like Ethan’s Geek Corps idea. Better yet, humanitarian organizations should actively seek such interns.
Those are my two cents but I’d love to get more ideas from readers on what to do about this divide.