Presenting the Open Aid Movement at Open Source Bridge

“Open source” is a method for putting intellectual property in the public domain, allowing anyone to use it however they see fit. I’m an advocate of the “open source way” because I believe that if more people shared intellectual property of all types – whether its farming techniques, software code, music, etc – then we’ll eventually be able to meet the basic needs of everyone in the world, allowing all people to pursue their own happiness without fear of material scarcity.

This type of thinking can lead to some pretty impractical theorizing, so my route in actualizing this belief is to help build the open source movement by demonstrating how open source can improve the world. As president of the Sahana Software Foundation, a world leader in open source information systems for disaster and humanitarian aid management, it’s gratifying to work with talented people who feel similarly about open source and its role in the world as I do.

In my work with Sahana, I’ve discovered that there is a lot of curiosity among disaster management professionals about how open source thinking is impacting their field. I’ve given presentations about this topic at nearly a dozen disaster management conferences including those organized by IAEM, NVOAD, OASIS, IEEE SIGHT, NYCEM, ARC, STAR-TIDES, and other acronym-ed groups.

The basic thesis of my talk is that an “open aid movement” is emerging because of two factors:  (1) The maturity of free and open source software tools; and (2) The proliferation of open data practices among NGOs and government agencies. Together, these expand the public’s capacity to respond to disasters and enable them to form peer-to-peer disaster relief groups that can become assets during disaster relief efforts.  

These groups come in two formats: (a) “grassroots disaster relief networks” organized by local people affected by disasters and (b) “volunteer technical communities” consisting of volunteers who organize information online from anywhere on the globe to serve those affected by disasters.

This June, I had the pleasure of talking with an audience who has an affinity for open source, as opposed to a sole interest in disaster and humanitarian aid. This presentation took place at the Open Source Bridge conference, which is held annually in Portland, Oregon and “focused on building open source community and citizenship.” The presentation was modified to be more relevant to this unique audience. You can see it below.

Despite the conference’s general nature, most of my time was spent in conversations with people involved in other open source humanitarian projects such as Open Data Kit, Digital Impact Alliance and LibreHealth. These conversations focus on two critical topics: (a) how we understand, articulate and build awareness of open source as a coherent movement within the disaster/humanitarian sector, and (b) how open source projects within the disaster/humanitarian sector can achieve sustainability and scale without building centralized bureaucracies that ultimately undermine the peer-to-peer structure that makes open source projects so dynamic and successful.

The takeaway?  We have A LOT of work to do on both fronts to address the challenges ahead.

The first challenge is that there is very little collaboration taking place between the people and projects advancing open source in the humanitarian sector, despite the fact that open source developers and advocates within the sector recognize that they’re doing complementary work, encountering similar challenges and overcoming them in similar ways. This is something many people have identified as an issue, and something folks from DIAL’s very new Open Source Center are likely able to affect. DIAL’s OSC plans to “convene a vibrant, inclusive, free & open source software community that promotes knowledge sharing, collaboration, and co-investment in technology & human capacity to support positive social change in communities around the world.” Really exciting and certainly needed!

The second challenge is to define the “open aid movement” and use that shared understanding to organize an ecosystem of support services that make it easier for open source projects to deliver humanitarian practitioners the solutions they need while also ensuring those projects are stable over the long term. By doing this work, we can demonstrate that open source is more than just a useful “type” of software, but also a production methodology that enables the disaster and humanitarian management sector to most effectively utilize networked communication technologies.

As the maker of Sahana EDEN, the world’s most widely used information system for disaster and humanitarian management, Sahana Foundation can help define the movement and leverage its unique organizational format and administrative capacity to offer fiscal sponsorship and other support services to aligned open source humanitarian projects.

My Open Source Bridge experience confirmed to me that this is the right way to go. Let’s do it!

How to Run Collaborative Projects That Don’t Fall Prey to Bureaucracy

This piece was published at Sharable on July 21st, 2017.


Today, when people call something “bureaucratic,” they usually mean that in a negative sense, but bureaucracy didn’t always have this negative connotation. About 100 years ago when many professional bureaucracies were being built, they were seen as a means of bringing quality control, predictability, and integrity to administrations. But bureaucracy has taken on a life of its own since its inception, and now is often viewed as self-perpetuating itself in thoroughly mediocre and banal ways. People today hear “bureaucracy” and think of the opposite of innovation. They think of something driving up the cost of healthcare and education, suppressing economic activity, and turning social change organizations into risk-averse, hierarchical, and uninspired mini-corporations.

In my work experience, I’ve seen prestigious nonprofit organizations and government agencies with tremendous resources at their disposal rendered useless in the face of overwhelmingly inefficient and convoluted bureaucratic processes. I’ve also seen activist groups with tremendous grassroots energy dominated, subdued, and balkanized by bureaucratic tendencies among their members.

