This has taken longer to write up than planned; hampered originally by an unexpected souvenir from Kenya which saw me passing happy hours communing with my new friend Mr Toilet. And now delayed further by having no power to my laptop and a long eight hour flight ahead. Back to long-hand on lined paper and Dr Feelgood in my ears – ah, happy school days.
I was in Nairobi for, amongst other things, a meeting of NetHope; in fact, the inaugural meeting of their East Africa chapter. Led by the charismatic Bill Brindley, NetHope is a consortium of 19 leading, global aid agencies and it has a single mission: to enable those agencies with the latest IT in turn to enable those agencies to maximise their own impact on the ground. It is an admirable goal and one which has real, immediate impact for their constituent members and for the communities which they serve.
One area where IT has a very obvious impact is that of Disaster Response. In situations such as the tsunami in Indonesia or Hurricane Katrina, the ability to quickly deploy resources and to gather and share information are key. In both of these situations, and others, a number of organisations have used Groove to establish thoise abilities. Groove is designed specifically for small, dynamic teams working in network-austere environments. Custom forms and information repositories can be quickly built on the fly so that data is gathered and shared as quickly as possible and Groove’s hybrid architecture means that information is held on local devices and synchronised whenever network connectivity allows. Thus situation analyses are quickly gathered and disseminated. Not only that but 192-bit, military-grade encryption ensures that information – be it spreadsheets, reports or Instant Messenger chat – remains secure. In Banda Aceh, Katrina and other situations the teams were able to combine Groove functionality with geo-spatial meta-data in order to plot situations and individuals’ locations on a map in real-time. The technology then becomes a powerful decision-support mechanism enabling fast response to an unfolding situation.
Taking this one step further, a Microsoft team in Europe is working with a major global organisation to create a single, neutral disaster response portal combining Groove, Sharepoint, Virtual Earth and other technologies. The advantages here are many but one of the most powerful is the neutrality of the system. In any given situation (currently the trial addresses Afghanistan and Darfur), the involved organisations range from military, through local authorities to multiple aid agencies. All of these crave information but are often in conflict. For example, aid agencies seen to be working with the military can quickly find their effectiveness hampered, trust eroded and their safety compromised. This neutral portal provides all parties with information complied in both scorecard and geographical forms enabling all parties a more complete perspective and, in turn, ensuring wiser decisions – for example, do you really need more troops or does the answer lie in more engineers to rebuilt an infrastructure? Looking at a map of Darfur showing news reports of flash-points combined with the location of aid-camps and individual team-members, you get a real sense of technology doing "real good" where it matters.
I was at the NetHope meeting, largely to talk about those examples but, sitting through the meeting, I was engaged by the common issues which the agencies represented there experienced. Two common themes came through:
- Connectivity – the cost/performance of internet connections;
- Skills – the difficulty in hiring and retaining skilled staff; the cost and availability of IT skills within IT partner organisations.
To a degree, the issues are interlinked and certainly wider, cheaper connectivity would beget an increase in skills. In turn, a growing pool of IT talent would increase demand for connectivity which, in turn, would encourage increased supply and ultimately lower prices. Here is an issue which puzzles me, and – to the extent I understand it – saddens me. Eastern Europe – admittedly with a post-Soviet legacy of strong engineering and scientific education – broadly sees IT as an opportunity to develop a local software economy. Similarly, Asia-Pacific is investing heavily in this space. Africa isn’t. Currently, most connectivity comes through expensive satellite links yet there is a sub-marine, fibre-optic ink which nearly surrounds the dark continent. All it needs is the political will to connect those last few miles. Talking to the affected parties, some mutter of corruption and vested interests, others cite fear of the internet as a democratic enabler. Yet, some countries get it. Rwanda, a tiny, land-locked nation known only in the west for its recent, bloody history gets it. Recognising its limited opportunity to build any sort of manufacturing base, the country is encouraging IT developers to foster a software economy.
The work of aid agencies is vitally important and NetHope has a mighty mission to enable those agencies to maximise the work which they do. However, at the end of the day, it will be commerce which pulls the continent permanently out of poverty. Only when those nations are trading internationally, capitalising on, and investing in, the rich human resources which they have, will they truly be on the road out of the Third World. In the few days I was in Nairobi, I was genuinely touched by the happy, friendly people I met and saw. It’s a very limited perspective on the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, I know, but the land shouts of potential. All it needs is investment in good infrastructure and good education to prove if the world is truly flat.