Monday, July 5, 2010

Technology ... crowdsourcing and other ideas ... and some old fashioned accounting concepts

Dear Colleagues

I was interested to see an article through the IRIN service about crowd-sourcing and how technology can improve the efficiency of humanitarian work. The full text of the article is at the end of this message ... the URL of the article is:

My take on the issue is very different ... maybe it is generational ... or maybe it is that my background is engineering and accountancy in the corporate world where hard data and tangible performance are required. In more than 30 years working in and observing the international relief and development assistance sector I have never seen any management information that compared favorably with the management information available for decision making in the corporate world.

Bluntly put, with the power of technology maybe a million times what it was when I started my career, surely by now we should be getting way better performance improvement in ALL aspects of socio-economic activity, including the handling of humanitarian emergency response.

I have had an interest in performance metrics all my career, and am totally convinced that if the right things get measured, then there will be better outcomes. From my perspective most people are measuring what they were taught to measure in their academic education without giving very much thought to whether or not it is the right thing to be measuring. In the corporate world there are a range of profit based metrics that use money transactions as the sole element of relevance, totally ignoring social impact of the organization's activities. For macro-economics, measures like GDP are used even while the components of the measure defy any reasonable logic at all ... how can more and more spending be progress towards better quality of life ... I would have thought "product" is the outcome of activity not the input, but who am I to ask such a basic question!

In the relief and development assistance sector there should be measures of progress and performance ... more value based measures than just money measures. Progress is how much the quality of life is improved ... and performance is about the value consumption that took place in order to achieve the value adding. In corporate terms this is a bit like productivity ... with good performance being to get a lot of value adding for a relatively small amount of value consumption. Measures that are meaningful take into consideration not only activities but also the state and the change in state ... equivalent to the corporate operating account that shows profit and the corporate balance sheet that shows assets and liabilities of the entity. When the community balance sheet is made part of the system of metrics it becomes very clear how little of the development sector resource flows ever actually have any meaningful impact ... most of the fund flows being consumed doing activities that have costs but deliver little benefit.

Because I learned to do old fashioned accounting, I am impressed by its simplicity and its power. When this is combined with the capabilities of modern technology it becomes possible to have a completely new paradigm for socio-economic decision making. I note over and over again that academic studies of socio-economic performance using surveys and statistics are expensive and the results, at best, unreliable. I also note that performance analysis done by implementing organizations is not going to reliable either ... at any rate unless it is complemented by some validation from an outside independent source such as the community perspective of performance.

Performance is not merely the fact that something is done ... it is that the costs of doing something are what they should be ... not more which indicates inefficient operations ... and not less which might be an indicator of "cutting corners" and quality. Performance is not only having costs where they should be, it is also getting the outcomes that are needed. The goal of the health sector is not to spend money on health interventions but to have the maximum of good health in the population.

A lot of outcomes in the humanitarian relief and development sector are compromised by self serving metrics ... and self serving goals and objectives. A good system of metrics has the power to identify activities that fail to deliver valuable outcomes ... and would in turn serve to change much of the way humanitarian programs are planned, organized and implemented. The use of end to end value chain analysis shows in very clear terms where it is that profits are earned and were benefits are delivered ... and this is not usually the way simple PR reporting seems to present performance accomplishments!

Ideas like crowd-sourcing that are referred to in the IRIN article could be very powerful IF they are linked to important data and to a system of metrics that reflects the progress and performance in socio-economic development that is needed.

During the next few months there are going to be big steps taken to merge old fashioned accounting concepts with new technology ... stay tuned ... things could get very exciting!

Peter Burgess

Finding space for crowd-sourcing in humanitarian response
New technology can improve the efficiency of humanitarian work

NAIROBI, 5 July 2010 (IRIN) - “Crowd-sourcing” is a new buzzword in the world of humanitarian information. The combined power of mobile phones, mapping technology and social networking can enable citizens in crisis to seek help, facilitate aid deliveries, bear witness to abuses and hold governments and aid agencies more accountable, advocates say.

Crowd-sourcing on platforms including Ushahidi, for example, took place on an unprecedented scale after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. According to those involved, the impact it had is undeniable: communities were able to report their needs while accurate street maps were created for humanitarians and search and rescue teams tried to save lives.

