‘Hope in a box’ helps close “humanitarian productivity gap”

I was fascinated to learn today about a non-profit IT consortium called NetHope that is facilitating collaboration among humanitarian agencies when tsunamis and earthquakes wipe out existing communication systems. Private business has grown dramatically over the past two decades because it invested in technology infrastructure, says NetHope CEO Bill Brindley. Now NetHope is bringing those same advanced information technology approaches to emergency relief, human development and conservation programs in more than 180 countries.

“Our member agencies will always be resource-constrained by comparison, so we need to find new ways to close the gap and ensure that humanitarian workers and the people they serve have access to appropriate technologies for the often extreme and challenging conditions in the developing world,” Brindley says. Given that NetHope’s 25 member groups now represent “more than $33 billion in program spending on humanitarian and conservation initiatives and employ more than 300,000 people across the developing world”, new technologies can dramatically improve the overall impact of the humanitarian sector’s work.

A story entitled NetHope bringing technology to humanitarian efforts, by Julie Bick, in the International Herald Tribune Nov. 11, 2008, shows NetHope’s impact after the 2004 tsunami:

Rui Lopes’s first impression of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami was chaos. Bone-jarringly rough roads led to a hastily assembled field office, where Lopes, the senior technical director of Save the Children, learned that the communications infrastructure, along with just about everything else, had been destroyed. Aside from a few satellite phones and even fewer working mobile phones, the area was isolated as relief workers scrambled to assess the security situation and address the vast humanitarian needs.

On the ground, Lopes unpacked a contraption made of circuits, chips and wires, pointed it at the sky and rolled out a solar mat, which turns sunlight into energy, to power it up. Aid workers plugged their laptops into the device, which offered the first stable Internet connection since the disaster had hit a week earlier.Assessment reports and supply requests streamed out. Photographs went to news outlets to help spread awareness of the situation. Plans to coordinate agencies came in from abroad.

A third generation model of this Network Relief Kit was used by relief workers in Bangladesh after cyclone Sidr killed and displaced thousands of people last November. The workers called it “hope in a box or an angel on the broadband airwaves”, says Paula Musich in an article entitled NetHope Brings Fast Links to Disaster Relief that appeared Dec. 21, 2007 in the specialized IT publication eweek.com.

Thanks to refinements in the third generation of the NRK, relief workers were able to quickly establish voice and data communications, despite power being out to the Ganges Delta area for days after the typhoon hit….The NRK, which can fit in a backpack, includes a solar power kit that allows it to operate without having access to a vehicle battery. It weighs about four pounds and connects satellite phones as well as laptops to a satellite network that covers the globe.

NetHope, which was co-founded in 2001 by Dipak Basu, Cisco’s first fellow, and Ed Granger-Happ, CIO of Save the Children, has just wrapped up its biannual member summit in Geneva with a lot of good news including funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and continuing support from Microsoft.

“We started NetHope eight years ago with the idea that a collaborative approach to developing and delivering technology solutions to common problems throughout the NGO sector would make the most sense for our member agencies and for the corporate and foundation partners whose support of our work has been so critical,” says Granger-Happ. “The new support from Rockefeller Foundation and the increased support from Microsoft represent an important endorsement of the NetHope approach, including the premise that technology can be a core lever for dramatically improving the overall impact of the humanitarian sector’s work.”

NetHope’s unique business model allows member NGO IT professionals to share their technology resources and expertise in order to create the scale needed to reach and positively impact the more than 3 billion underserved people and communities in the most remote areas of the world.