Monday, November 28, 2011

Why is the Digital Divide so important, and what can you do about it?

Last week I had the honor of speaking at the Youth Action and Volunteering Development meeting on the day before the opening of the 18th biennial session of the IFRC General Assembly in Geneva.  My topic was "Why is the Digital Divide so important, and what can you do about it?"  Here is an expanded version of my brief remarks:

We are all aware of the digital divide in our world: those who have free access to information and the tools to make it useful for us, and those who do not.  In a recent study, we found that this divide exists in our Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.  We have an internal divide that makes it difficult for us "have equal status and share equal responsibilities" –from our very principle of universality that we so value.

Why is the digital divide so important?  I think there are three reasons.  First, information through the Internet is the great leveller; it allows all of us to learn and discover in the same school, so to speak.   Second, we have seen how with the access to technologies, the last can become first, and the first can become last.  This is the other side of levelling the field.   But the third is perhaps the most important: it is about the opportunity to lead.

Why work on the digital divide?  Because you have the opportunity to lead and to help others to lead, and be a part of this great conversation we call the Internet. This is perhaps the greatest volunteer work we can do in the digital age as digital citizens.

What can you do about it?  How can you help bridge the digital divide?  Rather than give you a specific assignment or recipe, I want to challenge you with five broad principles. Think of these as the three D's, an O and an M.

1)   Dream big 
2)   Do the homework 
3)   Dare to remove obstacles
 4)   Seek and stand on Others' work 
5)   Mash-up pieces in new ways

First, dare to dream big.  I have found that the successful efforts come from the many tries and the audacious attempts.  Take for example the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition story.  College students from over 200 countries compete each year.  I’ve been a software design judge for three of the past four years. I view this as part of my giveback to the community of IT workers in nonprofits (and beyond).  The Imagine Cup is about the IT workers of the future who focus on software that can have an impact on achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, the context for the competition.

These are big dreams.  This year, 400,000 students registered for the competition; 3,000 made it to the country competitions, and 400 of the best went to New York to compete in the finals for 27 awards.  These are the best of the best ideas.

In one week I saw more innovation than in years before.  Why is that?  These students have no business knowledge, no marketing experience, no money, and little time.  But they also have no sense of limitation.  And it is this last one that makes all the difference in world.  They dare to dream about what technology can do.  These are your peers.  Your dreams can be every bit as big.

Second, do the homework.  Think about how to make solutions sustainable, to cover their costs and deliver a valuable service to customers.  Mohamed Yunus talks about services for the poor that are economically sustainable, and which produce social good as their profit[1].  This means thinking through the basic business case for your idea.  Interestingly, only one team in the twenty I saw in New York at Imagine Cup this year did this homework. 

Third, dare to remove obstacles.  The story of the frogs illustrates this in an interesting way.

Story of the Frogs[2]

"Once upon a time there was a bunch of tiny frogs who decided to stage a climbing competition. The goal was to reach the top of a very high tower. A big crowd had gathered around the tower to see the race and cheer on the contestants.

The race began...

Honestly, No one in crowd really believed that the tiny frogs would reach the top of the tower. The crowd yelled statements such as:

"Oh, WAY too difficult!!!”

"'They will NEVER make it to the top.”

"Not a chance that they will succeed. The tower is too high!”

The tiny frogs began collapsing. One by one. Except for those, who in a fresh tempo, were climbing higher and higher.

The crowd continued to yell, “It is too difficult!!! No one will make it!”

More tiny frogs got tired and gave up. But ONE continued higher and higher and higher. This one wouldn’t give up!

At the end everyone else had given up climbing the tower. Except for the one tiny frog who, after a big effort, was the only one who reached the top! THEN all of the other tiny frogs naturally wanted to know how this one frog managed to do it?

A contestant asked the tiny frog how he had found the strength to succeed and reach the goal? It turned out that the winner was DEAF!"

The moral of the story?  Turn a deaf ear to the “nay-sayers,” those who say it can’t be done,   those who point to all the obstacles.   Just do it.

Fourth, seek Others' work. This is just plain old good engineering. Find those who have solved some of the problems and stand on their shoulders. Don’t fall victim to the “not invented here” syndrome. Seek out the good work and build on it. Your mantra should be “no solos.”

Our new Technology Catalogue is built on this premise. We believe there is more to gain in discovering others’ technology successes in the Movement than in building our own. We have discovered over 850 applications the process. This requires what I call “headquarters humility.” It also means being open to “good enough” solutions.

Fifth, mash-up pieces in new ways. One of the top three contestants in Imagine Cup was the team from Jordan. They took a WII receiver and duck-taped it to a PC monitor. Then they took apart a TV remote control and mounted the diode on a baseball cap. Finally, they developed a program so the WII tracked the motions of the baseball cap and caused the cursor to move on the screen. With a pause, the cursor clicked and selected an item.

No big deal, right? Except the paraplegic women who had lost the use of her arms and legs told us in a video how she had gained her life back[3]. This system allowed her to create Facebook entries and keep in touch with friends, and dial cell phone numbers in her address book to communicate with family. She had her life back. That’s the power of software.

The interesting footnote is that they didn’t create anything new. They took existing pieces off-the-shelf and put them together in a new way. The creative may be in the combinations of the existing. That’s a powerful principle in technology.