I’ve met my fair share of people pursuing excellence within organizations — big and small — who have to quit (or are fired) because they’re too frustrated by the intractable dynamics they find themselves embedded within. They generally choose to go in one of three directions: pursue freelance work that allows them to serve clients directly, create a startup that they promise won’t fall prey to bureaucratic bloat, or join grassroots groups that never develop administrative capabilities. I’ve done all three and often tried to combine approaches to arrive at a scalable organizational format that doesn’t develop a mediocre bureaucracy but does have the ability to provide dependable, quality-controlled services. The best format I’ve encountered for doing this is a project-based “spokes council,” which the P2P Foundation describes as follows:

“The spokes council model allows for mediation between autonomous working/affinity groups, or nodes within the network, and the larger institutional body. … These collectives meet separately with varying degrees of regularity. Some groups are relatively inactive while new ad hoc groups may spring up spontaneously to face a particular challenge. Several groups maintain their own listservs and wiki pages.”

In my experience, there is one glaring problem with a conventional spokescouncil model — the “affinity groups.” Affinity is nice, but it’s a very broad reason for people to come together. At Occupy Wall Street, where I first encountered this organizing model, “groups” didn’t stay healthy for very long. They often lost their way, became unproductive, and hosted lots of  internal conflicts between members. Groups that formed around an area of interest (ex. visions and goals) became unproductive and collapsed much faster than groups based around an action (ex. kitchen). Interest-based groups attracted people who felt entitled to participate in decision-making processes both internal to the group and within the council as a whole, while action-based groups just wanted to get the meetings over with so they could do the actual work. Ultimately, a few dysfunctional groups ruined the entire council’s capacity to make good decisions.

Occupy Sandy, which took place about a year after Occupy Wall Street, worked a bit differently. We recognized the flaw in a council of affinity groups and instead organized a spokes council around projects. Project members, unlike group members, had to agree to maintain a membership list, vouch for their members, and articulate success metrics that the group had to meet to remain in good standing with the council. Those elements made a world of difference. The Occupy Sandy Project Council successfully managed hundreds of thousands of dollars through a consensus-based process that, while sometimes contentious and stressful, actually succeeded in allocating funds to impactful projects in transparent ways that won the respect of myriads of people — from city officials to direct action organizers. I’ve been trying to translate this “project spokescouncil” approach to other types of organizations ever since, with some success.

Here’s how I’ve been applying these principles:

  • Instead of creating an “organization,” create a charter that explains how to run a network.

  • Instead of figuring out all the things you want your organization to do, find people already doing these things and invite them to join your network.

  • Instead of creating a central administration to run the network, encourage projects to commit to performing the various functions needed to sustain the network, including administrative ones.

One of the great features of the project spokescouncil approach is that participating projects don’t have to agree on anything more than a charter. For-profits, nonprofits, cooperatives, coalitions, grassroots projects, and other groups can all coexist without forcing their processes on each other.

After Occupy Sandy, I became involved with the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that makes open source disaster management software. After serving on the board and advocating for the project spokescouncil organizational model, I was elected president to implement that vision. Before this model was employed, the CEO of the organization made the financial decisions. One of the goals of our organization was to develop a center that could be a powerful force for advocating for open source practices in the humanitarian sector. That type of center costs a lot of money, which meant we needed to bring in a lot of revenue to support its development. When funding fluctuates, as it tends to do when your business model is doing contract work for other NGOs, life can become very stressful and organizations undergo a lot of stress.

My approach was different. My first questions was: What is the minimum amount of expense we need to incur to keep the organization functional? That became the budget of the “Operations” project. Then we went to the main areas of activity within the organization, and encouraged the people doing that work to reframe it as an autonomous projects within the Sahana Software Foundation. That was easy for the open-source software project, which had a very clear output. It was a bit more complex for our other programs which combined research and implementation of technical systems to make change. After a few months of conversation around how the project could become more autonomous and defined, a new project was formed. Each project then created its own budget, and collaboratively determined who gets which portion of the funds to be spent.

Since we don’t have a CEO anymore, just a president who works part-time on the Operations Project, it freed up more money up to be collaboratively spent by other projects. So far so good. Our transparent, distributed, counter-bureaucratic process has become attractive to other open-source humanitarian projects that often find themselves either unincorporated or sponsored by a conventional, bureaucracy-driven organization. We can offer an organizational home that functions like an open-source project. We also offer a clear process that facilitates collaboration between member-projects while mitigating against the subtle power dynamics of conventional organizations and the bureaucracies that inevitably arise within them. Instead of having a bunch of folks with relatively ambiguous titles and hierarchies, we’re all equals representing projects in a council. That keeps things simple.

