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3d Maps for Humanitarian Aid and Urban Planning: #googleearth, #kinect, #gis, #urbanplanning

NGO's often ask me to help them interface new technologies with current operations.  Sometimes accomplishing this goal is a simple matter of providing staff with some technical training.  On other occasions it requires a modification of data collection methods, database construction, and the organizational structure.  These tasks are not necessarily complicated, but they do require some imagination on behalf of the organization to ask probing questions about what is and is not possible in their organization.  This is particularly true when it comes to processes of data collection.

Within a humanitarian crisis, advance understanding of the geography makes all the difference among first responders.  But too often the situation is different upon arrival than had been expected.  Especially when faced with a natural disaster such as an earthquake when buildings collapse and road are uprooted.  Even when decent 2d maps are available, they only portray a fraction of the information necessary to situate logistical lines of operation.  First responders relay information back to headquarters, but I suspect that with ongoing technological developments, this can take place faster and better.
Google is well-known for their data-collection cars, equipped with fancy cameras by companies such as Elphel and Sick AG, roaming city streets to compile imagery for Google Street View.  Most of the streets recorded are major cities throughout western countries, but there have also been experiments utilizing snowmobiles and tricycles to collect the same information in difficult terrains.  Understandably, these systems are cost-prohibative for an aid agency, not only in terms of actual equipment, but also for data transmission, image compositing, database construction and the staff necessary to put everything together. It would seem an organization would need to function at the scale of Google or at least in partnership, but there are already many private companies out there - such as Cyclomedia and ImmersiveMedia- who conduct such work.  If aid agencies were able to have a navigable 3d rendering of a crisis immediately upon arrival, it could change everything.

So how can we scale this to something smaller and cheaper?

In terms of digital 3d scanning, there might be options in the near future as experiments continue with the Microsoft Kinect.  Originally intended for video games, Microsoft has been surprisingly "hands-off" about letting others hack and explore the device.   Archeologists are already beginning to explore utilizing the device to scan archaeological digs for analysis.  At the moment, the utility of such a device is limited to small spaces, but hopefully in the near future, the simple mounting of such a device on top of a vehicle could permit immediate digital scans of disaster sites upon arrival.  At present the tool is clearly best suited for reconstruction efforts, but as the resolution increases in the next couple years, the tool will be better formatted for humanitarian emergencies.

Likewise, at the very minimum, increased use of passive video collection by first-responders could provide headquarters offices a tool for marketing and communications.  Cheap and easy, the simple mounting of cameras to vehicles or clothing could rapidly collect information for digital late-night upload with no difficulty. Ranging in shape and size, bodycams/handhelds/and helmet cams have come along way since popularly used by extreme sports enthusiasts in the 1990s, opening the door for widespread application.  When I once worked on a project of a the Ohio Department of Transportation, I was surprised to discover the ODT had a collection of video footage of every roadway in the state.  Why can't an aid agency collect the similar information for all areas of operation upon arrival?

At the smallest personal scale, advancements in mobile phones and phone cameras provides the means to crowd source visual data collection.  On an individual level, mobile applications such as Fulcrum permit a means to collect geocoded photographs with customizable forms for databases.  With upcoming versions of the application to include audio and video, agencies have a rapid means to collect the information necessary to increase the efficiency of their response.  As the mobile device automatically synchs with the database in the cloud, any agency or individual can quickly and seamlessly integrate realtime video footage, photographs, and survey-style data collection with their preexisting information, providing a richer information system for management and planners.

Haiti: Aid is only as good as the infrastructure

The whole world is presently focused on the recent earthquake in Haiti, as it should be.  With estimates of approximately 50,000 mortalities from the disaster, and countless numbers of people in need of assistance, the immense scale of this disaster warrants immediate relief efforts by the international community.   At this time aid agencies are find themselves faced with an array of logistical challenges however, which makes this disaster somewhat unique.

Although an array of aid organizations are on the ground, media reports present portray them as struggling to get matters underway.  In short, the aggression of the earthquake has broken down the necessary transport lines for the delivery of aid, consequently, agencies are bottlenecked.  With a single, partially operating airport in Port-au-Prince, and a defunct harbor, aid agencies are having to determine alternative supply lines, via ground transport from the Dominican republic.

However a quick glance at a map of the roads between these two countries reveals that there are only 2 major arterial roads between the two countries.  Each roadway has extends to either the far north or the far south, and assumably have been damaged within the earthquakes as well.

Islands are complicated terrains.  An island economy is generally not self sustaining and relies upon a high quantity of imports to maintain its populations.  Islands likewise have limited resources available, and therefore have few products available for export or even a balanced consumption by their own populations.  Within the Caribbean, it is not uncommon for such islands to primarily thrive on sugar cane or tourism, with additional minor products such as cigar rolling or the manufacture of alcohol for export.  Haiti of course has been severely scarred by civil war within the last 10 years, and therefor does not even have such basic assets as their island neighbors.

