Technology is Easy, Community is Hard

Smart codes, Ushahidi, humanitarian dashboards, TERA, microtasking, geotagging, SMS broadcast, the list goes on, but the question is – just how much technology do we need?  When a disaster or crisis strikes in the information age the answer seems to be:  loads of it.  And thankfully there is loads of it.  The problem is what to do with it?

A perennial problem is sheer volume, in which those operating in dynamic humanitarian and crisis environments often find themselves, in information terms, drinking from a fire hose.  The main issue is taking masses of unstructured inputs and extracting elements to form useful data, quickly and for the relevant entities.  There are many very clever people continually working to meet this challenge, be they at Google or Microsoft, at one of many specialist outlets such as Sahana or InSTEDD, or working voluntarily out of student bedsits or university computer labs.   They are constantly playing catch up, but the strides they make are remarkable.

Yet, whilst this drive to successfully navigate the inevitable frenzied and anarchic information environment of a crisis is utterly vital, the management of this information is equally important.  It’s not enough to simply have the technology and the ability to make it work effectively, because today technology is ubiquitous, and human beings are not only its consumers but its producers as well.  For it to work towards defined objectives, those human elements need to cooperate, collaborate and communicate effectively with each other. At heart it’s about community and it’s about collaborative management of information.  And by that, we mean real management – good old leadership, governance, policy, protocols, organisational culture – not just fantastic digital filtering and search systems. From Disaster Relief 2.0 – “We need to fundamentally rethink how the humanitarian system manages information in light of the increasingly complex system of networks and data flows.”

The shiny technology is often mesmerising, but thankfully some are beginning to realise that this paradigm shift requires more than software.   It requires recognition of today’s remarkably resilient two-way communication environment and admission that real human management, between individuals, groups, agencies, governments, public and private enterprise is as important, and maybe even more challenging, than development of turbo-charged, swing-wing digital technology.  Networks such as CDAC (Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities) Network are grasping that challenge, and Albany’s comprehensive communications approach seeks to address information gaps using both technology and traditional outreach.

But report after report indicates that within the wider humanitarian community there is considerable inertia.   Indeed, as they say, technology is easy, community is hard.

Jem Thomas is Director of Training and Innovation at Albany Associates