So I challenge you today to think about how you can dare to dream big, do the homework to make it sustainable, dare to remove obstacles, seek and stand on others' work and mash-up pieces in new ways. If you lead by doing this, you just may change the world!


"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

[1] Muhammad Yunus, “Social Business,” December 25, 2007,
[3] See the video of this woman’s testimony on YouTube, here:

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Dreams

Here is a paraphrase of the remarks I made at the NetHope Tenth Anniversary celebration in Dublin, Ireland.[1]

I’d like to tell two stories.

The first is about my generation.  Ten years ago, seven NGO IT leaders got together in San Jose.  Some of my colleagues around the table tonight were there at the Cisco Campus and Dipak Basu’s dining room table in September 2001.  We all faced a common problem about how to take technology out the last mile to where our organizations work in the field.  We had a shared need.  More importantly, we believed that technology could make a difference in the work our organizations were doing in the far reaches of our programs.  We could see it working. We had connected the dots in our imaginations.  And we dared to trust each other to do something about it together; because none of us was going to succeed going it alone.  This was how NetHope got started.

Our dream was that we could bring technology to where it was most needed faster, better and cheaper if we did it together.  And we believed that as a group we could be a stronger partner with the technology companies with whom we needed to work.  Both of these goals have proven to more true than we ever imagined ten years ago.  There are more than 200 professionals here tonight, and all of you are passionate about what we are doing to bring IT where it can do the most good in the world.  But this would not have come to be if we did not dare to dream around that modest table in San Jose.

The second story is about a new generation, the college students who each year compete in the Imagine Cup Competition.  I’ve been a software design judge for three of the past four years. I view this as part of my giveback to the community of IT workers in nonprofits (and beyond).  The Imagine Cup is about the IT workers of the future who focus on software that can have an impact on the Millennium Development Goals, the context for the competition. 

These are big dreams.  This year, 400,000 students registered for the competition; 3,000 made it to the country competitions, and 400 of the best went to New York to compete in the finals for 27 awards.  These are the best of the best ideas.

In one week I will see more innovation than in years before.  Why is that?  These students have no business knowledge, no marketing experience, no money, and little time.  But they also have no sense of limitation.  And it is this last one that makes all the difference in world.  They dare to dream about what technology can do.

During the NetHope Summit this week, we took a tour of the Intel fabrication plant in Kildare.  It was truly an awesome experience—a geek’s heaven, if you will.  During the tour, our guide mentioned that at Intel they talk about the big numbers, and the small numbers.  The enormous and incredibly expensive tools that create the inexpensive, tiniest circuits we know.  I think this speaks to what we know: that big dreams with small groups can change the world.

So I have a great hope here tonight: that if we dare to dream big, like we did as a small group ten years ago, as a much larger, stronger community today, we will create the greatest use of technology for good in the next ten years.  Thank you.

[1] The slide deck for my "NetHope Chairman's Report," NetHope Summit and Tenth Anniversary at Intel's Campus, Kildare, Ireland, November 10, 2011, is on my web page, here.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Thursday, October 6, 2011


At breakfast today we learned that Steve Jobs had died.  The icon of business who built technology “for the rest of us” had passed.  Our group of colleagues and Fellows at the Bellagio Center offered their thoughts about how his work had changed us: “persistent innovation,” a “knack for the user,” a “brilliant designer,” a “great comeback,” “only 56.”
I remember reading his address to the graduating class at Stanford in 2005[1].  His most quoted phrase, from the back of the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog was “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”  Yet it was his third story about confronting death that was most poignant and personal.  Having faced and beaten pancreatic cancer in 2004, he said “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
Yesterday was my turn to give a presentation on what I was working on at Bellagio.  During the question and answers that followed, something happened that I’ve learned to look for: out of the give-and-take came a way to reformulate something, to say it in a new way.  What I said was that it’s somewhat ironic that there’s value in scarcity.  It may be a reversal of what you’d expect.  It may drive people to work together because they just don’t have the resources to go it alone.
I think Jobs was saying something similar, but perhaps in a more ultimate way: that life is the great scarce resource.  And that is a positive; it makes the status quo smaller, and opens up the possibility that change can happen before it’s too late.   Perhaps staying hungry may just be the way to dial up the creative juices and fulfill something.  Thanks Steve.

[1] Full text is on the Stanford web site, here:

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What am I learning today?

I wrote to a friend today about life being about continuously learning. It's not always easy but it's never without its revelations.  I believe in being a perpetual student and am ever amazed about the riches in approaching even something familiar with beginners mind.  I was reminded of this watching a video by three world travelers from Australia.

LEARN from Rick Mereki on Vimeo.

Tom Peters tells the story about the father of his college girlfriend, excusing himself from the table to study.  "I have homework to do," the accomplished surgeon said.  Thinking he would soon graduate from the nights of homework, Tom was taken aback about the prospect of a lifetime of study.

We have an eLearning platform at the Red Cross and Red Crescent that is growing at a pace of over 2,000 registrants a quarter in more than 150 countries.  And this is happening without any advertising. The hunger to learn is universal.  And that is a hunger with which we all can live.   