My dream is to add more open-source humanitarian aid projects, such as CrisisCleanup, to the Sahana Project Council, and to spread this organizational model to groups working in other sectors. If many project councils emerge, with similar charters and similar processes, then it will become much easier for projects to find the organizational homes they need, and it will also allow projects to move between organizations with ease. This last characteristic is key. Projects develop organically but organizations don’t. Organizations have inflexible budgets and staffing and have to worry about grant cycles and the politics of fundraising. Projects are different. They can be extremely responsive and flexible, and can pivot to meet immediate needs and transform to rapidly scale their best ideas. But as projects develop, they’re often pressured by their host organization to do so in ways that fit within the needs of the host organization. And moving a project from one organization to another is often practically impossible. But with a project council, projects have options and moving from one organization to another can be a breeze. Indeed, we might discover that, without the limitations and structures imposed by organizations, projects can become the core organizational unit of the production process of an increasingly networked world.

Imagine if there were a “project standard” that people could use to form and document their work, and then the project could seamlessly move between councils as conditions and collaborations change. Could this be an alternative to the bureaucratic organizational format that currently runs the world? We’re going to find out. Stay tuned.

Header photo of Occupy Sandy spokescouncil meeting by Devin Balkind

When Platform Coops are Seen, What Goes Unseen?

If you’re involved with the “cooperative community” on social media, you’ve probably heard a lot about platform cooperatives in recent years. The vision is simple: what if Uber or AirBnb were owned by its users, who could share decision-making responsibility and profits among themselves? Instead of being exploited by platforms, users could and should be running them. Just like cooperative supermarkets, these “platform co-ops” could market themselves as democratic alternatives to the venture-backed “Death Star” platforms coming out of Silicon Valley.

While I certainly agree we need to see new organizational forms take on the dominant venture-backed startup model, platform cooperatives have yet to prove that they’re up to the task. In fact, there are so few financially sustainable platform cooperatives in existence that, when Shareable magazine tried to list them in their article “11 Platform Cooperatives Creating a Real Sharing Economy,”, it had to include businesses that don’t sell any products or services yet, businesses that aren’t cooperatives, and businesses that aren’t platforms. Some people complained about the exaggerated tone of the article in the comment section, so Sharable added a disclaimer at the bottom of the story.

The fact remains that, despite two years and two high profile conferences in support of the concept, you can count the amount of genuinely successful platform cooperatives on one hand. And it’s not like this is a radically new concept that people have to wrap their heads around. Cooperatives are a very popular and proven business structure.

Despite platform cooperativism’s modest gains, I do see the concept’s value. Its existence pressures successful online platforms to share some of their profits with their users, and invites entrepreneurs who want to create new platforms to try out a new organizational structure. I worry, however, that the cooperative community only has a limited amount of cognitive capacity it can use to process information technology innovation, and the fantasy of platform cooperativism is taking up space that could be better used by promoting and applying open source, open data, and peer-production principles to overcome some of the cooperative movement’s most pressing challenges. Instead of spilling lots of ink dreaming about how technology companies could be cooperatives, the “cooperative community” should be asking how cooperatives can benefit from technology development models that have a proven track record of success.

The two models I wish were being more widely discussed in the cooperative community are open source technology and open data practices.

Open source software and the peer-production process it has spawned have been wildly successful at challenging conventional software technology business models. In 2001, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft called Linux, which is the world’s most used open source software project, “a cancer.” A decade later, Microsoft was in the top top five corporations contributing to Linux. Google’s core operating systems, ChromeOS and Android, both run on Linux, and so do emerging competitors, many out of Asia, that are leveraging Android’s open source core to compete directly with the Google in the smartphone market. That is just one of a myriad of open source success stories that include WordPress, Firefox, Wikipedia, and so much more.

Corporations are adopting open source and other peer-production processes such as open data, open knowledge and open hardware like wildfire—not because they want to share, but because they want to make money. Meanwhile, cooperatives are expected to follow a set of principles, one of which is “cooperation among cooperatives,” and yet their adoption of open source and open data within the cooperative community is minimal. Evidence of the cooperative community not adopting open approaches and following principle six include:

  • Research reports from cooperative support organization often have restrictive copyrights them instead of open, permissible, Creative Commons ones.
  • Research data is locked away in PDFs instead of being made available in open data portals.
  • Information about cooperative networks and membership organizations is often organized in proprietary data models instead of open ones, and not made openly available in bulk using open data formats.
  • Cooperatives are often structured hierarchically like banks instead of horizontally like open source projects.
  • There still isn’t a searchable online directory of cooperatives in the United States, much less an open data compliant one.