With such limited economic means, it is easy to recognize that the nation does not have - or possibly even require - an advanced system of physical infrastructure.  Although the mandate within aid organizations are to work with communities, the conflict and disaster terrain can only facilitate the distribution of aid to the extent that industrial infrastructure is available.

Within Haiti, aid will therefore continue to be a one way process and will need to be a 'top-down' operation by necessity.  Agencies that have strong supply chain capacity and yet flexible field protocol will be the best equipped to handle the situation.  But even then, these agencies, such as MSF are faced with daunting challenges.  Unable to access fuel for planes and trucks, agencies are forced to import their own fuel.  This is of course an expensive and tedious process, considering that the delivery of fuel within vehicle will likewise consume fuel going to and from the destination point.  The greater the distance, and the more fuel in delivery, the more fuel that is ultimately consumed.  At certain point, the cost/benefit of shipping fuel becomes a loss.

Listening to NPR, watching the news, or reading the papers, many reporters and American citizens clearly have a limited or maligned view of the international institutions working within Haiti.  Regardless of appearances, aid agencies do coordinate with one another, emergency rosters and teams do exist on standby for immediate deployment, international aid standards do exist and state governance is in place.  Agencies do not have carte blanche to property, resources, or methods as they are still subject to the interest and directives of the sovereign government.  Therefore setting up an emergency settlement of tents for 10,000 people is not a matter of immediacy and whim, considering a) the settlement may be there for years   b) land ownership and property rights laws still exist and must be honored for the location of such a settlement an  c) other large scale planning concerns must be taken into account such as access to water, transportation, sanitation.

It becomes clear that regardless of the procedure taken by the aid organization, in the end, it is the infrastructure of the country that determines the viability of its immediacy.  Regardless of political will or the imbalance of power and capital throughout the world, aid will always be better distributed where fuel, supply lines, and raw supplies are readily available.  Otherwise, agencies must construct new infrastructure at the same time, reducing the efficacy of their mandate and undermining their success.

The Price of Aid?

WFP Ration Distribution

It was announced this week that the World Food Program, WFP, has been forced to suspend programming within Somalia. The lives of 1 million people are now at risk, due to the demands of Al Shabaab placed upon WFP to pay a semi-annual $20,000 "security fee" and to dismiss female employees.

Food aid is always a challenging issue, as the provision of aid may undercut existing markets and lead to a struggling reconstruction process. However within Somalia, it is arguable that food aid is essential, as the instability within the region will likewise to continue to undermine the efforts of farmers and shop owners.

Of course one must question, will the payment of $3,300 per month to Al Shabaab lead to greater complications and tragedies than the potential deaths of 1 million people? Is each life only worth 1/3 of a single cent? Or are there bigger issues at hand? Will the provision of $40,000 per year lead to increased militancy, increased terrorism, and later increased demands? Will the present loss of 1 million lives prevent the loss of 5 million lives in the future? How can we weigh these factors?

This problem has always existed within the world of organized crime. Mafias demand a fee for protection, the store owner must pay that fee to be protected. The threat is of course the mafia. Witnessing this process occur within the international domain however is highly disturbing. It highlights the position of power held by Al Shabaab. Clearly attempts to remediate this problem can not be determined in a traditional militaristic fashion, with military tactics utilized to bring down a particular rebel group. The stabilization to this region will require global efforts, engaging Al Shabaab as a political power.

We do have institutions to deal with such issues, such as the International Criminal Courts. The question applies however to the desire of the international community to recognize Al Shabaab as a political actor, on par with a state actor.

But in doing so, we will have to change our language. While a state might sponsor terrorism, a state is not a terrorist. A political faction acknowledged as having the same credibility and responsibility of a state, may not necessarily be a terrorist. It will of course be a matter of targeting.

Is the civilian population harmed? Aid workers? Are these targets or unwanted causalities? Is Al Shabaab taking responsibility of its actions wherein civilians may be at risk? Could this demand for $20,000 actually be an attempt to assume proper responsibility in lieu of insufficient resources? If agencies began to acknowledge Al Shabaab as a credible holder of state responsibility, could greater stability be placed into the region?

Many Western governments argue that they do not negotiate with terrorists. However, at what point do we recognize a ruling party as something more than terrorists, and instead as a major power holder within a region, en route to state control? The Maoist have overtaken Nepal, the Taliban had Afghanistan, and now Al Shabaab are taking over Somalia. We might not like them, their ideas, or their actions. But when does this dialogue change?