My adopted aunt is in her 80's and is always learning something new, whether a master gardening course or something new on the computer.  She recently learned how to use Picasa to share photos.  "You are my hero," I tell her. You are always open to learning and approach everything with a sense of wonder.  I want to make all of my days like that.

Imagine beginning each of our days with a simple question, one of openness and possibility.  It is a question that begins all other questions: What am I learning today?

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Finding the Bottom Line

On the last night of the Imagine Cup[1] presentations, the judges gathered after each round to discuss what we saw, what was memorable, and what was missing.  We all took notes during the student talks and demos, and we asked as many questions as we could.  We wanted to be sure we understood the project details, why it would be successful, and what impact it would have. It was hard work, and very rewarding work.

Imagine Cup Winners, Lincoln Center, NY

An Idea in a Sentence

Between one of the early rounds, one of my fellow judges suggested asking the students if they could describe their core idea in one sentence.   We agreed.  During the Q&A for the next team, he posed the question, and got a long run-on sentence in reply.  It was not memorable.  Why is it so hard for the twitter generation to sum it up in a few words?

The Tag Line Game

During my consulting days, we developed and exercise to write a mission statement on a bumper sticker (the manual version of about half a tweet).  During the exercise, we called out memorable tag lines for products and asked the team to reply with the company name.  Here’s an updated version of the quiz for US readers to try; can you name the company?[2]

1) Think outside the bun.
2) Can you hear me now?
3) I'm lovin it!
4) Think.
5) Think Different!
6) Like a good neighbor...
7) 15 minutes can save you 15 percent ...
8) You’re in good hands with...

The interesting thing about this game is how quickly the group can name the company, and how fast the list grows with other memorable tag lines.  Can you say the same for your organization’s mission statement?

The Elevator Pitch

I recently learned of the Elevator Pitch Competition that a number of universities run.  If you search YouTube for that title, you’ll find a dozen entries.  The one that caught my eye was the 2010 Utah State winner, Josh Light.   In less than two minutes, he presents a clear and compelling business case, with the why, to whom, the how, and for how much. Brilliant!

What do you do…in seven words

A new LinkedIn group caught my eye the other day.  It asks members “What you do in exactly seven words.”   The answers are interesting:

“Helping senior executives to achieve more” (6 words),
“Develop strategy, realize benefits from outsourcing/off-shoring”
And the tongue-in-cheek stab at reductionism:
“Avoid summing myself up in seven words”

My friend and colleague James Mapes has an exercise where he asks his audience to list 15-20 qualities about themselves, and then cross off 5, then 5 more, until you are left with the one you value most.  This is less about reductionism than it is about gaining the focus of what is most important among the good.

The Umbrella Word

A few years before, another friend asked me “what’s your word?”
“My word?”
“Yes, your word.”
She said, if you had to choose a word under which you could talk about who you are, what you do and are passionate about, what would that word be?

I’ve told this story to a few colleagues and it was clear that the question is a provoking one.  Martha ran from the table saying “I need to go to the ladies room to think about it!”  When she came back, she sat down calmly and said “words.”  What I do is about “words,” finding out what people’s stories are.  She is owns an executive recruiting firm.

I wrote about this umbrella word exercise under a pen-name in 2007.  For me the word is connections, which you can read about in the article comments.

Strategy on a Page

IFRC is a writing culture.  In addition to the leading work we do on the ground and mobilizing communities of volunteers around the world, we produce thoughtful papers on ideas, research, case studies and strategy.  When I joined the organization, I sat down with my boss and outlined a series of “IT Think” papers to start the dialog about technology strategy. From that came a 30-page vision paper, and a 30 page strategic plan.  But when it came to engaging the senior management team, what caught on was a one-page summary of Q&A’s about the strategy.  It became my strategic flyer.

Tweet the Suggestion

Returning to the Imagine Cup, judges are asked to give the students written comments as part of the scoring.  This is an opportunity to tell the students how you think their presentation could improve. This form of coaching is one of the most important things we do. Student teams have come up to me later in the competition and asked "what did we do wrong?" "What was it the held us back from the next round?"  Some judges write paragraphs while others write a few lines.  In the early rounds, the judging captain needs to extract a few lines to pass on to the teams moving on to the next round.  It's a tough editing task in the early going.  18 teams move on to round two, and each have seen 4 judges. Do the math.

Software Design Judges, Imagine Cup 2011

Taking a cue from the web generation, our captain asked us to tweet him our best suggestion for each team. That helped. And it shows an important point that is memorable for students and judges alike: what's the most important thing you want your audience to remember? To act on? When you do this well, you both win.

[1] My 2011 Imagine Cup Blog entries start here: http://eghapp.blogspot
[2] The answers are,
1)       Think outside the bun.... Taco Bell
2)       Can you hear me now?.... Verizon
3)       I'm lovin it!.... McDonald's
4)       Think..... IBM
5)       Think Different!.... Apple
6)       Like a good neighbor.... State Farm
7)       15 minutes can save you 15 percent.... GEICO
8)       You’re in good hands with... Allstate

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Imagine Cup - Day Four

One of the things we are asked to do as judges is to pass on to the student teams some tips on how to improve their presentations.  The number one item I noted in most of the reports was the need to provide the basics of a business model.  Solving a problem with a cool application is not enough.

