Ready or not… Meeting up with Techfugees


I’m now puttering about in Washington, DC. In the early mornings and late evenings I help out with the digital marketing of my cousin’s startup in Australia. In-between I spend some days seeing friends and former colleagues for meet-ups. And then there are also Meetups, which I’ve been doing an average of two a week, mostly tech-related ones.

The last one I attended last Thursday is called ‘Techfugees‘, a portmanteau of the words ‘technology’ and ‘refugees’. It was the first meeting of the group, and most definitely not the last one given everyone’s enthusiasm and commitment to their work in assisting refugees in or from conflict/post-conflict areas. About 20 participants (meetupers? meetlovers?) showed up, which wasn’t too shabby given there was thunderstorm earlier that afternoon. It fwas a good mix of non-profit and tech folks who are in one form or another working with the Syrian refugees here in the US. Their work range from providing digital literacy classes or developing an app for children to improve their psychosocial development, while others are looking for ways to communicate effectively via SMS.

I’m interested in the topic myself given my previous engagement in humanitarian work- not in a conflict zone, but still in an environment just as disrupted- in a post-disaster setting, when I worked on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) with the UN-FAO on its Typhoon Haiyan Emergency Response and Rehabilitation. I want to get a better grasp of how technology can facilitate aid in all its forms, be it providing food, water, shelter, and other emergency supplies, to improving refugees’ living conditions or expediting the movement of people.

It got me into thinking of the technology already available out there, or how it could have played a role in my previous work, with the affected people and emergency responders in mind. So I came up with the list below, roughly arranged according to what’s crucial as soon as a powerful earthquake jolts a city or a conflict erupts. The information below is by no means exhaustive, but I hope will be just as useful.

  1. Robots. They now exist in Japan as big and clunky life-savers. But soon they’ll be as small as cockroaches.
  2. Satellite phones. Communications are usually brought down intentionally or as collateral damage in emergency situations, that’s why satellite phones, or sat-phones, are a staple in many bigger organizations that can afford it. But I learned from experience there are also times when their signals can be jammed, like that time when some VIPs visited the project site I worked in.
  3. CB radios. In hindsight, it seems this more humble cousin of the sat-phone, wasn’t used that often except for communication by security teams, or at least that’s what I observed.
  4. Radio. Call it old-school, but AM radio was one way farmer-beneficiaries learned of seed and fertilizer distributions that were going to be held in their villages. And the other ways? Word-of-mouth and town-hall meetings.
  5. Firechat or GoTenna. Users of Firechat create a virtual mesh to allow mobile communication via bluetooth or wifi, even when there’s no cellphone network for some reason (see point 1). It has gained some modest traction in some cities in the Philippines, although I’m not sure why this app hasn’t gone mainstream given its potential especially in areas where communication gets cut-off (see point 2). Is it the lack of any admin rights to the conversation, or the sense of urgency to install the app? Let’s not wait for an emergency to happen before it catches on. I haven’t used GoTenna myself, which acts like a CB radio for texts, but the concept also looks promising.
  6. Data-gathering/surveyed instrument apps. I was envious of a university friend who also happened to be working on M&E in another international non-government organization (INGO). They used tablets and a data collection app for their surveys. It’s faster and eliminates one layer of data input, yet it still poses issues and challenges. Meanwhile, we conducted our surveys with ol’ trusty pens and papers.
  7. Drones. They have taken off (no pun attended) in the past years mostly for video recording. I can imagine it useful for visual monitoring and transporting medicines and other portable emergency supplies.
  8. IDs. I saw one beneficiary whip out an ID with a barcode given by an INGO, possibly for monitoring the benefits she has received from them. We couldn’t honor the ID because it’s not a government-issued one (but I did get envious again).
  9. Mobile cash transfers. Cash transfers are a popular intervention because it stimulates the local economy just right after a disaster situation. For a country which has a high mobile penetration such as the Philippines, there is an opposite trend in the use of mobile cash transfer versus other developing countries, say, Kenya. Despite my country’s inclination to mobile technology, it’s still largely a cash-based economy. I’ve seen endless lines outside banks and pawnshops which participate in cash transfer programs to dispense money on designated days of the week. Many factors impede the adoption of mobile cash transfers, a few of them include perceptions of trust on telcos, technological literacy, or dealing with lost cellphones (and numbers) that ars supposed to ‘receive’ the money.

Wish list

Here’s my list of technology- both hardware and software- that I hope would exist soon and could prove very useful in humanitarian response situations. Many are very feasible and within reach, and I won’t be surprised if they actually do exist already.

  1. Mobile communication kit. A cellphone that can be recharged via solar power would be ideal for communication to continue in the event of downed power lines. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, temporary mobile networks were up in less than a week, giving life to cellphones. and easing communication lines, until their batteries ran out.
  2. Slack for cluster coordination. One of the mechanisms established in emergency situations are so-called ‘clusters’- groups made up of different organizations working on the same areas such as WASH (water, sanitation and health), agriculture, housing, and other sectors. Email is still king when it comes to communicating to multiple people. But in conflict and disaster areas where urgency is the name of the game, Slack can fill that void for sending quick-fire messages that can’t wait, provided there’s internet connection.
  3. Emergency kit with tracker. In addition to supplies like food and water, emergency kits can be equipped with senors, which are triggered to track people (or at least, the kits) who could get buried alive inside collapsed houses or buildings in the event of bombings or earthquakes (as suggested by Julieane Camile Lacsina).