All of the above problems could be resolved if the cooperative movement followed best practices emerging from the unfashionable but very useful open source, open data, free culture and open access, and peer-to-peer movements. These practices have proven track records for enabling highly productive, widespread collaborations among many different types of stakeholder groups. One thing they very rarely do is organize themselves as cooperatives. Instead, open source projects tend to use for-profit, nonprofit and unincorporated entities.

We tend to view platform cooperativism as a vision that has yet to be realized, but it could just as easily be viewed as a potential future that never came. Cooperative organizational structures are not new. They have impacted a myriad of giant industries including food and agriculture, electricity and real estate. So why haven’t cooperatives been successful at software development? The answer to this question could be a key to moving platform cooperativism forward.

What is “Municipalism”?

Originally posted at municipalist.org

The definition of “municipalism” is still up for grabs. If you Google the word you’ll be given a snippet from Wikipedia about “libertarian municipalism”,  a compelling but very specific utopian political philosophy of Murray Bookchin. Surely “municipalism” can and should mean something more.

Over the last fifty years, the percentage of people around the globe living in urban areas has increased from 30% to over 50%, but cities have not seen a corresponding increase in political power. Instead, nation-states and transnational institutions that network them have become the centers of power relations. Many people predict this dynamic will change: and it is. Efforts like UN Habitat III created space for cities to represent themselves at the UN for the first time in that organization’s history. The C40 Initiative has brought cities together to fight climate change by making significantly more aggressive emission reduction pledges than nation-states did at the Paris Summit. The Global Parliament of Mayors is provides a venue for municipalities to share knowledge and make collective decisions. You can find more entities in our directory.

Over the last two thousands years, cities have frequently been more politically powerful than the nations and empires in which they’ve been located. Cities, municipalities and regional governments have performed many nation-state like functions such as building trade networks, engaging in foreign relations, waging war, completing massive public infrastructure projects and protecting their residents from state violence.

Municipalism should refer to the idea that cities and regions should have more autonomy from the nation-states in which they’re located, while also being active participants in a global network of peer municipalities that upholds human rights and humanitarian standards.

It should be an idea that incorporates old and new concepts from all over the social, political and economic landscape, including urbanism, bioregionalism, paradiplomacycommunity-based economics,  civic technology, participatory democracy, social ecology and more.

It should help mobilize residents to participate deeply in local problem solving and inspire municipal governments to share solutions with cities around the world.

Most of all, municipalism should provide a positive alternative to the failure of the nation-state and an affirmation that we can recenter political control at the local level while advancing human rights and humanitarian standards globally.

What does “municipalism” mean to you now? What do you think it should mean in the future? Let us know below.

Cryptocurrency Can Shift the Balance of Power Between Cities, States and Nations

Originally posted at municipalist.org

One of the most powerful tools of a modern nation is its central bank’s ability to create money “out of thin air.” Nations can use this new money to purchase their own nation’s debt in the form of treasury bills, bonds and notes, allowing it to spend more than it earns in taxes and other income. If a nation prints too much money, however, it can create inflation, which reduces the value of their currency. In some instances, central banks can lose control of their currency’s inflation rate, destroying the value of the nation’s currency, collapsing its economy and leaving it at the mercy of predatory financial interests. Fear of inflation keeps nation’s from printing infinite amounts of money.

The US dollar is a bit different than other currencies because it isn’t simply the “reserve currency” for the United States, but also functions as the world’s reserve currency. Ever nation in the world uses US dollars because it is the easiest, and sometimes only, currency that can be used  to purchase large quantities of commodities in international markets. The most important of these commodities is oil. Some commentators call this monetary arrangement the “petrodollar system” and view it as the successor to the Brenton Woods system, which still relied on nations to maintain gold reserves. The Petrodollar system was established through a series of arrangements between the US and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

Since the 1970s, we’ve seen the development of other transnational monetary systems such as the Euro and the development of giant commercial “money center” banks, which have further consolidated the monopoly on monetary production in the hands of fewer and fewer institutions. If you asked an economist a decade ago about the future of global monetary production, they’d have predicted more consolidation. The Euro in Europe would be complemented by the Amero is North America, and slowly but surely, the world would integrate into a single market with a single currency.

The financial collapse of 2008 helped undermine the vision of a global currency, but it was the invention of Bitcoin and the blockchain technology behind it that has given people a viable alternative to global monetary consolidation. Blockchain is a new type of database that is extremely good at producing “digital cash” and executing financial transactions. It’s open source, so there are no limitations or restrictions on who and how this technology can be used. Currently, blockchains are making it possible for people to create secure, digital money systems for extremely low costs. It’s being used by big banks to speed up their SWIFT international fund transfer systems, it’s being used by countries to create new national digital currency systems, and it’s being used by entrepreneurs and online communities to create their own currency systems outside the purview of the nation-state. It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before sub-national governments and municipalities create their own currency systems and begin to challenge the nation-state’s monopoly on the production of money.