Here are three basic questions to answer:

1) How much does it cost to deliver your application?  What are the upfront and one-time costs, and what are the recurring costs?
2) What is the size of your potential market?  Is it a million individuals or four country governments?
3) What are your sources of revenue?  Keep in mind that in the nonprofit sector, the users are often not the ones who are the payers.

If you can't answer these questions about your project, it will never move from the cool to the viable.  In the for-profit world, profits may rule; but in the nonprofit world, we look for community and economic sustainability.

Group Photo on Ellis Island

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Imagine Cup - Day Three

Foursquare CEO and entrepreneur, Dennis Crowley, told the students a few days ago that their great idea may not be at the right time yet.  Ask any comedian and they will tell you that timing is everything.  And I believe a comedian once said that all things come to he who waits... provided he works like crazy in the meantime.

One of the teams I judged today was back for the second year.  They had a new idea,they learned from their experience, and they were wiser. They made the final round this time.  We asked another team when they began their project--last September.  The teams that made it to New York had worked long and hard, even while "waiting" for a second chance.

We narrowed the field in the software design category from 18 teams to 6 today--just 10% of the teams who made the finals in Imagine Cup this year.  For those who like doing the math, we started with 350,000 applicants.[1]

As one of about 40 judges in software design, I saw only a hand-full of the teams that made it to the final round.  But I saw far more good ideas.  So to the teams that did not make the final cut, take a page from Steve Ballmer's keynote: be tenacious, ideas matter!

[1] I've written about this competition as an incredible funnel of innovation and ideas.  And I've seen first hand that there's also an opportunity for the teams to learn from each other.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Imagine Cup - Day Two


Bill Cosby tells an amusing story about dropping a favorite hat in a public bathroom, into the porcelain receptacle. He fished it out with his comb, washed it a half dozen times and hand-dried it until it was wearable again.  He went to such great lengths because he had a lot of "time-in" on the hat, he had worn it through thick-and-thin.  He didn't have much time-in on the comb, so he tossed that away.  

Watching the students present their projects, I was taken by how much energy and preparation they made to create their applications and their presentations.  It was evident how many had put the "time-in" to develop their idea into something that works, solves a problems and has an interesting story.

Malcolm Gladwell described the "rule of 10,000" in his study of successful "outliers," those who had achieved huge success.  The legends of technology, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Scott McNeeley and others, had put in 10,000 or more hours of work, learning and experimenting, before they started their companies.  They had a lot of "time-in" on their ideas.

One of the teams I saw had an interesting variation on the "walkathon," tracking how far users walked and how much CO-2 they saved, via a phone app.  When they reached a threshold, a sponsor would donate funds to the charity of their choice.  Fund a cause and save the planet--a nice mash-up.

Thinking about this pedometer-on-a-phone, I recalled a colleague who set a target on his pocket pedometer to walk 10,000 steps a day.  After years of walking, he is still fit and trim in his 60's.  The thing about walking is that it's easy to get started, it takes a step at a time, and the goal is achievable if you put the time in.  That sound like a reasonable approach for incubating an idea into a something that changes the world.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Imagine Cup - Keynotes

Last night was the opening ceremony for the Imagine Cup competition. It was a night of memorable speeches, flags waving and arm-pumping cheers--a good foretaste of the main event next Wednesday night.  

We heard keynotes and welcomes from Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO), Jon Perera (Microsoft General Manager of Academic Programs), Aurther Vanderveen (CEO, Office of Innovation, New York City Department of Education),  Jeffrey D. Sachs (Professor at Columbia University), and Dennis Crowley (Foursquare Co-Founder and CEO).

Here are some paraphrases of their remarks.  Can guess which one goes with which speaker?

  • Never have the problems been larger; never has the power of technology in our hands been greater.
  • The three most important things I learned are: ideas matter, find your passion, and be tenacious
  • There is this incredible joy of problem solving
  • Your homework assignment is nothing less than saving the planet
  • Going from success to failure to success to failure teaches you one thing: never give up
  • Your great idea may not be at the right time yet
Drop me a note if you get stuck on this quiz. (The transcripts are here.)  I'm off to hear the first round of student presentations next.  I'm excited and expecting great ideas!

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Imagine Cup - Day One

Arriving in Time Square in New York City, one cannot help but have a sense of awe.  Those new to the city stare up as if goldfish eyeing a rain of light on the pond above.  Traveling the maze of escalators and elevators in the Marriott Marquis, I see the groups of students walking in t-shirt groups of their country's colors. I say hello to the team from Brazil, take a photo of the quartet from Serbia, admire the indigo of New Zealand.

There is something else in each of their eyes, even beyond the jet-lag and wonder; it is a look of expectation, the expectation that something great is going to happen and they will be a part of it.  I am here to catch that as surely as a yawn travels through a gaggle of late night revelers.  Something great is going to happen!

