PODCAST: Gisli Olafsson on Humanitarian Aid in a Time of Mass Collaboration

Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director of NetHope

Gisli Olafsson is the co-author of the recent report titled “Information & Communication Technology (ICT) Usage in the Pakistan Floods 2010” and a contributor to the United Nations’ report “Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies.” Mr. Olafsson gave a presentation and led a round table discussion at the Wilson Center on October 4, 2011.

To view a short podcast with Gisli Olafsson, click here.

With the onset of the Information Age there has been a transformation of many fields and humanitarian crisis response is no exception.  Advances in technology have improved the affordability, mobility, and reliability of communication while offering connectivity to a large global network of expertise and resources.  The technology is not, however, a cure-all. There is a danger that enthusiasm for new methods and tools to push technology “to the edge” for technology’s sake will feed into skepticism among many of those who have practiced humanitarian response in the same way for decades.

It is this dichotomy of old versus new that Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director of NetHope, uses in his presentation to point out that both technical and non-technical solutions will be necessary to bring the current humanitarian organizations, conceived in the Industrial Age, into the Information Age that has supplanted it.  Mr. Olafsson’s broad experience has led him to conclude that a complete rethinking of how the humanitarian response field operates is necessary. A middle path must be found, however, and Mr. Olafsson, while admitting his views aren’t the only ones out there on the subject, has done his best to point in this new direction.

Mr. Olafsson sees that the need for a rethinking is made clear by the experiences in recent history. In the South-East Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the Haiti Earthquake of 2010 there was a clear inability of the current structure of humanitarian aid to scale to the size of these crises. The traditional method of dealing with such a large scale response has been to organize into clusters based on their role, but in Haiti there were over 600 organizations under the cluster heading of “Health” alone.  Mr. Olafsson remains certain the next big crisis will be at least as large in scale as these examples, and it is up to the humanitarian aid community to be prepared for it.

This can be achieved, but requires adherence to several principles that Mr. Olafsson discusses in the context of humanitarian crisis response: innovation, collaboration, openness and integrity, and self-organization. Innovation is needed in order to deliver new technology, but just as importantly, the technology needs to be used in novel ways. As an example he cites refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, where there are upwards of half a million refugees and 63% of them have access to a mobile phone. Using a mobile phone transaction system instead of printing and distributing costly food vouchers could provide the same functionality, along with data tracking, at roughly 2% of the cost of the paper system. Here there is great and underappreciated potential, and at some point it may make sense to distribute cheap mobile phones as part of relief efforts.

In collaboration, the current methods are very hierarchical and organizations often get in the way during a crisis by fighting turf wars or otherwise delaying aid delivery. Mr. Olafsson sees person-to-person relationships as the way around this, and technology is making this increasingly more possible. In the past, assessing needs was a long and laborious task, even deciding the questions to be included in a survey might take days. More often than not, by the time the data was collected and reports distributed to the field, the needs they described had already been met through other means. Reforming through technology, however, must include reforming the structure as well. In the early days of a crisis, speed of information is critical, more so than exacting accuracy and detail. Mr. Olafsson believes that rough estimates based on preliminary data can be enough to start with. If you start by identifying the decisions that need to be made, and find out what data you need to make them, you can have a more efficient data gathering process.

In Mr. Olafsson’s view the collaboration is not something that only occurs while a crisis is unfolding. Taking advantage of the time between events is where he sees most potential for thoughtful, open dialogue and time to understand how other organizations operate, and not just within the humanitarian aid community. The private sector, especially during this less chaotic time, has much to contribute despite historically being left out.

To facilitate the previous two principles, and uphold integrity, Mr. Olafsson includes the principle of openness. He means this largely in the area of data sharing. Making operational level data available, such as project plans and spending targets, would keep organizations accountable and improve efficiencies. To be effective the data must be shared at a very high level of detail, and in forms that can be easily analyzed. Mr. Olafsson acknowledges that organizations are resistant to sharing this information, and privacy is always a concern. This is a policy rather than a technology problem.

Finally, Mr. Olafsson points to self-organization as a principle. In the initial phases of a crisis there is a large degree of chaos. Humanitarian response groups have been trying to impose a firm hierarchical model on top of this, a practice that needs to be amended.  Mr. Olafsson advocates empowering field workers by giving them the data they need to make their own decisions, ways to reach out to social networks to gain information, and to then share data with the affected communities so they can self-organize and more intelligently identify their needs.

Mr. Olafsson recognizes that many of his suggestions would be considered quite radical in the field and that it will take some time for the old ways of doing crisis response to give way to the new. It will surely rely on the ability, however, of the old and new generations to work together, as both have something to contribute.

To view a short podcast with Gisli Olafsson, click here.

For a copy of the powerpoint slides, a longer summary of this event, and archived video of Humanitarian Response in a Time of Mass Collaboration and Networked Intelligence (October 4, 2011), click here.

Contributor Eric Rouge

Eric Rouge is a Research Assistant in the Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C. Eric is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.  Prior to joining the Science and Technology Innovation program, Eric was a technology consultant to clients ranging from the Fortune 500 to community non-profits in industries including healthcare, finance, and software. He holds a BA in History and Science from Harvard University, and is interested in policy and economic methods for fostering science and innovation


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