Under normal political conditions, the idea that cities and states would risk disrupting the current monetary order by creating their own currency systems would be outrageous. US city and state governments benefit greatly from the US government’s petrodollar system. Not only does the federal government give cities and states significant amounts of money in the form of grants, they also allow people to deduct income from municipal bonds from their federal taxes. The makes it possible for cities and states to access tremendous amounts of capital at a rate much cheaper than corporations or individuals. These municipal bonds are used to fund everything from a local government’s general operations to specific infrastructure projects. But with the Trump administration and sub-national governments around the US on a collision course over immigration and other policies, it’s possible that federal governments will start trying to squeeze the finances of “sanctuary” cities and states. In fact, Trump declared he’ll do precisely that by threatening to cut off federal funding to cities and states that don’t implement his widely unpopular immigration policies. Eliminating the federal tax deduction on municipal bonds would be an even more aggressive move that he could try to use to coerce cities and states to follow his policies.

In the past, the only institutions that cities and states could look to for financial assistance were the federal governments and large commercial banks. But that is changing. The blockchain makes it possible for sub-national governments to create their own financial systems and begin to insulate themselves from federal monetary policy and budgeting decisions. Cities and states could do many things with their own cryptocurrency networks. They could create cryptographically secured paper monies, credit and debit cards and online transaction systems that enable their residents to more easily engage in local commerce, create international remittance systems allowing residents to transmit money around the world, and create new types of financial contracts that aren’t mediated by the commercial banks or federal entities. These monetary systems could be “backed” by valuable assets owned by cities and states such as real estate, taxes and other revenue streams. The technology to implement these types of systems is new, but its developing rapidly. Financial institutions invested nearly $2 billion in blockchain-based technologies in 2016. And the commercial banks are investing billions of dollars a year to continue to improve these alternative systems.

By developing autonomous, networked, blockchain-based financial systems for themselves, cities and states can create deep and direct financial ties with each other and challenge the US government’s monopoly on the production of money. This challenge, if delivered in a credible way, could threaten the US government’s capacity to pay its debts and seriously impact the federal government’s financial health.

I want to be clear: I’m not advocating for a financial war between US cities and states, and the federal government. Rather, I’m recognizing that blockchain-based technologies could enable sub-national governments to build a new type of power that they currently don’t have: the ability to compete with the nation-state-based monetary systems. This threat could be an extremely powerful tool for cities and states when they negotiate with the Trump administration. If the federal government is going to threaten to undermine the financial health of cities and states, then cities and states should find ways to credibly threaten the federal government right back.

If you’d like to read more about how the blockchain technology fits into a broader history of DIY finance, check out my essay Finance without Force.

Cities Can Prepare for Trump by Establishing Digital Service Organizations and Mobilizing Civic Tech Communities

Originally posted at municipalist.org

Within a few weeks of Trump’s victory, mayors of big “sanctuary cities” throughout America, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles declared that they wouldn’t collaborate with a Trump administration order to deport peaceful, law-abiding resident. Trump is now threatening that he will deny these cities federal funding unless they comply. The amount of money that cities could be denied by the Trump administration isn’t entirely clear, but Mother Jones estimates that Washington DC could potentially lose up to 25% of its budget, New York and San Francisco could lose 10% and Los Angeles could lose 2%.

If cities want to have a leg to stand on during their negotiations with the Trump administration, they must prepare to operate without federal funding. If there is one message US cities need to convey to Trump, it’s that they can turn Trump’s belligerence into the political will they need to make municipal government more  efficient, transparent and participatory than the Federal government; and in the process restructure the relationship between municipalities and nations. Trump and his supporters must realize that the more pressure the Federal government puts on cities, the more cities will unite together, and the faster an emergent, post-nation-state paradigm will emerge. If In short, if Trump doesn’t play his cards right, he could very well become the president that undermines the role of the nation-state in global affairs and kicks off a new version of the “devolution revolution“, but this time based in cities and inspired by progressive values.

Municipal governments will not be able to fend off the federal government if their bureaucracies are inefficient and unpopular with the public. Most municipal bureaucracies were designed in an era of switchboards and memos and need a significant upgrade. Is there really any doubt that new systems designed around smart phones and open source software couldn’t out perform the many-decades-old legacy systems most cities currently use by significant margins? The factor limiting the upgrading of municipal bureaucracies are political, not technological. Changing how government works involves shifting the balance of power within agencies, department and groups. These types of changes require tremendous amounts of buy-in from members of the bureaucracy and the public in general. This buy-in is hard to get, but with the nightmare of Trump using federal funds as leverage to coerce cities to adopt policies their residents abhor, it will become much easier to make the case that municipalities must engage in serious internal reform.