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tech Talent 4 Good

I recently attended the launch of the Microsoft and AIESEC Tech Talent 4 Good student intern programme at the Microsoft Executive Briefing center in Brussels. I had proposed a similar programme to Microsoft a year ago, and so was asked to speak to the initial class of students and participate in a "Day in the Life of an NGO" panel. Here is a brief outline of my remarks:

What are the qualities needed for working in an NGO?
  1. Passion - you have to believe in the mission
  2. Triage - not all the good can be done
  3. Patience - on decisions; consensus is messy and takes time
  4. Forgiveness - rather than permission
  5. Openness - immerse yourselves in the conversations
Others mentioned listening skills, relationship skills and sense of humor

What were my career choices that brought me to the nonprofit word?
  1. I'm on my 3rd of 5 careers (See Charles Handy on careers in the post-modern era)
  2. Why? A shift from success to significance
What is strategic IT for nonprofits?
  1. The Relevant IT Manifesto; technology more for:
            a) delivering program scale than support
            b) as the glue for communities
            c) working together more than solo
            d) the field than for HQ
  1. The IT Strategy Pyramid: Get out (of lights-on tech), get in (to beneficiary tech), move up (to more mission-moving tech.)
Where has there been progress?

  1. Wiring the Village – we have taken the connections out the countries where we work, now to the branches and project areas
  2. Collaboration – we are working together on projects, and trusting centers of tech leadership
  3. Emergency Response – we have taken ICT from rapid connecting of relief workers, to shared networks and connecting survivors

What is possible and exciting about the future?

  1. Everyone is less than 2 degrees from being connected – world population of 6.9B, 5B cell phones with 20-30% as two phone users, means 4.4B mobile users
  2. The mobile users in emerging and emergency relief countries are the new connectors – In Haiti 10% reach 100%
  3. Consumer tech as more relevant than corporate tech for the vulnerable, and the organizations who work with them

My Advice for students?

  1. Go to the far country, a hotbed of innovation – the IFRC App Inventory case: discovering 53 volunteer management applications in our national societies, not in HQ
  2. Your experience is not the world’s experience – Why? Imagine Cup case: No sense of limitation
  3. No rules, no limits: get it done – the case of Shawn Ahmed: free agent philanthropy

What are the relevant stories?

  1. Naomi Fils-Aime in Haiti – “Life is very difficult: [cholera and hurricane] messages help me protect my family” – the IFRC SMS program
  2. The starfish story revisited – think big, start small, but get started!

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

A Relevant IT Manifesto

Here is a draft document that I hope invites some debate and discussion.  It is clear to me that if we connect the dots, nonprofit IT cannot follow in the footsteps of corporate IT without crippling our organizations over the longer term.  The experience at NetHope, an organization I helped found ten years ago, is that there is a better way: based on trust, sharing and collaboration.

Toward Relevant IT – A Manifesto[1]

We are uncovering better ways of applying technology to solve problems of emergency relief, development and conservation by working together at home and in the field. Through this work we have come to value:

·         Working as one group more than as individual solo organizations;
·         Technology as a means of moving missions[2] and delivering program scale more than delivering support services;
·         Technology as core to connecting our communities, field workers and beneficiaries to the rest of the world more than simply an optional peripheral service;
·         Developing for those who deliver programs in the Field more than those who work in headquarters;
·         People and interactions more than processes and tools;
·         Piloting and testing locally more than adopting what works for headquarters.

While there is value in all of the items on the above continua, we value those on the left hand side more.  We believe these emphases allow us to have the greatest impact on our members’ missions and, in turn, on individuals, wildlife and the environment where our members operate.

* * * * *

Guiding Principles behind the Relevant IT Manifesto

We follow these principles:

1)    Mission-Moving Projects.  We believe that technology matters. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have impact on the work we do as international Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).  Our effectiveness as NGOs depends on our ability to effectively use technology both to build capacity and provide new venues for the work that we do.  Most importantly, we believe ICT can move missions, which is the most strategic application of ICT to which we can aspire.
2)    Good Enough Applications.  Small is beautiful, faster to change, and fit for purpose.  In developing our systems, we seek to increase our technology agility and not get trapped by ubiquitous systems that increasingly NGO’s cannot afford to implement or upgrade.
3)    Shared Services.  Sharing resources stretches and enhances what we do as individual organizations.    And what we do individually can be shared for the good of all.   We support what a small group of members can do as well as what we do for the larger group.  Each is an opportunity to learn and benefit our individual missions, while sharing the risk.
4)    Lights-Out Infrastructure.  To get into mission moving applications, we need to get out of basic IT operations. We need to shift the IT agenda from "lights-on" technology to “impact” technology.  This means trusting others who are in the business of providing infrastructure to be our data centers.
5)    Increased Experiments.  Rapidly changing environments and economies demand innovation, new ways of doing things, and more experimentation.  In times of stress, organisms vary like mad, with pilots, prototypes, and trials.  We believe in partnering more, to “pilot” together and share the risks as well as the rewards of innovation.
6)    We believe we learn by collaborating.  While technology can facilitate collaboration, we believe in face-to-face conversation for building relationships. Insights come through the dialog.  It also comes by doing projects together.  To accomplish this we partner with leaders from governments, donors, business and education. By dialoging and debating with the best minds from inside and outside our organizations, and challenging each other with ICT and other innovations, we can develop new ways of working that benefit those most in need.
7)    We are mindful of our audience.  Using the IT Strategy Pyramid, we are aware of four orders of technology: Beneficiary, Program, Operational, and Infrastructure applications.  The IT strategy is different at each level, and each has an audience with differing though related needs. They need to be a part of our IT team at each step of our work.
8)    We believe in building for the Field.  The field workers delivering our organizations’ programs are our primary clients.  Our IT solutions must work in the most remote and challenging parts of the world.  In this, field workers are our most important teachers and critics.  We seek to deliver technology that improves program design, delivery and impact in the Field.  Demonstrating measurable impact is the building block for what we do.
9)    We have a strong bias for action.  This is especially so for emergency response work, where speed is paramount.  It is also true for the pilots we run and prototypes solutions we build; we learn from the doing.  We believe that the secret to success is often “getting started.”  Lessons learned help us become better prepared. We are therefore impatient to see early results and indications of what will work and what needs to be improved.  And getting to what works is a primary measure of our progress.[3]
10) We value Trust above all else.  Trust comes through open dialog and working together over time.  This means trust in working with each other as members and NGOs and with our corporate partners, funders and vendors.   It also means we value each other’s expertise and have the humility to seek and accept approaches and solutions outside our individual organizations.   We trust the small group as well as the larger group to get their work done.

