21st Century IT for humanitarian programming

IT as an industry has played a supportive role to organisations but mainly as a “back office” service. The scope of this support service has traditionally ranged from fixing personal computers for individuals to keeping large cooperate data systems such as finance, HR and document storage running. But things need to change and in fact, they are changing as the IT role starts to adapt to a new 21st century way of working. In the humanitarian space, the delivery of programmes are beginning to use more technology. This means that the programmes people will require expert advice about technology to build and then run successful technology driven programmes.  

One of the barriers to success is that there is a disconnect between IT people and the humanitarian people who run programmes. On the IT side, they use incomprehensible language or can appear to be inflexible about how technology is delivered. The programmes people can sometimes typecast IT into a limited role thinking that all IT does is to fix computers and perhaps have little to contribute to the delivery of programmes.  

In this article, I am going to shine a spotlight on the wide range of technologies that IT teams support and then propose a model where technologist can work closely with the programmes teams to deliver great results for the populations which are supported by programmes.

The limitless scope of technology

IT is not just all about laptops and email accounts. We would not think of a hospital as a place just full of doctors. There is a range of specialists such as heart surgeons, tropical medicine experts, phycologists, pathologists, Nurses, Nuclear Medicine experts, Dietitians, radiographers just to name a few. The world of IT is similar with many specialists covering a mass of different technologies. Maybe “IT” as a brand no longer works?  Perhaps we should change it?

So using its current brand, what can the IT team bring to programmes?  Quite a lot in fact. The Tuesday Technical (and blog) has been running since 2014 and has plenty of examples of technology being used in a field setting. Here are just a few examples of where solutions go well beyond what is considered traditional IT:

UAVs (Drones): This is an emerging technology in the Humanitarian Sector. Initially smaller quad blade units have been used for aerial video, but larger UAVs have been used in search and rescue operations and to deliver medicines. The Emergency Telecoms Cluster established a new working group to work out how this new technology would be used within an emergency response setting.

Sustainable energy solutions: Technology needs electricity rights?  So who owns it?  It’s still technology and should sit within the same tech family as traditional IT. Sustainable energy is needed to run any remote tech that we might place in a remote community. Solar energy systems are often not sustainable as programme design often lacks the methods which could be used to keep systems working. But the good news is that there are now potential partners emerging which can deliver energy on a cost recover model.

In the emergency setting, as we use tech to deliver information and services to the affected communities via smart or feature phones, then we need to provide the means for people to charge their devices.

Communications and connectivity: One of the new buzz words is “Communications as aid” Whether it’s the provision of mobile phones to facilitate family reunion or Wi-Fi hots-spots, the future will see a rapid increase in the provision of communications and connectivity to the populations affected by a disaster. Providing connectivity and communications via radio, satellite or local networks has been core business in the Humanitarian IT sector and we are really good at it.

Internet of Things (IoT): In a connected world, we are starting to see a growth in a multitude of devices which are connected to the internet. Examples include real time vehicle tracking, Cold chain monitoring, and environmental sensors. This technology can be used to give early warning of water supply issues to communities or allow central support teams to monitor the health of a remote solar energy installation.

3D Printing: NGOs work in remote places which are difficult to get to. 3D printing is gaining in popularity and in a nutshell, this technology will make objects accurately. Early technologies have been able to create plastic items and potentially able to create plumbing items for WASH programmes. Technology is moving on, and more complex items can be made. Some units now print 3D objects using metal! 

There are many more examples I could give where technology can add a lot of value to programmes. These are just practical examples. There is also a huge industry of data products such as mapping (GIS), Health (HIS) and so on.

Working together as a team

The technologist need to come out of the basement and speak to the programmes experts in plain language. At the same time, the programmes experts need to open the door and let the technologist in. The good news is that we are already seeing the beginnings of this approach. But we need to keep up the momentum to get even closer so that where technology is used to support programmes, we deliver success.

My personal view is that the brand “IT” has run its course and needs to be replaced. ICT4D has gathered some support, but still not dynamic enough. “Technology for Programmes” or T4P might just do it! 

So what does T4P look like in the 21st century?  How can we bring the technologist to the programmes table?  The answer is simpler than you might think. Humanitarian programmes have been running for many decades with organisations like Save the Children approaching 100 years of aid delivery. The technologist can add much more to future programming as technology becomes more reliable and available. Here is an idea on how this can work:

Programmes teams already have a perfect model which delivers excellence. For most programmes there will be a tangible output which could be along the thematic areas of food, shelter, education, health, wash, child protection, and much more. For each of these thematic areas, programmes people will access technical experts for their input. This leads to a programme design which can then be fleshed out with a budget and implementation plan.

Technology has a role to play and I would like to see a new breed of T4P experts joining the team to work alongside all of the other thematic experts supporting the delivery of programmes. The T4P expert will need to be a good communicator and act as a broker between the programmes team/thematic experts and then the appropriate subject matter experts (SMEs) within the technology teams. Ideally with T4P experts involved in programme design from the start, we will be able to have a more positive impact where technology is needed.

IT as a function as a service provider will still be needed, but IT departments will need to expand and include a new pool of T4P talent to help deliver 21st Century programmes. There will need to be some mind-set changes. In larger organisations, more flexibility will be needed to deliver solutions to programmes as the old model of “One Size fits all” is not likely to work. T4P experts will need to build up a knowledgebase of solution so that when a new programme is considered, the following thought process is used: 

1.       For the new programme, what is their technical needs?
2.       What are we doing already in other places which is similar?  Do we already have an appropriate solution?
3.       If not, what are others doing?  Is there a solution we can buy off the shelf?
4.       And if there are no current solutions, can we build one? 

IT teams and the new breed of T4P experts will need to get out and network. Organisations like Nethope and the Emergency Telecoms Cluster are already working on beneficiary facing solutions. Though these extended networks, T4P experts can keep up to date with the new technology which is being developed which will contribute to the T4P expert becoming the Trusted Technology Expert for Programmes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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