The choice for city residents should be clear: adopt 21st century technologies and organizational forms, or submitting to federal coercion. If current city leaders can’t or won’t execute the reforms needed to wean their cities off federal funds, then new leaders need to be brought in who will. Instead of talking about it — let’s build it. For our cities. And now. As if the lives of our neighbors depends on it. Because it might.

Existing models show us how we can systematically transforming government agencies through the adoption and use of inexpensive open source tools and techniques. One group that performs this type of activity is 18F, a unit within the Federal Government’s General Services Administration. 18F helps federal agencies figure out how to improve their operations using open source technology and iterative development processes. They’ve been extremely successful, to the point where government contractors lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the Federal government too much money.  18F’s is small group in a massive federal government so their impact is limited, but their model is spreading. The Pentagon’s Defense Digital Services and the White Houses US Digital Service both model themselves off of 18F. City governments could and should create similar types of Digital Service Organizations (DSOs) as a means of increasing their ability to not only do more with less, but also as a means of challenging the Trump administration’s competence.

One of the innovative features of DSOs is their commitments to clear documentation of business processes and utilization of open source software. This allows them to share the innovations they develop for one agency with other agencies within that government (and ideally with other governments around the world.) This eliminates complex procurement processes, reduces costs and even creates an opportunity for highly skilled developers outside government to contribute to their effort. Since the solutions DSOs create are often open source, they can (and do) set up bounty systems that allow software developers to submit code that solve problems identified by the DSO. Allowing highly skilled urban residents to contribute code to a project that improves a city’s effectiveness if precisely the type of deep contribution city residents should be able to make to defend their cities from federal coercion.

There are existing “civic tech” volunteer groups in cities all around the country filled with people passionate about finding ways to help city governments run faster, better and cheaper. A great example is NYC’s BetaNYC group. These groups present fantastic venues for sourcing and organizing volunteers that can amplify and support the work of DSOs to help make cities more resilient to federal coercion. But technology is just one area. Cities will need to build many more mechanisms that can convert their resident’s anger at Federal policies into surges of local volunteer-ship that increase the capability of city governments and reduce their need for federal aid.

If cities can find more effective ways to mobilize their massive human resources, then the era of Trump will be a catalyst pushing cities to be more efficient, autonomous and globally networked than ever before. This might sound like overkill, or too much work, but we have to be prepared if we want to defend ourselves and our neighbors from destructive federal actions. And if it turns out we overreacted and mistakenly volunteered to improve our cities, so it goes.

Introducing Data Models for Human(itarian) Services

This was originally posted at Sarapis

Immediately after a disaster, information managers collect information about who is doing what, where, and turn it into “3W Reports.” While some groups have custom software for collecting this information, the most popular software tool for this work is the spreadsheet. Indeed, the spreadsheet is still the “lingua franca” of the humanitarian aid community, which is why UNOCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange project is designed to support people using this popular software tool.

After those critical first few days, nonprofits and government agencies often transition their efforts from ad hoc emergency relief and begin to provide more consistent “services” to the affected population.

The challenge of organizing this type of “humanitarian/human services” information is a bit different than the challenges associated with disaster-related 3W reports, and similar to the work being done by people who manage and maintain persistent nonprofit services directories. In the US, these types of providers are often called “211” because you can dial “211” in many communities in the US to be connected to a call center with access to a directory of local nonprofit service information.

During the ongoing migrant crisis facing Europe, a number of volunteer technical communities (VTCs)  in the Digital Humanitarian Network engaged in the work of managing data about these humanitarian services. They quickly realized they needed to come up with a shared template for this information so they could more easily merge data with their peers, and also so that during the next disaster, they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel all over again.

Since spreadsheets are the most popular information management tool, the group decided to focus on creating a standard set of column headers for spreadsheets with the following criteria:

To create this shared data model, we analyzed a number of existing service data models, including:

  • Stand By Task Force’s services spreadsheet
  • Advisor.UNHCR services directory
  • Open Referral Human Service Data Standard (HSDS)

The first two data models came from the humanitarian sector and were relatively simple and easy to analyze. The third, Open Referral, comes from a US-based nonprofit service directory project that did not assume that spreadsheets would be an important medium for sharing and viewing data.

To effectively incorporate Open Referral into our analysis, we had to convert it into something that could be viewed in a single sheet of a spreadsheet (we call it “flat”). During the process we also made it compliant with the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL), which will enable Open Referral to collaborate more with the international humanitarian aid community on data standards work. Check out the Open Referral HSDS_flat sheet to see the work product.

We’re excited about the possibility that Open Referral will take this “flat” version under their wing and maintain it going forward.