[1]For a comparison document, from which lessons have been drawn, seen the Agile Manifesto, here: .  A sample Agile principle worth pondering: “Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.”
[2] Each NGO has an impact-based mission statement, such as IFRC’s “to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity” and Oxfam’s “to fighting poverty and related injustice around the world.  IT leaders at NGOs must constantly ask how technology is helping to achieve this mission.
[3] Nonprofits refer to this as program pilots that are repeatable and scalable (for greater reach and across multiple countries.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


A colleague asked me recently about what I thought about crowdsourcing, was I for it or against it? Here are some thoughts on the question that developed from the dialog.

As I noted in my presentation at the recent DIHAD conference (see my last Blog entry), technology is a neutral tool; the intent and its use defines its ultimate good. Some points to consider about crowdsourcing:

Some Cons:
1) Paying for crowd-work is a modern form of piece-work, something unions mobilized against a century ago
2) In its global reach and nature, it can be a race to the bottom on wages
3) The crowd can be used for ill intent. See Jonathan Zittrain's work; he talks about a number of the risks of crowdsourcing (See for example, a recent International  Herald Tribune article)

Some Pros:
1) As a volunteer program, putting questions to the crowd can be a rich, inclusive activity
2) Ideagoras can be a source of innovation by casting a wide net for solutions (see
3) A "discover and harvest" approach to Field IT is a positive form of crowdsourcing
4) Crowdsourcing can provide a means for "sunshine info," where everyone is a detector; and political, economic, and policing transparency is more likely.

I favor the volunteer, idea harvesting, sunshine side of crowdsourcing. I find the pay-for-micro-work side of crowdsourcing demeaning. And I worry about crowdsourcing in the hands of oppressive governments.

Also see for an interesting application of crowdsourcing.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Social Media

I was at the DIHAD 2011 conference in Dubai this week. The theme of the conference was "New Technologies:  How these impact humanitarian and development operations."[1]  Here is an expanded version of talk I gave as part of a panel.  A copy of the slide deck is on my web site at

Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Social Media

I have three take-aways for this paper, which I’d like to state up-front, so you know my intentions from the outset. 

1)      Technology capacity building for the vulnerable needs to be clear about audience and intention (and beware of unintended consequences)
2)      The most important participants on the team are the beneficiaries, and the most relevant technologies are the ones that beneficiaries adopt
3)      The prophets and the priests of technology can learn from each other (assuming both distance and proximity)

I propose these three points as my theses for which I invite your debate.

A 2x2 Lens

When I was in graduate school, I heard a lecture by a visiting professor on “Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Civil Religion.”  He proposed a matrix with dimensions of style (priestly or prophetic ) versus transcendence (national-self or deity)[2].   He went on to suggest that a colleague was in the self-transcendent, prophetic cell, and the debate was off and running.  The dialog between the prophetic and the priestly voices was not lost on me.

This was my first introduction to the 2-by-2 matrix lens for looking at complex issues, something our consulting colleagues remind us in each presentation; that no business school student can graduate without mastering.  So being a student of business and humanitarian organizations, I propose applying this approach to the currently lively area of social media and humanitarian work.

To make sense of the landscape I propose a simple paradigm of intention versus audience with examples from recent events.

Figure 1 – Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Social Media

It is useful to ask who are the audience, who are the speakers, and what are their intentions?
In our desire to embrace technology we often forget that a tool is an extension of purpose; and that the same tool can be used to harm as to cultivate.  Related to this is the reminder that the enthusiasm of individuals doesn’t always connect with the work of organizations, and the reverse is also true, especially when it involves a change in technology mindset.  The guardians or “priests” of technology are often at odds with the “prophets.”

Good Intentions and Individuals

Let’s look at these one at a time.  The on-line community that has formed around tools like Ushahidi ( has made it possible for the technology-skilled to help when a disaster occurs.  The availability of cheap, easy to access tools makes possible a new category of volunteering.  Whether in Haiti, where survivor information was aggregated and mapped, or Japan where responder and journalist information were the primary sources, it is the processing of data by volunteers that provides a new view of the post-disaster situations.  And this information is being produced and interpreted faster than ever before.  In Japan, by day 5, OpenStreetMap community had mapped nearly 3,000 data points[3].  These are good intentions by a crowd of individuals. 

