Ready or not… Meeting up with Techfugees

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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.

Tapping the future

I was at the Klimahaus in Bremerhaven last Monday.  With my other co-intern, I was asked to man our booth to introduce to visitors our organization, and hopefully make converts out of them.

In addition to our stand where we displayed and handed out flyers and booklets, there was a touchscreen table four floors up the building wherein (on which?) a published (?) electronic booklet could be browsed.  Being the technophile that I am, I tapped and played with it to my heart’s content.  It basically functions like a digital book, however, you can see my hand’s frustration in turning the page of the brochure on the electronic thingamajig.  It’s annoying that no instruction whatsoever  explains how to use the touchscreen table.  A physical paper flyer still works better than a virtual one.  It should have at least worked with a flick of a finger or basic handstrokes akin to turning the pages of a book.  Does it need a lot more improvement?  Don’t pull the plug just yet.  Simply go back to the drawing board.

Jump-starting Jumpcut

I am neither a techie nor a video-editor and this is a “best-effort” review of Jumpcut, a web-based video-editor.

My only experience with video-editing was stitching together video clips and inserting some texts for a farewell message to a cherished professor who was retiring. My classmate and I used a Toshiba video-editor that came with the installer CD of his laptop. I’ve been taking quite a few videos here and there with my digicams to supplement my blog entries. Youtube solved my video problems. Recently, though, I’ve been wanting use of more than one video in a blog entry. I am confronted with a situation where I upload in Youtube and embed in my blog two to three videos that make my entries “choppy” and cluttered. This is when I started mulling over acquiring a free basic video-editor that could solve my needs of stitching videos, putting a title, and throwing in some quirky effects.

After some patient web-trawling, I tripped on jumpcut. It turns out it is linked to (owned by?) Yahoo, in one way or another. It is a bit confusing to register because it asks you to link the jumpcut account to your Yahoo account, whatever that means. After registering the other day, I did the perfunctory account validation, and then slept afterwards because it was already getting late in the night. I tried exploring the Flash-based tools (I hope I described that right) yesterday afternoon. Uploading the videos could be a breeze, although not with mine because of my semi-slow internet connection. Then I played with the transition effects and cut down the length of some of the videos to 20 seconds. There is a “batch function” to cut all the uploaded videos to the same length and apply the same transition effects of a clip. It is also possible to upload music to accompany the video, and you can insert and import photos from facebook and flickr. Tabs under the editing panel gives access to the different applications in jumpstart, such as clips, audio, title, effects, actions, and add.

After publishing my video, of course I wanted to upload it to my blog. I looked for the “embed” html but couldn’t find one. I clicked on the inconspicuous “post” button below the video and voila! various links came out, and other social media network icons lined up as well. I simply copied the “player” html and pasted it below. There is also a thumbnail which I don’t know how to use, so I am putting it here: Jumpcut test video (schauzeit)

Before finally publishing, you can also choose an ‘open-edit’ function where jumspart users can edit your videos. It works like a wikipedia system for videos. Mine is in “open-editing” function, so feel free to edit and improve my video.

From a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the highest, I rate jumpcut in terms of:
User-friendliness: 3.75
Versatility: 3 (good enough for my very basic needs)
Availability/accessibility: 5 (all you need is internet access, a Yahoo account and Flash player, I think.)

With jumpcut fulfilling my beginner video-editing needs, I will be good to jumpcut. Should you ditch Youtube? I will just echo jumpstart’s tagline: Be good to your videos.

Here are the 10 clips consolidated into one seamless video:

Jump-start a jumpcut account now.

For a story behind the video click here.

P.S.
I celebrate today my first year in Freiburg/Germany/Europe!

Cuil is hot

I’ve been reading a lot about Cuil, the new search engine in town. It boasts searching over 100 billion website. I made a cuil search of this blog using the search words “Freiburg blog” and it churned out no result, unlike in Google where it is ranked second. Based on other tech website, Cuil uses a different algorithm for its searches that is based on content and not on popularity like how Google works. The website layout is neat though, if that is significant at all. The three-column layout of the result is more appealing than Google’s in any case.

And oh, by the way, the developers of Cuil are ex-Google techies. The website is still at its early stage, and I can’t say I’m too hot about it. If they make a dent on Google’s niche, that’s the time I would say… Cuil-ness!

End of days… sort of

CNN’s report on a spy satellite to hit the earth in a few weeks looks straight out of a sci-fi movie. To take it a little further, one option is to shoot it down with a missile while it is still airborne. I wonder if we will be seeing bits of satellite panels floating about on the clear blue skies of March. If it makes a safe landing, even if it’s very unlikely, in someone’s backyard, then we’ve got a lucky ebay auctioneer.

But more likely, it will end up to be a big chunk of twisted metal, laden with heavy metals and outer space substances. Maybe NASA should put up a the great jigsaw puzzle project, and once the satellite’s complete, retrofit it into their new office. Now that’s what I call a mobile office.

And while satellites are falling down from the sky, Virgin Galactic will be sending people to space sooner than later. Will they sell one way tickets?

Wheee!

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I used to consider those Star Wars or iPhone fanatics absurd, those types who would camp out of a theater to be one of the first to see Princess Leia (what for? She doesn’t age!), or wait long in line at the footsteps of Mac mecca. Count me in as one of them, but somewhat of a milder kind.

The ASUS EEE PC, what I regard as the ultimate portable blogging device, officially arrived yesterday here in Germany after two months of long wait. Some fans (groupies?) have built up in cyberspace through forums and have been enjoying the mini wonder for months now, while some units only started to trickle in Germany a few days before its official release. I had to wait in vain and torture myself with countless Youtube videos and reviews to get a virtual feel of the notebook.

Two days ago I called some computer shops in the city to inquire of its availability. I was too late to snag one because all the units have been reserved, said one of the clerk in a bg computer shop downtown. I called another shop, and the guy informed me that they don’t accept pre-orders. This was my chance.

Instead of spending the afternoon to review for an exam, armed with a paperback and some reivew handouts, I trooped to Saturn, a popular electronics shop in Germany (heck, maybe in whole Europe!). I arrived at 4:10 pm, 50 minutes before the time of judgement. I saw a couple of guys already hanging around and chatting near the cashier of the computer department. I stationed myself near them, and started to read The Catcher in the Rye. Another guy arrived a little later, and asked if they were waiting for the EEE PC. With their reply, I confirmed I was in the right group. The conversation exuded the anxiety of the long wait. Four more guys arrived within the last quarter of the hour.

There was no shouting or any form of jubilation as the EEE PC was rolled out in front of us. Just restrained delight and a sighs of relief. There were six units available, all in white. I am buyer number three. Two folks have to wait until Monday for their prize. I learned the first two who arrived came all the way from Offenburg, an hour’s train ride from Freiburg. I actually thought of going there where there would probably be less „competition.“ One of them said there’s no major shop to get one of these toys.

I admit I am no techie, but I agree it’s one of the cutest things that ever happened to portable computing.