At this time, I fully support WFP's withdrawal from Somalia, because I do not believe that supporting Al Shabaab's demands will lead to a better situation. However, I suspect that in the future, greater dialogue and cooperation will be required, although as we will never know when this time is upon us, we will miss the opportunity.

Innovation or Fad?

While presently working in Nairobi, Kenya and awaiting transit to the Dadaab Refugee Camps to oversee a new economic development project, I have been reading Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock.  Published in 1989, Hancock provides an aggressive overview of the multi-billion dollar aid agency and its inability to actually achieve the goals of aid or development.  While stating that NGO's are likely more capable in the field do their reliance upon private donations and public transparency, the text otherwise slams institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the other primary bi-lateral and multi-lateral players on the development scene.

The good news is that a great deal has changed in the 20 years since this book was published.  Although there is extensive room for improvement, the fields of economic development and humanitarianism have significantly improved.  Today there is more oversight, higher expectations, greater coordination among agencies, and standardized protocol.  Throughout the 80s and most of the 90s, aid agencies were often at odds with one another in the field, each operating independently of one another and with differing agendas, expectations, and methodology.  Now with tools such as the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster response, aid agencies can at least work alongside one another in the interest of accomplishing the same objectives.  However, there is still great variation in how agencies may pursue these objectives.  As Sphere only provides guidelines, and not methodologies, agencies must rely upon the skills and experience of their staff to attain these objectives.

It is much more difficult work in aid and development today than it was in the 80s.  At least when comparing my own experience to that of Hancock's portrayal.  Today a relevant graduate degree (at least one) is an essential pre-requisite to working within humanitarian and development work.  In addition, an aid professional today will require foreign language skills, specialized training, management and budgeting experience, specific technical skills, and several years of similar work history experience;  which is generally unpaid for for 1-3 years prior before landing a decent job.  A former World Bank development consultant once told me that an ideal strategy is to acquire two Masters degrees, as one should provide technical skills - such as engineering - and the other within social science.

The desired consequence of all this education and experience is naturally a great deal of versatility within the field.  A competent aid professional should be capable of attending to any task that might arise with an array of skills, concepts, and insight.  Of course it is only natural that differing opinions will arise among such professionals, depending on their areas of expertise and geographic experience.  While reading Lords of Poverty, the variation among these concepts have apparently remained a mainstay within the evolution of the humanitarian field.
"Since the Second World War, the aid industry has, at one time or another, appeared to believe all of the following things;

* That progress in the poor countries will only be achieved through rapid, high-tech industrialization administered by central-planning boards under the aegis of the state; after a few years the benefits will 'trickle down' to the poor;

*Ditto, except that the state control and central planning are inefficient and that private entrepreneurs must be given a free hand in the industrialization process;

*The the industrialization drive has been premature and that the progress in poor countries can in fact only be achieved by boosting agriculture - since this is the real economic base of the majority of people in the majority of developing countries;

*That agriculture is best boosted by supporting large-scale farms;

*That agriculture is best boosted by supporting small farmers;

*That wealth will not trickle down to the poor and that, therefore, development must be 'bottom-up' in design rather than vice versa;

*That the main focus of development should be on meeting the 'basic needs' of poor and vulnerable groups through the provision of primary health care, village-level education systems, food subsidies, etc;

*That it may, unfortunately, be necessary to neglect the basic needs of the poor and vulnerable groups in order to achieve 'structural adjustment' to a hostile international economic environment;

*That it is possible to have 'adjustment with a human face' that achieves austerity goals but that also builds in protections for the poorest;

*That it is impossible to have adjustment and growth at the same time;

*That it is after all possible to have adjustment and growth at the same time."

Upon reading this list, I could only laugh to realize it basically summarized everything I was taught in graduate school.  Hancock further points out that while these concepts didn't evolve within any particular chronology, they did nonetheless evolve in relation to the development of various fads.

These evolution of fads within development ideology continues today.  Within the last 5-7 years, it seems that every NGO has established a micro-loan program, based on the success of the Grameen Bank.  NGOs have likewise developed the flawed construction of targeting specific demographics within the their programs - such as micro-loans only for youth or women.   Yet by continuing to fracture the societies with development programs, they only cause more societal strife by prompting new internal inequities.  A successful program would better take on those who truly want to participate and succeed, regardless of sex, race, tribe and so on.

The challenge however is to discern the differences between fads and actual innovation.  Are concepts building on interconnectivity or micro thinking actual models for development, or are these simply fads that reflect the economic happenstance of now?  What defines a fad, aside from the longevity of the concept?  And is it wrong to ride the waves of new ideas, or is this really the best we can do, regardless of where it takes us?