gCensus… census data for all!

For those of us working in development and humanitarian work is virtually impossible to get sufficient high quality information and data to help us do our job better. Often the best sources of data are hidden away behind officials and applications that rarely reveal all. Of course such professionals have good reason to avoid scattering data far and wide, anyone seeking the perfect presentations of high level data should check out The Gap Minder by Hans Rosling to be covered in future blogs.

Census data is often one of the richest sources, collected by national statistical institutions it is often available in unadulterated form… that is unadulterated by politicians. Thankfully statisticians being rather geeky are obsessed with the purity of the information they collect and share, in a handful of countries the politicians don’t even get involved in publishing the data so have no influence over it whatsoever… top marks to Norway.gcensus

Well opensource colleagues have come to our rescue again see this article by the developer, more can be found at gCensus a mashup of Google Earth and Census data (at this moment only US data). Informaiton Aesthetics brings this to us in full technicolour,

… a powerful web-based mapping & visualization tool based on Google Maps, capable of displaying all sorts of geographic data. gCensus is an effort to make geographic data freely and easily accessible to the public, without the need for expensive GIS software packages. users can freely pan, rotate, & zoom into & out of maps, change the ground angle or alter the transparency of different areas to satellite imagery.

gcensus2Of course we should not be unfair national statistical offices do make data readily available and often widely publish it, sadly government bodies are rarely up on the latest web technology and for many reasons they may not wish to freely distribute the digital data. But wouldn’t it be marvellous if all census data was published in this manner, I am of course hoping the opensource community worldwide will come to our rescue and provide modules that national statistics offices can adopt, publish their data on the web in readily manipulative form, yet retain appropriate control of the source data also. Experience in the field suggest that this is not such a fantastic idea.

World Changing… creative ideas to curl up with!

world changing bookWorld Changing is a stimulating book with numerous creative and fascinating ideas or soutions on multiple different subjects from politics and housing to design, technology and business. Check out Regine’s blog we make art not money for an interesting review.

World changing… i don’t think so and there are only fleeting comments on much hyped humanitarian or shelter issues sadly they didn’t call on Tom Corsellis at Shelter Centre or Paul Currion at Humanitarian.info for advice… mores the pity… but take some time out you shouldn’t read about work all the time.

Seriously though it is a stimulating read, and as Stanford Ovhinsky likes to say “invention comes to the prepared mind” (The Edison of our age?, The Economist); this is a gentle way to keep the creativity flowing. It is unusual for me to recommend a book on leisure, but we do have the holidays (and for some) long winter nights ahead of us! Enjoy.

A first (non) UN Humanitarian Coordinator… Uganda

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Uganda is to be, well non-UN!For the 99.99% of people working in humanitarian work I should explain. In each country the UN is headed by a Resident Coordinator (RC), this person is always a very senior UN Representative in country (more often than not the head of UNDP). Although they do not have line management responsibility for other agencies they ‘coordinate’ the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) and links with government and play a major role in ensuring joined up support to host countries.In an emergency or humanitarian scenario the RC may not be the most suited or have the time to also humanitarian response, hence a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) may be appointed by through the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), to-date this person has always been a UN insider. In the case of Uganda due to the localised nature of the humanitarian crisis in the north a separate HC was appointed, however it is a first to put a non UN staff member in this post.HC UgandaThe HC until recently Representative of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Geneva, Ms. Elisabeth Rasmusson, has extensive field experience especially with refugees and intenally displaced persons (IDPs). Though not a complete outsider, she formerly worked for the UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) , Ms. Rasmusson is certainly no insider.This is excellent news. The UN is often given unpleasant and unreasonable labels sometimes, but rarely, fairly. Humanitarian reforms have been driven hard and furiously over the last 12 to 18 months, engineered hand-in-hand between senior UN executives and key donors, noteably DfiD.The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) was beefed up by adding a $450m grant facility to an existing $50m revolving fund. To firstly, promote early action and response to save lives (release funds within 72 hours). Secondly, enhance response to time-crucial requirements based on demonstrable needs, and thirdly strengthen core elements of humanitarian response in under-funded crisis. Launched in March 2006, by and September 2006 it had raised $175m.The Humanitarian Coordinator system, designed to ensure focus and leadership during life saving response periods was initiated and many including Ms Rasmusson trained for the role.The Inter-Agency Steering Committee (IASC) structure was launched in 1992 to ensure that UN and NGO’s worked more effectively. However it has been reinvigorated with the application of technical clusters (initiated in the Pakistan earthquake with mixed success) and the spur of the humanitarian reform process.Thus it is welcome that the UN is now looking to finding the best and most suited people from across the range of humanitarian institutions to coordinate humanitarian response. At the very least it should lead to a great cross fertilisation of ideas and creativity, a greater acceptance of different institutional approaches and improved collaboration. On the downside… well I personally don’t see one! Read the rest of this entry »

Aid effectiveness wiki… by UNDP!

