Crisis Camps

Meera Senthilingam speaks to resident techie Chris Vallance to explore how new technology can be used to aid relief efforts during humanitarian crises...
14 February 2010

Interview with 

Chris Vallance, BBC Technology Correspondent


Meera - For this month's text segment I'm going to be finding out how technology can be used to help causes such as the Haiti relief fund and here to tell me all about it is our resident expert Chris Vallance.  Now Chris you've brought me to the lovely Lincoln's Inn Fields in Holborn to tell me all about this today...

Chris V -   Yes I'm working down at the World Service for a little while so near where we are in Lincoln's Inn Fields.  So yes, looking at Haiti and how technologists, developers, hackers crisis commonscan help with disasters like that.  A group called the Crisis Commons have been organizing what they calling "crisis camps" around the world that bring together people with skills in programming and developing internet applications to look at how they can help in disasters.  Now you may think "well, actually, probably what people need is food, water, shelter, medicine." But there are tremendous logistical issues.  And IT and technology can help solve some of those from some of the most basic such as mapping.  I went down to one London crisis camp and talked to some of the people involved...


crisis commonsVinay -   Hi I'm Vinay Gupta of the Hexayurt project and we're here at Crisis Camp London today.  Crisis Camp is a forum for all the people who are interested in using the internet and technology to help out in Haiti to work together with field NGOs which are actually on the ground and organizing NGOs like the UNHCR to really try and produce a coordinated response.  What we're doing is lots of work like mapping and reviewing software, making programmes work, gathering data from all the diverse sources on the internet and putting it together into something that the people on the ground, trying to help the population or doing reconstruction, can actually use on a day to day basis to make their jobs easier and more effective. 

Chris V -   And this isn't the only one that's going on?

Vinay -   No, today we have thirteen running in three countries.  Last week there were three! So my guess is by the end of the month there's going to one in pretty much every major city that has a tech community.

Chris V -   Is tech really a priority when a disaster hits though?

Vinay -   If you think about it, if something happened in the UK, the first thing you're going to want to know is "can you get on the road from one place to another with a load of supplies?"  So how do you find out?  In the UK there's a government infrastructure which will figure that stuff out and then make it known to the responding agencies.  But, in Haiti, the government buildings are all gone and a lot of the personnel are injured or missing.  So to very quickly trying to figure out what's passable and what's not passable, what the military calls "road intelligence" or "roadint", how do you do it?  So you have some military folks who are flying drones over the area and you take the data from those drones and you manually look at the roads and then you mark up what's passable and what isn't.  And then you put it into a database and you push it down to the aid agencies.  The weak link is the coordination between all the different agencies on the ground.  If you've got 70, 80, 100 responding groups and very little telecommunications on the ground, getting over this problem of how to make sure that you don't wind up with two sets of water and no food in a specific location, is an IT problem.  That's computers and communications, software and coordination.  And Crisis Camp has the ability to deliver software to help with that.

Chris V -   Are the coordinating agencies interested in what you are doing?

Vinay -   Oh yes, absolutely.  Crisis Camp is NGO-led. The Crisis Camp US folks are working directly with field NGOs to get a sense of the technology requirements, the right specs, and then put that stuff into action in terms of "right, now let's go find a team to build the tool that this group wants".  So there's a direct chain of accountability all the way to the field.

Alan -   I'm Alan Jackson I come from Activate which is a non profit IT organization based in Cambridge.  Today I've been facilitating the first Crisis Camp in London and we've really identified a couple of areas of different projects that have been identified internationally that we can contribute to.

Chris V -   What kind of people are attending this?

Haiti FlagAllan -   It's an interesting mix of people actually.  We've got some network engineers, we have some software engineers, we have usability experts, and we have people with the domain experience, people who have actually lived in Haiti.

Chris -   What kind of things are you trying to build it, or trying to do?

Allan -   One of the projects that has been sort of mandated from the international community, it seems, is to have a look a website called relief web which is a coordination portal for relief work run by UN-OCHA [United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] .  So we've got a team of usability experts and low bandwidth design experts who are looking at that site and creating a plan for it which they can share with the community.  One thing that we're conscious of is the quality of network connections, internet connections, that you have, particularly in a place like Haiti right now.  So one thing that we have within the team here is a high degree of design expertise in designing websites for low bandwidth, slow internet connections.  So we're really kind of taking that approach to relief web and seeing what we can do in that space to make recommendations to that team to see if there's anything that we can help with.


Chris V -   ...Some of the people at a London Crisis Camp.

Meera -   Now Chris, this all sounds really interesting but is this kind of technology and this bringing together of people really useful for situations such as Haiti?

Chris V -   Well separate to the Crisis Camps, I actually had a conversation with a mapping expert who's talking about the importance to NGOs of some of the open street map work that has been done in order to produce detailed maps of Haiti. Because one of the problems was finding out where things are - actually getting aid to the right places; to do that you need good maps.  So that sort of thing really is useful. Obviously as we've said earlier, medicine, food, shelter those are all top priorities.  But in deploying those sometimes you do need some technological support as well.

Chris -   Chris Vallance talking to Meera Senthilingam giving us an insight in how technological advances can be used to help coordinate the aid efforts in developing countries like Haiti.


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