"Crowd-sourcing had been used in previous emergencies, such as the Wikis created to map Hurricane Katrina and bird flu, but none seemed to have a life beyond the particular incident," said Microsoft's Nigel Snoad, an adviser to the ICT4Peace Foundation. "But in Haiti, Ushahidi and its partners seemed to have a real impact on the way the humanitarian response worked."

Beyond Haiti

"There is real excitement in the humanitarian community about crowd-sourcing and what it can do for emergency humanitarian response," he added.

But, he says, there needs to be a meeting of minds, with the technology experts ready to develop tools that can contribute meaningfully to humanitarian response and traditional organizations such as the UN being prepared to embrace non-standard methods of handling emergencies.

"Technology developers can affect how and by whom their tools are used by the choices they make; they need to look at validation, protection of data, and so on, and they are doing this," he said. "And traditional actors like the UN have to learn how to bring [in] non-traditional actors and their work, how to channel them, advise them and link them to the humanitarian system while allowing them to remain independent.

"Crowd-sourcing not only brings speed to humanitarian work, it opens it up to allow more effective, non-traditional operators to engage with traditional systems of gathering information," Snoad added. "It would also be a great way to hold humanitarians accountable - to ensure that help promised is actually received."

Glenda Cooper, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, told IRIN: “The cliché is that the aid system is reluctant to welcome innovations like this – however, I think the reverse is true. Citizen journalism, social networking and crowd-sourcing have been embraced enthusiastically by many NGOs. In some cases, too enthusiastically.

Hitches and glitches

"It is important to realize that even in Haiti, crowd-sourcing didn't work perfectly - there are problems with validation and accuracy, and codes of conduct need to be developed... [for example] it is terrible to ask people to report their problems if there is no way to solve them," Snoad warned.

One of the main problems is the unverified nature of the information. “Anyone can now publish rumours or thoughts online, thereby bypassing an editorial process," said Guy Collender, senior communications officer at the London International Development Centre, an academic organization. "Proponents of crowd-sourcing recognise the concerns about the credibility of websites relying on information often generated by anonymous sources. However, they believe the risks of false reporting are more than cancelled out by accurate reports."

Ushahidi, which was created by Kenyans trying to track and mitigate post-election violence in 2008, is trying to address this with a new open source tool, SwiftRiver, which filters large amounts of incoming information to separate the wheat from the chaff using smart algorithms and human operators.

"Crowd-sourcing does not yet have an established standard such as quality control, ground verification or sustainability," said Akiko Harayama, an information analyst with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) New York familiar with the Haiti operation. "Crowd-sourcing is something new, and everything new requires some time to adjust and to improve."

Crowds of volunteers

The formation of partnerships is also critical, humanitarian workers have found. In Haiti, partners such as the SMS service, Mission 4636, students from the American Tufts University,the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Google-affiliated disaster technology service, Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters, Sahana, an open source disaster management system, local phone companies, conventional aid agencies and countless others pitched in. Agencies also closed the loop by devising tools to feed information back to the general population through SMS broadcasts and local radio programming.

Crowd-sourcing was used on an unprecedented scale in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti "Without hundreds of individuals monitoring a variety of sources of information and mapping it, this crowd-sourcing operation wouldn't be possible - it is still primarily more about the human input, commitment, dedication and cooperation than about technology," said Ushahidi's Jaroslav Valuch.

"In Haiti, the network of volunteers providing information on the ground, and the number of people volunteering to make sense of this information, was unprecedented," said Snoad. "Communities on the ground played a huge part, and there is a definite need to find a place for them in the ownership of crowd-sourcing."

What next?

A crisis mapping conference in October at Harvard University will address lessons learned from Haiti and other disasters, developing a code of conduct for the technology community and the future of crisis mapping and humanitarian technology.

According to Valuch, for crowd-sourcing to be successful, there is a need for “lessons learned” processes; consultation with humanitarian actors; establishing links, protocols and partnerships before disasters happen; raising awareness about the potential as well as limitations of crowd-sourcing - such as verification of data - and training teams of humanitarian workers in using new crisis mapping tools and collecting their feedback.

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