UNDP LogoYou may not be surprised to learn that UNDP has developed an excellent resource on Aid Effectiveness, tho’ you might be surprised that it is a wiki! Though not launched, and appears to have sneaked up by the back door it is certainly worth a second and third look.

Designed by a hardened field practioner the Aid Effectiveness Wiki has been developed by Aidan Cox at the Regional Centre in Bangkok following his development of the Donor Assistance Database (DAD) in Afghanistan and coordination support to Angola, India, Iraq, Maldives and Sri Lanka. DAD spun off from AIMS Humanitarian Information Centre where a very early stage incarnation the Appeal Tracking Information Management System (ATIMS) developed. Yes this history is of primarily nostalgic value.

Now UNDP has complimented its comprehensive corporate DevAid site with the wiki they can truly act as the access point to some of the best information on this topic, of course they are by no means on their own, ODI, The World Bank, OECD just to name three all conduct critical work in this area. However genuinely opening up to contributions for the broader community of expertise may well ensure that on this topic UNDP can at least ensure accessibility from one location to critical information and comment, if not develop thought leadership.

Lets sing praises where it is due. Following recent critical comments about the slow adoption of modern approaches to information management by security specialists in the humanitarian and development sphere, What do Aid workers and spies have in common? and Open Source Spying and NGO’s by the NGO Security blog. It is refreshing that in a critical area such as Aid Effectiveness advanced transparent approaches to information sharing and management are being advanced.

No doubt some find it hard to swallow that UNDP is leading the charge! However take another look, UNICEF openly publishes its RSS, podcast and vodcast at the bottom of every page on its website. Despite the excellent podcasts being produced by Christian Aid they are still hard to find on their site. Maybe traditional fears of change stressed by NGO Security are on the mark.

Wiki’s are a key information management tool, the more focused the interest the more powerful and valuable they become. Given the critical nature of humanitarian and development work we would be doing a disservice to our end clients and ourselves if we do not adopt such technology sooner rather than later.

Second Life, the UN and living like a refugee

Second Life enters the humanitarian and development workers sphere of interest!


“The Stand Up Awareness Campaign” is being supported by the UN on Second Life. The Stand Up For Awareness Campaign is part of the larger Millenium Campaign to remind governments of their commitment to the eight Millenium Development Goals (MDG) that they agreed to in 2000, each of the eight 2015 targets are critical to reduce global poverty. This is a far from Bureaucratic excercise, if we can’t measure we can’t manage… by catalysing development organisations, donor governments and recipient governments the MDG indicators and targets, truly provide measures of success or failure that will have to be explained away if they are not met… keeping up the pressure world-wide is important.

DarfurThere is also a simulated Darfur refugee camp on Second Life, “Living Like a Refugee” was built to inform and educate … “An awareness and action camp spotlighting today’s genocide” and even patrolled by hooded avatars. Behind this seemlingly ‘geeky’ awareness approach, after all how many people really use Second Life, is a larger possibility of bringing the complexity, intricacies and daily catastrophe of humanitarian disasters to a increasinly well networked and socially aware next generation.

second lifeTeens Second Life is an interesting development by Linden Labs, visited by BBC’s Digital Planet, yes you guessed it Second Life for teens, governed by community rules, no parents or adults allowed, only screened adults from Linden Labs. Special institutions such as schools can feature on the game but are restricted to the island they create where the teens can choose to visit.

Clearly only the privileged (bandwidth, computers, high quality of life) are using Second Life, currently it acts as an interesting advocacy medium for the humanitarian and development world. But perhaps we should be more creative… why not a self concious training medium for students around the world, an advocacy platform. At the very least it offers an interesting way to capture the interest of youth and techie’s to increasingly support real life humanitarian needs, if only by applying their technology interests and genius to global advocacy and bridging communication gaps with the elite in southern countries.

Obituaries, celebrating life!

One would imagine that Obituaries are a morbid topic, after all it is all about looking back at someones life, after the event. However well written obituaries provide an interesting insight into the lives and challenges others faced before us, a historical record, indeed it is a shame that humanitarian and development workers don’t have an obituary ‘site’ imagine the wealth of experience and lessons it could capture!

Of course one typically only hears about the lives of fascinating and often influential people, as ever however it is the intricate stories of unsung heroes and mundane lives that I find particularly interesting.