The Uncultured Project (, founded and led by Shawn Ahmed, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, was inspired by a speech made by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs (author of “The End of Poverty”).   His project shows the power of one individual when connected to the social media. Shawn is one of the top five viewed video-bloggers on YouTube talking about global poverty, with over 2.2M views.[4]   He has appealed to his generation of YouTubers to help rebuild a school in Bangladesh whose roof was blown off by Cyclone Sidr[5].  Shawn tries to engage his audience on awareness of global poverty, and gives the poor a voice through social media.

Good Intentions and Organizations

Shifting the focus to organizations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent (RCRC) SMS project in Haiti is an interesting case.  RCRC partnered with Trilogy Partners who own Voila, one of the largest cell phone providers in Haiti, to develop an innovative application that allows sending targeted SMS messages to beneficiaries in Port au Prince.  The application uses a Google Maps mash-up to allow “drawing a circle” around an RCRC center and selected cell phone towers, and sending information relevant for that center and location.  Some of the statistics are impressive:

  • 6 million SMS sent during 7 days disaster preparedness campaign
  • 385,000 messages received per day in PaP & Artibonite
  • 1.1 million "early warning" SMS ahead of hurricane Tomas storm surges
  • 2.1 million Cholera health SMS sent
  • 800,000 calls in September to a toll-free *733 IVR info-base 

Two points to highlight about this data: first, it is using actionable information: to come to a vaccination center, avoid a storm surge or call for information about what to do about cholera. Second, it places the beneficiary in the center of the communication with a connection means that they had already adopted: the inexpensive cell phone.

The future potential of this application is to look to beneficiaries to be a part of the assessment team on the front-end, and invite beneficiaries to rate and comment on the services we provide on the back-end.  Imagine a client-centered approach to disaster management with the beneficiary at the center.

Bad Intentions and Individuals

Turning to the darker side, we can see examples of social media being used for ill-will rather than good-will.  The students who embraced Facebook and other social networking sites are not immune.  The defunct student trashing site JuicyCampus is the notable case in point[6].  However, even Facebook users have not been spared.

The Sports Illustrated story on C.J. Johnson, the American high school football star, provides some interesting reading[7].  It appears some over-zealous fans attempted influence his college choice by posing as another school and trashing his mother.  His farewell post to Facebook is a reminder that the good intentions on a social network paragon can be quickly soured:

"This is my last Facebook post and I'm gonna leave facebook with this. Linda Johnson [his mom]  has never worked as a house worker making 100,000 dollars a year and I will not be a Mississippi state bulldog and I'm not considering Mississippi state anymore bc you have constantly comment on my page send me crazy inboxes and has made my recruiting experience a living nightmare. Goodbye facebook.[8]"

Bad intentions and Organizations

When we turn to organizations, intentions gone bad can become even more sinister.  Take for example the Texas Border Patrol site that invites citizens to watch web-cams and report suspicious activity[9].  That may seem like an amusing example of neighbors spying on neighbors.  However, Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard University law professor, suggests that governments could use the same crowd-sourcing principles to identify protestors[10].

These examples are a reminder that technology is a useful tool, but the intentions of the users gives it its quality.  In this sense, there is no such thing as “good” technology, no matter how popular.

The Problem of Unintended Consequences

Perhaps a footnote in this paradigm is the adage that even the best intentions can go astray.  When a disaster occurs, people of compassion want to know what they can do to help.  Some give money, some time and others lend their talents.  The technology community is no exception.  With the proliferation of free tools and a virtual community, it is possible for IT savvy people to help without leaving their desks.

As one would expect, a key message of the DIHAD 2011 conference is that we all believe in the potential of technology applied to disaster response.  Yet there has been an explosion of technology and data over the past few years, from on-line volunteers to beneficiaries on mobile phones.  Now we are hearing the message that we are drowning in data and need help sorting it out.  It is as if the cry from those on the front lines is “don’t give us something we can’t use!” It has led some to question whether the information that is being so readily provided on crowd-sourced maps, burgeoning text messages, and ubiquitous email is actionable: can we discern the most important information and act on it?[11]  In the world of growing information, we need to be able to separate the interesting from the useful.  This may be a noble assignment for our crowd-sourcing colleagues to undertake.

The Need to Bridge the Prophet-Priest Divide

To return to the source of my title, it may be worth asking: in the world of technology, who are the priests and who are the prophets?  History provides memorable examples of how the guardians of technology are often the last to see and adopt the change.  The IBM PC in the early 1980’s is an excellent case in point.  It was banned, resisted and then accepted as only a “dumb” terminal by CIOs who were quick to point out its meager power and lack of security.  The cell phone is another example, failing to meet AT&T’s minimum quality for voice even after it had supplanted the landline phone as the dominant consumer communication technology.   It just may be that if you ride horses all day, you tend to look at traveling as a bridle path.