Use of technology in refugee situations has a huge potential, both as means to facilitate communication and coordination, or as a product itself that could save lives. Many of these technologies- be it hardware or software- are already out there. Personally, I’m looking for systems, platforms or norms/protocols that create additional value by taking advantage of existing yet fragmented tech to facilitate communication and coordination in post-conflict or disaster settings.

Do you have anything to add to the list? Let me know by leaving a comment or tweet me @jadz.


Bidding farewell to Climate-Eval

Today officially marks my last day at the GEF EO, and subsequently as moderator of the Climate-Eval community of practice. My two-year term came and went so quickly. In-between those two years, however, are some learning and insights worth highlighting in my final blog post as Climate-Eval Moderator.

I have a confession to make: I am not an evaluator. While I have worked with Climate-Eval members, a big number of whom are evaluators, I myself have never conducted an evaluation. Thus, I had to learn on the job. And learning about evaluation, as in any endeavor, has been challenging albeit rewarding. This has squarely complemented my previous country-level experience in project and policy analysis in the environment sector and climate change. Reviewing how national policies and programs could be designed to increase their success rate is complex enough. Yet understanding and determining whether they were indeed successful is not any easier. Climate change and its compounding issues of complexity and uncertainty pose challenges to this end.

Part of my work as moderator was to draft approach papers and manage research studies on how evaluations are being conducted and how they could be improved. This entailed rummaging through work of development cooperation agencies, think-tanks and academics on indicators, evaluation reports, and other related literature. As our community of practice progresses and has finished three studies looking at evaluation frameworks, guidelines and tools, it has become apparent that to come up with evaluation standards and norms, more work and collaboration with other networks and organizations is needed.

I applied for and took on this job primarily for two reasons. It involved work in the field of environment and climate change, and online media. While the internet facilitated online communication which proved very useful for Climate-Eval members who are dispersed all over the globe, this type of interaction still possesses some inherent limitations. Emails and webinars lacked the personal touch of face-to-face communication. During my official travels I had the fortune of attending, I finally met several of our members. This virtual to real exchange somehow became the model for getting to know and connecting with members beyond Skype calls and webinar discussions. I was an observer and participant to meaningful discussions that arose from this model. Upon meeting some members in person, virtual acquaintances gradually turn to personal connections.

We may have a lofty goal in our community to improve our knowledge and skills in conducting high-quality evaluations for climate change and development interventions, but it’s one that is necessary. It holds all of us accountable as actors for the work that we do, be they the introduction of energy efficient light bulbs or minimizing disastrous impacts of natural calamities.

As I write this, the search for the new moderator is still in progress. Yet I encourage everyone to continue the interesting discussions in our Linkedin Group and start interacting with the new moderator as soon as he or she takes on the role I’m leaving. As a new moderator comes on board, so will exciting developments in our community which we should all look forward to and engage in. I am bidding farewell as Climate-Eval Moderator, but I will remain a member of our community and look forward to its future pursuits.

This was originally posted on the Climate-Eval blog.

He meant well (and so do we)

The book by Peter van Buren is not new. I’ve never read it myself, but intend to do so sooner or later, if not for the funny excerpts I’ve read and heard. I  just got reminded of it as I picked up a copy of The Diplomat where he was featured on a Q&A-type article about his work status post-whistleblowing. As his foreign career service seems to be over, I imagined him doing rounds of book signings and readings. Royalties from the book should ideally replace his soon-to-be-lost income from his job. But this doesn’t seem to be the case, according to him in the article. He is still a salaried staff yet demoted to a menial job, but this will only go on until September when he plans to retire altogether.

Is his career in international relations and development over? Did he blow the whistle too soon? And when young professionals find problems worth exposing, are we just supposed to turn a blind eye and shut up, consider that all things are bright and beautiful to protect our future careers? Read the article here.

United Nations Day celebration in Bonn

I rushed to Bonn city center this morning when I remembered that a United Nations Day event is to be held there. I spotted a poster somewhere in the city a few days ago that there will be a celebration of some sort.  I googled for a programme of the activities before I headed downtown and decided it was worth checking out.

In Bonn, the mood was festive. Tents were put up to house different UN and development organizations.  Old folks danced to the groove of live bands and children enjoyed the giveaways and activities.  But at least for once as a global way of celebrating the day, UN Day should be a ceasefire day for all the wars in the world.  It is of related reason that UN was created after World War II.

Some photos during the event:

Opening performers rocking the opening ceremony

Balloon man.  I think he did this the whole day as it seemed all kids passing by asked for one of these world balloons.  I wanted one for myself! 
 The future of fisheries
Rescue team preparing for a demo

I paparazzi’d Achim Steiner (with red tie), Executive Director (big boss) of UNEP
Happy United Nations Day!
A few more photos in my flickr page.