Igor Sergeyev a military commander who rose to First Marshall of the Russian Armed Forces and Minister of Defence was sacked after the disastrous failed Kursk rescue attempt. As a General by simply being attentive, honest, responsible and focused on his job he is probably the one individual that cajoled, negotiated and badgered away to ensure that nuclear material from the huge arsenal of Russia’s long range nuclear weaponry did not go awry and leak into the underworld. Other recent obituaries by the economist include: Markus Wolf a former East German Symaster, a Jew, his Stasi team routinely outwitted its bumbling West German rivals. Bulent Ecevit a Turkish prime minister and poet who ordered Turkish troops into Cyprus and enjoyed a fondness for Hindu mysticism and Sanskrit verse. And Eric Newby a travel writer and fashion buyer who would travel on little but in the best possible taste. Like many of his generation served in the war and in his case was interned in Italian camps.

To get a cross section of American lives the New York Times provides a diverse cross-section, for example David Cockrun a comic book artist who re-invented the X-men and the Marvel Comic with other characters in the mid 70’s and before that worked on Superman, Batman and Flash. Or Rhodes W.Fairbridge who died at 92 in time to see his passion become mainstream. A pioneer on Climate Change in the early 1960s, he developed the Fairbridge curve, a record of changes in sea levels over the last 10,000 years. His graph showed periodic dips and spikes in levels, against a larger trend of rising ocean waters. Among other indicators it is considered to be early evidence of a larger trend in global climate change resulting in the melting of glaciers and continental ice sheets. In plotting his curve, Dr. Fairbridge looked at high-water marks recorded in fossilized dunes and reefs and later made more eclectic observations of climate fluctuation.

For a different view on a society check their obituaries, sadly they may be hard to find in your own language, when checking Arabic papers for this blog, I was unable to find any obituaries in English. This is sad since a chronicle of the past is an insight into the present and future

And you mustn’t forget those bloggers, The blog of Death is a rather unusual place to start, the TaxProf Blog and Jacks Blog are more typical. GoogObits will help you find list of obituaries and of course wikiobit a database of obituaries for everyone by everyone, and new media approaches are emerging Obit Earth encourages use of Google Earth to mark the place of significant events in a deceased persons life, and raises the intriguing possibilities of marking maps with pictures and other data! YouTube has many video obituaries.

After a lifetime of balancing family life, with emotional crises, illness, heartache, joy, pleasure and of course work. Perhaps there is a small measure of comfort in knowing that in some way we are having an impact on the lives of others like so many before and so many to come. But perhaps, just perhaps everyone of us leaves our mark on the world by simply getting on with our lives. Some may put this article down to old age, perhaps, perhaps it is due to experience in in-secure environments, rather I would propose that we should use reflection and celebration of others lives as an opportunity to learn and advocate the humanitarian and development work we are all involved in.

Podcasts, not popular… but useful!

podcastIn truth podcasts are not popular, BBC reviews a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Nov, 2006).

Internet access in the US is extremely high, out of 300 million people in the US, there are an estimated 207,161,706 internet users (Nielsen NetRatings).

However in it’s 5000 person sample the Pew survey found just 1% of respondents download a podcast on a typical day, with 7 to 12% claiming to have dowloaded a podcast. These figures have been consistent much of 2006.

Despite this the number of podcasts being distributed has exploded… in November 2004 Podcast Alley a show directory, listed 1,000 podcasts, today more than 26,000 and over one million episodes. Although usage implies a high percentage are discontinued it is evident that publishing a podcast requires minimal equipment and is simple indeed.

I could go on to quote all the hype of market growth, but it is frankly irrelevant, podcasts are an excellent medium for select applications (“MSF & Christian Aid …”, “Rocketboom, UNHCR & Refugees”, “Online video sharing….”, “Promote MP3’s, Zunes, i-pods …”).

The technology has simplified to a stage where any luddite (such as yours truly) can download podcasts from i-Tunes, they are free. In truth it is nearly just as easy to upload! Even I (ok, an adventurous luddite) with an Apple laptop and Garageband, prepared an (admitedly poor) audio podcast ready for upload to i-Tunes. Don’t forget you don’t need an i-pod, any MP3 player or computer will do. I watch all video podcasts on computer and listen to audio from the laptop as if it were a radio (“Pandora & Filter – Personal Radio Stations…”).

Forget the hype, play with podcasts, lets see how we can turn this tool to valuable applications to further humanitarian and development work.

Confabb, taking the ‘con’ out of conference

Organising a conference well is tough… focused on the content, who has time to worry about the web site, uploading content, organising for participants to review speakers, organise additional activities, or plan local visits, in short how do we maximise their input?

Reality is that conference logistics are too often outsourced, or provide a poor experience to presenters and attendees, content is delivered late, registration lists out of date, additional side shows not added, presentations and speakers are not rated, assessments are after the fact… Confabb seeks to change all that providing a superficially simple interface to enable one to organise and publish a conference online with full flexibility to enable management of contacts, speakers, attendee registration by administrators, presenters and physical or virtual attendees.