In an interview in CIO Magazine, Clay Christensen points out the challenge:

“Cloud computing—any computing over the Internet—just isn't as good as enterprise computing. It's not as secure, not as fast, not as reliable as your internal network.  But like all disruptions, it's getting bigger and better.  As it does, it pulls applications, one by one, out of the corporate network into its world.”[12] 

If the priests of technology are the CIOs, then this warning of disruptive innovations at our doorsteps is something the priests don’t want to hear.

The resistance is not limited to the domain of CIOs.  In a wonderful summary of critiques, Anand Giridharadas writes of questioning that I doubt the prophets of new technology will want to hear:

“James Gleick is asking whether information has become the new crack. Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell are asking whether it really is the case… that more Internet always means more freedom and openness. Nicholas Carr is asking whether we are losing our powers of reading and writing. Scientists around the world are asking what this new oxygen of constant connectedness does to our brains.”[13]

All of this applies to disaster relief and preparedness.  We in the humanitarian community are ripe for disruption.  I asked Clay Christensen during a roundtable a few years ago whether he knew of a case where an established company was able to embrace disruptive innovation within the organization.  He thought for a minute and said “no.”[14]  It may be that the best we can do is support and amplify the efforts outside our walls that are succeeding, and we would do well to send our new world technology pilots to the far country.

Can the prophets of technology hear such critiques as the CIOs must pay attention to the disruptions in our midst?  If ever there was an invitation to more dialog, this is it.

Questions to Consider

So I invite you, the technology leaders in humanitarian organizations and the technology volunteers knocking at our doors to sit down at the same table with a healthy dose of beginners’ mind.  

To start the discussion, here are eight questions about information technology in disasters posed by Paul Conneally, an IFRC colleague:[15]

  1. Relevance: Is it actionable?
  2. Verification and authentication: Is it true? Is it a hoax?
  3. Duplication: Has this already been dealt with?
  4. Access: Do the most vulnerable have the tools?
  5. Privacy: Is confidentiality respected? What are the security risks?
  6. Expectations: Are we creating unrealistic expectations?
  7. Impact:  Can we convert data into aid delivery?
  8. Proximity: Do we understand the new proximity dynamics?

Even if we work out the answers to all our satisfaction, the success criteria will remain: what gets adopted in the field, by those on the front-lines in disaster relief, and by the first responders who they serve: the beneficiaries.  We can have the best intentions in the world, but if it does not have impact in the most vulnerable places in the world, it will go for naught.

I leave you with two stories.  This one is from a journalist in a refugee shelter in Northern Japan following the earthquake and tsunami that reminds us that we need to work together:

A barber “was giving free haircuts on Thursday with scissors and a razor borrowed from a friend in a nearby town. “We have to support each other,’ he said, ‘and this is what I know how to do.”[16]

The second is a photo I took in one of the poorest communities in Manila. A young girl wandered in from the street while I was taking photos in a day care center and wanted to be a part of the action. 

It was not until I returned to the US and enlarged the photo that I noticed that she was holding a dozen bottle-caps in her left hand.  These were her toys for the day.  This was a poignant lesson for me on three counts:

  1. Simple, basic toys are good enough
  2. She brought her toys with her to the center
  3. She had already adopted these toys as hers

Now change the word “toys” to “technologies”.  Connections with people, where they are, with what they use, is the most important thing. We would do well to remember this when designing technology for disaster response and preparedness.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

[1] See , last accessed 2 April 2011.  I also gave an abbreviated version of this presentation at the Geneva Forum for Social Change, 2 April 2011,
[2] James A. Mathisen, "Twenty Years After Bellah: Whatever Happened to American Civil Religion?" Sociological Analysis, 1989, 50:2 129-146, Wheaton College, Illinois (citation on p. 133),
“Members of the Japanese OpenStreetMap community launched an Ushahidi platform for Japan just hours after the devastating earthquake struck the country. Less than 24 hours later, Japanese students at The Fletcher School in Boston (where the Ushahidi-Haiti project was run last year) mobilized to support the Tokyo-based crisis mapping project. Today, almost 3,000 individual reports have been mapped on the platform.”  --Patrick Meier, 16 Mar 11
[5] See Shawn’s video on the Bangladesh projects, here:
[9] See  Also see the article "Innovation: The sinister powers of crowdsourcing”, New Scientist,  22 December 2009 by MacGregor Campbell,
[10] Also see coments about Zittrain’s warning in “Reality Crashes the Technocrats' Party,” By Anand Giridharadas, International Herald Tribune, March 26, 2011; 
[11] See Paul Currion’s thought-provoking article “If all You Have is a Hammer - How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing?”, Oct 20, 2010,
[12] “What CIOs Get Wrong About Emerging Technology”, interview with Clay Christensen, By Kim S. Nash, CIO magazine, December 15, 2009,
[13] “Reality Crashes the Technocrats' Party,” by Anand Giridharadas, International Herald Tribune , March 26-27, 2011,
[14] ILO Institute Conference, Boston MA, April 25, 2008
[15] Paul Conneally, “Digital Disasters: How new technologies are transforming humanitarian aid for the better”,  a presentation at the LIFT 11 conference in Geneva, 03 Feb 2011,
[16] “Quiet bravery, and hot tubs , for refugees”, by Michael Wines, International Herald Tribune , March 26-27, 2011,