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!

Occupy Sandy’s FLO Databases

Have you ever been working on a spreadsheet and found that you just couldn’t get all the information you wanted into it?  Have you ever looked at the horizontal and vertical cells and wished there were—somehow—a third dimension that gave you the ability to define more stuff?  Well, that’s what databases do: they provide you with a third dimension of information, making it possible for web applications to make data so useful.

Occupy Sandy is fortunate to have access to a number of incredible database software “solutions.” The three on which I’d like to focus in this post are:

  • Sahana EDEN (located at sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org): a “humanitarian” platform designed to help NGOs and government agencies manage disaster responses.
  • CiviCRM (located at crm.interoccupy.net): a system used for sending email newsletters and collecting information about volunteers; and
  • ShareTribe (located at occupysandy.permabank.net): a sharing platform that enables folks to post, find and fulfill offers and requests for products, services and spaces.

All three of these software solutions are free/libre/open-source (FLO), meaning they’re free to use, they have no licensing restrictions, and their source code is accessible to anyone who wants to view, use and modify it. Sahana and CiviCRM are both supported by nonprofit organizations, and all three pieces of software are developed by horizontal, non-coercive FLO communities motivated by the desire to make great software—not the desire to make a lot of money.

Sahana, deployed at sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org
Our Sahana system can help us manage a wide variety of tasks common to disaster relief, but we only use it for a few.

requestssandyreliefCurrently, people doing comms and dispatch use the system to record requests for supplies from sites. These requests usually come in via a phone call or email. Once a request is made, people check to see if the request can be fulfilled. If so, the system generates a “waybill,” which is a PDF that has the item names, their quantity, the intended destination and the driver on it. The PDF is printed out, taken to the inventory room where someone collects the items to be shipped, places them in their car and gives the driver the waybill to show him/her where to go. When the shipment is delivered, the hope is that the site that made the request will confirm their requests fulfillment with comms, but in practical use that rarely happens. Over 400 requests have gone through the system to date, with an average of six requests being registered per day since 2013 began.

sandyreliefmapRespond and Rebuild is using Sahana to track and map their work orders. When they assess a house, they record their findings in Sahana. Using the system, they’re currently tracking over 180 work orders, each with nearly 50 variables of information. Sahana also enables them to map each work order, letting them see on a map all the jobs they’re working on, the status of those jobs, and other useful information. The system could easily be configured to provide similar functionality for all the canvassing data that’s been collected by the Occupy Sandy relief effort, but so far that information hasn’t been made available to the Sahana team. If you’d like to connect with them, please email tech@nycga.net.

There are many more ways we could use Sahana to keep Occupy Sandy organized. Some of these ideas are currently underway, while others are just suggestions at this point:

  • Organization and location information: We can use Sahana to keep records of organizations that Occupy Sandy members encounter. In these records we could map out all the places where organizations maintain facilities, add the names and contact information for people at those organizations and facilities, write notes about our interactions with them and more. This could be useful for folks involved in the NYDIS organization information update project.
  • Warehouse inventory: One of Sahana’s main features is its ability to track inventory items through time and space. We can list all the inventory in a warehouse and make it accessible to everyone with access to the system. Then people can use the Sahana system to search for items they’re looking for. This could be useful for the Coney-Childs space.
  • Asset tracking: We share a lot of high value items in the Occupy Sandy network, such as vehicles and expensive tools. We can use Sahana to create a directory of the “assets” we share in the Occupy Sandy network and indicate whether those assets are available or in use, log who is using them (including when, where and for how long), and more. This could be useful for managing vehicles and tools.
  • Canvassing Information: People have been collecting a tremendous amount of information by canvassing neighborhoods to identify needs, gaps, potential health issues and more. Sahana could make all of this data searchable, mappable and (more) actionable. If someone needs help with mold, their record can be assigned a mold workflow in which their status would move from “needs assessment” to “pending work order” to “project underway” to “project completed”. If someone lacks heat, a workflow could be created that goes from “needs heat” to “complaint filed” to “heat fixed.”  Workflows can be created and modified as needed.