Once we had a flat version of Open Referral, we could do some basic analysis of the three models to create a shared data model. You can learn about our process in our post “10 Steps to Create a Shared Data Model with Spreadsheets.”

The results of that work is what we’re calling the Humanitarian Service Data Model (HSDM). The following documents and resources (hopefully) make it useful to you and your organizations.

We hope the HSDM will be used by the various stakeholders who were involved in the process of making it, as well as other groups that routinely manage this type of data, such as:

  • member organizations of the Digital Humanitarian Network
  • grassroots groups that come together to collate information after disasters
  • big institutions like UNOCHA who maintain services datasets
  • software developers who make apps to organize and display service information

I hope that the community that came together to create the HSDM will continue to work together to create a taxonomy for #service+type (what the service does) and #service+eligibility (who the service is for). If and when that work is completed, digital humanitarians will be able to more easily create and share critical information about services available to people in need.

* Photo credits: John Englart (Takver)/Flickr CC-by-SA

Creating a Shared Data Model with a Spreadsheet

Over the last year, a number of clients have tasked me with bringing datasets from many different sources together. It seems many people and groups want to work more closely with their peers to  not only share and merge data resources, but to also work with them to arrive at a “shared data model” that they can all use to manage data in compatible ways going forward.

Since spreadsheets are, by far, the most popular data collection and management tool, using spreadsheets for this type of work is a no-brainer.

After doing this task a few times, I’ve gotten confident enough to document my process for taking a bunch of different spreadsheet data models and turning them in a single shared one.

Here is the 10-step process:

  1. Create a spreadsheet. First column is for field labels. You can add additional columns for other information you’d like to analyze about the field such as its data type, database name and/or reference taxonomies (i.e. HXL Tag).
  2. Place the names of the data models you’ve selected to analyze in the column headers to the right of the field labels.
  3. List all the fields of the longest data model on the left side of the sheet under the “Field Label” heading.
  4. Place an “x” in the cells of the data model that contain the field to indicate it contains all the fields documented in the left hand column.

    How to Create a Shared Data Model with Spreadsheets
    This is a sheet comparing three different data models with a set of field labels and a “taxonomy convention”.
  5. Working left to right, place an  “x” to indicate when a data model has a field label contained therein. If the data model has that field but uses a different label, place that label in the cell(4a). If it doesn’t have that field, leave the cell blank. Add any additional fields not in the first data model to the bottom of the Field Labels column (4b).

  6. Do the same thing for the next data models.
  7. Once you have all the data models documented in this way, then you can look and see what the most popular fields are by seeing which have the most “x”s. Drag those rows to the top, so the most popular fields are on the top, and the least popular fields are on the bottom. I like to color code them, so the most popular fields are one color (green), the moderately popular ones are another (yellow) and the least popular but still repeated fields are another (red).
  8. Once you have done all this, you should present it to your stakeholder community and ask them for feedback. Some good questions are: (a) If our data model were just the colored fields, would that be sufficient? Why or why not? What fields should we add or subtract? (b) Data model #1 uses label x for a field while data model #2 uses label y. What label should we use for this and why?

    How to Create a Shared Data Model with Spreadsheets (1)
    Give people a “template” they can use to actually manage their data.
  9. Once people start engaging with these questions, layout the emerging data model in a new sheet, horizontally in the first row. Call this sheet a “draft template”. Bring the color coding with it to make it easier for people to recognize that the models are the same. As people give feedback, make the changes to the “template” sheet while leaving the “comparison” sheet as a reference. Encourage people to make their comment directly in the cell they’re referencing.
  10. Once all comments have been addresses and everyone is feeling good about the template sheet, announce that sheet is the “official proposal” of a shared data model/standard. Give people a deadline to make their comments and requests for changes. If no comments/changes are requested – congratulations: you have created a shared data model! Good luck getting people to use it. 😉

Do you find yourself creating shared data models? Do you have other processes for making them? Did you try out this process and have some feedback? Is this documentation clear? Tell me what you’re thinking in the comments below.

DIY Databases are Coming

“The software revolution has given people access to countless specialized apps, but there’s one fundamental tool that almost all apps use that still remains out of reach of most non-programmers — the database.” AirTable.com on CrunchBase

Database technology is boring but immensely important. If you have ever been working on a spreadsheet and wanted to be able to click on the contents of a cell to get to another table of data (maybe the cell has a person’s name and you want to be able to click it to see their phone #, photo, email, etc), then you’ve wished for a DIY database.

I’ve been waiting for this technology for many years and am happy to report that it’s nearly arrived. Two startups are taking on the DIY database challenge from different sides:

Screenshot from 2016-01-20 18:20:27
If you can make a spreadsheet you can make a map with Awesome-Table.