Launched this month, the first iteration is designed to be useful to researchers, however over the next few months it will develop into a practical tool and interactive platform for all stakeholders… or if you like, a conference wiki!

For a fee, and fraction of the current cost to organisers, they will provide the full web site for the conference. Presenters will be able to manage their own sessions and post session content, everyone can critique, rate and review presentations, debate on discussion boards, post relevant articles, or add side shows as they are organised at the conference itself. With a Filckr link participants may upload their own photgraphs for sharing. Overtime speakers at more than one event could point people to their ‘Confabb page’, listing contributions over the years.

I suspect we have all had disappointing experiences of online tools for conferences (I tend to avoid them), however they should be intellectually stimulating, not administratively challenging. Confabb seeks to enable conference attendees and regular users to find events or people with similiar interests (oh dear, not online networking again!), and in theory at least support intellectual contacts and debate.

Unusually it has been set up over six months by four part-timers… at no cost! Like most tech start-ups it is currently very US centric, but that doesn’t need to remain the case (see Scoble blog and video demo). Confabb hopes to take online support to conferences to a new level, this is one US start-up that could potentially support our operations.

Humanitarian and development workers are criticised for not using simple, intuitive interfaces for software tools (see investing in the interface and why humanitarian end users suck, but we are renowned for interaction, comment and community. This tool appears to reduce one weakness and build on our strengths!

Rocketboom, UNHCR and refugees

Rocketboom … one of the most popular trivia and news podcasts available on the web published footage from floods and refugee camps in Kenya with UNHCR (21st Nov 2006). A refugee recounts his image of the impact of islamists from Somalia.

As reported in “Online Video Sharing…” and “Alive in Baghdad” … this highly accessible medium is making it ever easier for the young in the west to find out what they want when they want… as new generations increasingly shun TV for the Internet, or formal media for community and peer approaches. potential important tools for advocacy indeed!

Rocketboom can be accessed at their website or downloaded from i-Tunes, it presents 3 to 5 minute news clips for free, daily. Produced at very low costs, only distributed online (available world-wide), its ‘status’ has been achieved purely by word of mouth, and it seeks to engage its audience in an online dialogue, see WikiBoom.

New ‘participatory’ media is truly beginning to change the manner in which news and information is obtained, limitations to web access may not ensure video becomes common in developing countries, but there is no doubt that it will become an ever more important medium for communiction, information sharing and advocacy. Its great to see Rocketboom democtatising news broadcasting.

MSF & Christian Aid blaze podcast trail!

Is it our role to advocate for change, communicate needs on the ground, promote intellectual debate and ensure education and awareness of different communites of the challenges faced by others?

Fortunately there are trail blazers out there testing new media to and its effectiveness for the rest of us. Podcasts that can be accessed on i-tunes, or downloaded from websites, dramatically further communication and information sharing. MSF

MSF has demonstrated three prominent approaches. MSF Voice podcasts in the build up to the XVI Aids Conference in August 2006 along with daily discussions on key topics and demonstration of how MSF drives advocacy at such conferences. Regular advocacy and discussion of field activities and focus of programmes in different countries. Finally, MSF Frontline is a monthly podcast enabling individuals to catch up with MSF operations. programmes, facts, figures and personal testaments. MSF Voice and MSF Frontline are seamlessly integrated into the web site for ease of access.

CAChristian Aid after using podcasts for internal reporting opened their podcasts up to the public, as reported by humanitarian.info and Full Circle. Some examples include fascinating mini series on different campaigns, such as the Beat goes on a march against the policies of IMF, WB and the North in controlling the South and a demand for friendly and inclusive policies. Daily podcasts for a field visit to Haiti truly set a standard for everyone to match! It reflects the naevity of foreigners, gives a detailed awareness of challenges faced in the country and yet the character of people and their cultural legacy comes through. Finally like MSF, Christian Aid uses this medium to present interviews, debate and discussion on critical issues.

In a former piece I argued that podcasts should be taken into the office, Christian Aid and MSF have illustrated that staff with basic training can use podcasting instead of paper reports, perfect for disseminating information in an accessible form to staff, they also provide the perfect advocacy platform. Advocacy organisations take note!

Internal communication, information sharing and advocacy are critical elements of management in all humanitarian and development work. MSF and Christian Aid provide different exceptional examples of how podcasts can be applied in both settings… the race is on!

03/12/06 Editors note:

Apologies to UNICEF who have been operating podcasts since February 2006 with a mixture of UNICEF news and programme reports now in video and audio!

The UN also started a twice daily news podcast in November (sorry can’t find any show link), and but worry yee not this phenomena is catching on, UNESCO has put out bids for video podcast proposals!