CiviCRM, deployed at crm.interoccupy.net
Occupy Wall Street has been using CiviCRM for over a year to send out big email blasts (such as Your Inbox:Occupied). When Sandy hit, the folks at InterOccupy quickly created volunteer intake forms using their CiviCRM. These forms collected a bunch of information about over 10,000 volunteers for Occupy Sandy NY and thousands more for Occupy Sandy NJ.

civicrmosnjEmail newsletters and alerts are sent out to different groups of volunteers depending on how they answered questions on their intake form. This has enabled us to mobilize a tremendous amount of volunteers via email. Now, a group has emerged within Occupy Sandy called “Volunteer Infrastructure,” which is organizing to call the over-8,000 volunteers who gave us their phone numbers in order to update their info and invite them to contribute more time to the cause. It’s a promising endeavour that could bring a tremendous number of people back into the Occupy Sandy fold.

Occupy Sandy NJ has gone one step further than Occupy Sandy NY in their use of CiviCRM. OSNJ fills out a Civi form every time they get a request for assistance from someone in NJ. That information then goes into a queue monitored by OSNJ volunteers who then commit to fulfilling the request. The volunteer reports back when the request is fulfilled and can then commit to fulfilling another one. The kind folks at OSNJ have served thousands using this system and have documented how they do it with this not-very-short video.

There are many more ways we could use CiviCRM in the relief effort: for case management, event pages and RSVPs, fundraising, membership management and more. I encourage folks to check out civicrm.org to see all the ways the system can be used. If you’d like to get involved with CiviCRM use in the Occupy Sandy operation, email tech@nycga.net.

ShareTribe, deployed at occupysandy.permabank.net
In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, a group of technology-oriented activists hatched a plan to create a web application that facilitates sharing among its users. During the first months of Occupy Sandy, we finally deployed a FLO software package with the appropriate features called ShareTribe. It’s built by a community of developers centered in Finland and their intention is to create “Wordpress for Sharing”—which I think is the right idea.

permabankosdbPermaBank provides users with the ability to post offers and request items, services, rides and spaces from each other; and provides a workflow that makes it easy to do real world exchanges with messaging, commenting, and a transaction workflow that enables folks to commit to fulfilling a request and certifying that their request was indeed fulfilled. Folks who find Sahana’s administrator-oriented request fulfillment system too heavy and “industrial” might find the PermaBank system more to their liking.

Conclusion
It goes without saying that all the technology in the world is worthless without the folks in affected areas doing relief work and practicing mutual aid. A database isn’t going to muck-out a house, deliver diapers or give people the experience of personal connection. But what it will do is organize information critical for all those tasks taking place.

Some people feel weird using systems like Sahana or CiviCRM to work with data. The systems can feel awkward, impersonal and clunky, especially when you compare them to the slick applications from Facebook, Twitter and Google. But don’t be fooled by polished web apps from massive corporations—they’re providing you with the digital equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger or Starbucks Frappuccino.

Corporations provide you with “free” web applications because they make tons of money off of your data. They absolutely, positively do not want you to run free/libre/open-source (FLO) software such as Sahana and CiviCRM because FLO software empowers people to be producers instead of consumers.

More people using WordPress (ex. occupysandy.net) means more people producing grassroots media and consuming less mainstream media.

More people using CiviCRM means more people producing online fundraising and advocacy campaigns and consuming less corporate sponsored “clicktivism”.

More people using Sahana means more people producing effective resource and supply chain management systems and consuming fewer corporate products and services.

More people using PermaBank mean more people producing money-less exchanges and consuming fewer resources.

If you’re interested in getting more involved with the FLO technologies used by Occupy Sandy, email tech@nycga.net. We need as much help as we can get.

Sandy, Sahana and Sarapis

When “Superstorm Sandy” hit New York City on October 30th, dozens of relief organizations, hundreds of grassroots groups and thousands of people mobilized to provide aids to those most affected. The challenge of coordinating such a relief effort was felt by everyone involved.

How do you keep track of who has what resources, who is requesting those resources, where the resources are now—and where they’ll need to be tomorrow? How can you see whose needs have been fulfilled and who still needs help? The list of information challenges is extensive.