Awesome-Table is a quick and easy tool for creating visualizations of data inside Google Sheets. It offers a variety of searchable, sortable, filterable views including tables, cards, maps and charts. They’re easy to embed so they are great for creating and embedding directory data onto websites. Here’s an awesome table visualization of
worker coops in NYC.


AirTable is a quick and easy way to create tables that connect to and reference each other. This allows for multi-faceted systems you can travel through by clicking on entities. For example, you can define people in one table, organizations in another, and offices in a third, and then connect them all together so a user can browse a list of people, click on an individual’s organization, and then see all that organization’s information, including its many offices. Pretty useful!

The progress of these two startups leads me to believe we’re less than a year or two away from truly lightweight, easy to use, free of cost, DIY database building systems, and an open source one not too long after that.

The increasing accessibility of database technology has a lot of implications. The most obvious one is that it will enable people to build their own information management systems for common use cases like contact directories, CRM systems and other applications that just can’t be done with existing spreadsheet technology. This will make a wide variety of solutions more accessible to people – so if you want to start or run a business, manage common information resource, or just organize personal information better, you’ll enjoy DIY databases very much.

More interesting to me is the implication that they can have for people trying to reform and democratize institutions.

If you spend time in the type of information management systems used by institutions big and small – whether it’s government agencies like the sanitation department or educational ones like high schools or universities, you’ll quickly notice that many of their most useful and critical tools are nothing more than a set of data tables (directories) and visualizations of the data contained therein (search/filterable tables, cards and maps of that data.)

Screenshot from 2016-01-20 18:19:07
Turn spreadsheets into searchable/filterable directories with Awesome-Table.

These very rudimentary but widely used internal software systems not only define the information people within that institution can access and share, but also limits them to very specific workflows that are implicitly or explicitly defined in the software. Since workflows define the work people actually do, the people who control the workflow are also people who control the workers.

If you want to change how an institution does things, you have to be able to change its information management systems. Since current database technology requires specialized software coding skills, changing these systems often turns into a bureaucratic nightmare filled with bottlenecks. First, a specific group of pre-approved people need to agree to design and fund a change, then another specific group of people need to program and implement the change, and yet another group is often tasked with training and supporting users who then have to use the updated system. That creates a lot of potential bottlenecks: executives who don’t know a change is needed or don’t care enough to fund the work; managers who don’t want to get innovated out of a job or don’t know how to design good software; technologists who don’t have the time to implement a change or don’t have the motivation to do the job right. With all those potential bottlenecks it’s easy to see why so many well funded institutions have such crappy software and archaic workflows.

When people try to improve institutions, they are often trying to improve workflows so more can get done with less time and resources. Unfortunately, the people who actually know what changes need to be made are rarely in a position to control the architecture of the databases they use to get things done.

With DIY databases, people within institutions can circumvent all these bottlenecks simply by making superior systems themselves. This can change a lot more than simply the type of information people have access to – it allows them to explore news ways of being productive.  What they’ll inevitably discover, particularly if they’re in an institution that spends a lot of time managing information, is that they can do a better job managing information than many of their bosses.

DIY databases are enabling the type of horizontal and bottom-up innovation essential not just for better functioning institutions, but also more democratic ones. Databases are the “means of production” for many information workers. When they can build and own their own ones, they’ll be able to achieve more ownership of their own work and take another big step towards being able to manage themselves.

Of course, as technology improves and creating you own databases becomes easy, the hard part will certainly become getting peers to use them.  That’s a topic for another day.

“Open Tech and Open Data: The Key to Whole Community Engagement” at IAEM 2015

The International Association of Emergency Management (IAEM) Conference was described to me as the Oscars of Emergency Management field. The event took place in the Paris Hotel in Las Vega November 14th. It was three days after the Paris attacks. Walking under the hotels faux Eiffel Tower and through its simulated Parisian streets was uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the event was quite informative. Right before my presentation was a session about building your own emergency operations center (EOC) with inexpensive off the shelf tools and another one by the head of St Louis’s Office of Emergency Management explaining how he managed the reaction to the killing of Michael Brown.

My presentation wasn’t as well attended as I had hoped. Maybe the title wasn’t compelling. But it went well. The audience was engaged and we had a good back and forth. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, my sessions wasn’t recorded like all the others. I would have really liked to have seen that video. Instead, at the request of the IAEM, I recorded my presentation via Hangout Live. You can see that video here.

This presentation is the most well rounded of them all. It gives a solid overview of the four facets of open aid:

  • Open Technologies
  • Open Data
  • Grassroots Disaster Relief Networks
  • Volunteer Technical Communities

At the end it offers a diagram for how we build an integrated information management ecosystem cycling information from local community groups through municipal, state and federal agencies and channel resources effectively.

Google Presentation

Video of Presentation

PDF Archive