Sarapis saw the information management challenge coming. Within days of the hurricane we were on-location, helping grassroots-organized disaster relief hubs collect data more efficiently and feed it to folks who could turn it into actionable information for relief providers. We embedded ourselves in grassroots efforts and turned paper forms into spreadsheets and spreadsheets into database tables—and now we’re integrating the data in those tables together through a free/libre/open-source (FLO) disaster management solution provided by the Sahana Foundation.

The Sahana Foundation shepherds a number of FLO disaster management solutions.  The one we’re using, Sahana EDEN, was created after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. Its first iteration was developed through a series of code sprints organized by local information and telecommunications companies in Sri Lanka, who wanted to develop a FLO resource management system that would enable a wide range of relief efforts to coordinate supplies, staff and volunteers over a massive area.

Within a week of Hurricane Sandy, the Sarapis team was touring Mark Prutsalis, CEO/President of the Sahana Software Foundation, around a half dozen community-organized relief hubs and sites, introducing him to key stakeholders and decision-makers who would ultimately determine whether the Sahana system would be implemented at their locations. Less than a month after Sandy hit New York, Sarapis is proud to announce that the Sahana system at sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org is operational, has dozens of active users, and is being used at the largest “Occupy Sandy” communications hubs. It has been demonstrated for folks at a wide variety of voluntary organizations active in disasters (VOADs) including the American Red Cross, New York Cares, United Way and government agencies such as FEMA. It’s also likely that Sahana will be used on a permanent basis by grassroots and community organizations to provide various forms of relief to individuals and groups in the greater New York City. Our work has both facilitated the use of an amazing FLO resource management platform by grassroots organizing efforts and raised the profile of the Sahana Eden system in the eyes of large institutions who will hopefully, at some point in the future, abandon the proprietary systems that grassroots organizers can’t easily access in favor of FLO systems that everyone can use.

The Sahana Foundation’s commitment to supporting grassroots, community-led organizing endeavors has been astounding. Mark Prutsalis, the CEO/President of the Sahana Software Foundation is a resident of Brooklyn and has gotten deeply involved in the relief efforts, touring sites, organizing trainings and providing less-experienced disaster responders with a sense of confidence that only 20 years of disaster relief work can provide. He also flew in Sahana’s core team of developers to New York so they could work with the grassroots efforts in the Occupy Sandy network. Michael Howden of New Zealand and Fran Boon of England jumped right in, visiting sites, surveying users and making everyone feel closer to the technologies they were using for their work. They worked with everyone from user experience designers to warehouse floor managers and comms/dispatch teams to troubleshoot issues, build new features, and generally increase the usefulness of the software. They spent a week in New York and Mark documented their experience better than I ever could on the Sahana Foundation blog here and here.

Why did the Sahana Foundation dedicate over $40,000 worth of their time to the Occupy Sandy effort? Because they recognized it as something familiar: a physical manifestation of the free/libre/open movement. Unlike decades-old institutions that structure themselves around an industrial-age information technology ecology—fax machines, memos, bosses’s bosses’ bosses, and people who resist change in order to preserve their jobs—Occupy Sandy is a temporal network that organizes itself around its technological capabilities. For example, for a shipment of supplies to go out to a relief location, someone needs to create a waybill that has a list of item to be included in the shipment and a destination. If a technology (such as Sahana) comes along that automatically generates printable waybills, the person who used to perform that task isn’t going to lobby to keep their job—they’re going to go do something else.

Occupy works because everyone is trying to make useful contributions to the network, older institutions work because everyone is trying to keep their jobs. As a blank slate that molds itself to the technologies it can access, Occupy can be a technologist’s dream, but it can also be a nightmare. In traditional institutions where bosses tell their underlings what technologies to use, it’s easy to get people to use nifty new technologies: you just have to convince the boss that it’s a good idea. In the Occupy network, each user has to be personally convinced that a tool is worth his or her time. This is a complicated task that more closely resembles bringing a product to market than it does training folks to use software in an organization. And that is the unique work we do at Sarapis: getting people who perform the core functions of a healthy and effective civil society to use FLO solutions.

Learn more about Sarapis’s disaster relief work here.

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