How do you make the invisible visible? How can we keep up with our ever-changing world, and how can we utilize the technologies of our time? Upon the completion of TechChange’s Mapping for Social Good course, we have found that some answers lie within the realm of digital mapping and geospatial data collection.

From Theory to Practice

The course features four weeks of case studies and real-world map applications, a diverse set of guest speakers, and innovative tech tools to invoke critical spatial analysis with social and environmental perspectives. Each new week introduced a set of social and environmental themes. Issues such as Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene required an advanced geographic understanding of land use and climate patterns to produce meaningful maps, and cutting edge tools such as CartoDB, Mapbox, and Leaflet empowered our understanding through spatial analysis.

In search of balance, participants discussed the necessary steps in designing an attractive, efficient, and safe urban infrastructure in Abu Dhabi, and discovered the complexity of the plan. Taking into account population, available surface area, and the availability of funds and resources, the course discussion forums were flooded with professional expertise and insight in how to build infrastructure that reflects the city’s urban lifestyle.

But Data Considerations Aren’t Only About Tech

A discussion on ethics can often be overlooked in this technical environment. But in Week 3, Nathaniel Raymond of The Signal Program on Human Security and Technology led a talk that highlighted recurring challenges associated with technology and humanitarian efforts. In doing so he introduced the concept of Demographically Identifiable Information (DII) – a close relative to that of Personally Identifiable Information (PII). His message put forth “Do No Harm” caution to humanitarians, encouraging critical thought and consideration for the most vulnerable populations in our world, remembering that we both hold, yet lack, so much power with technology.

Engaging Formal and Informal Institutions

Of note was the interaction between the global volunteer community of mappers and major donor institutions. A team of geographers and cartographers from the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit joined the class to discuss Mapgive and Imagery to the Crowd, a program that provides satellite data to global volunteers during times of crisis, and shows just how far the digital humanitarian community has come in the past decade.

Interactivity in Online Education

Throughout the course, participants presented their digital maps, addressing fundamental questions like, “what is the purpose of this map?” and, “will it give us exactly what we need, or simply what we think we need?” We’ve seen land-use maps of Washington, DC, conflict maps tracking violence against civilians in Libya using QGIS, and district density maps using the CartoDB application.

Upon completion of the TechChange course, “Mapping for Social Good,” we hope that participants feel well-equipped with some of the best mapping resources of our time, and that they have taken their professional experiences to new and challenging levels.

About the Authors
Madeline is a student at James Madison University, where she studies Political Science, Humanitarian Affairs and Geographic Information Systems, with a special interest in Conflict Resolution and International Landmine Prevention. In her free time, she loves to bike, paint, and eat chocolate pie while listening to Dave Brubeck.Madeline Profile Picture

Greg works on training and analytics with the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the US Department of State. He has spent his career working at the intersection of conflict resolution, technology, and the arts. Trained as a mediator, he also worked with the Northern Virginia Mediation Service and the US Institute of Peace. As a technologist, he has leveraged Geographic Information Systems for health interventions, humanitarian response, and conflict analysis purposes. He holds an MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.Greg Maly Profile Picture

“Team Rubicon is doing for disaster response what the Obama team did for political campaigns,” said Jonathan Morgenstein while taking a break from tearing down moldy drywall in hurricane-damaged Rockaway, Brooklyn. A New York native and US Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq, Morgenstein had spent the last month working on the campaign trail with Veterans and Military Families for Obama. He was referring not to the nearly fifty volunteers he was coordinating that afternoon, but rather the sophisticated software back-end that he was relying on to provide the correct information attached to the clipboard he was carrying. In the same way that better technology such as “Narwhal” had been credited with assisting him only weeks earlier for turning out more volunteers, donors and voters than in 2008 for Obama (“When The Nerds Go Marching In,” The Atlantic, 11/16/12), it was now playing a core role in coordinating disaster response in New York.

Jon Morgenstein in Rockaway, Brooklyn

Jon Morgenstein in Rockaway, Brooklyn

And on November 18, Morgenstein needed the help. In collaboration with Team Rubicon, he was responsible for supervising 48 Clinton Foundation volunteers to gut ten hurricane-damaged homes in preparation for their restoration by contractors. Morgenstein was one of hundreds of volunteers helping out with Team Rubicon during the Clinton Global Initiative’s “Day of Action for New York,” which pushed Team Rubicon organizing capacity to the limit. While it’s difficult to estimate exactly how much value has been returned to the community, gutting just one of the houses was estimated at $5,000-$8,000 for a homeowner without insurance (in this case a 91-year-old), making a direct value-add beyond food and shelter relief. And each house was tied to a work order and a map on Morgenstein’s clip board, just like while canvassing before the election.

But this particular software by Palantir Technologies wasn’t designed for campaigns, rather having been used recently for finding IEDs in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a post on CNN (10/4/12), Palantir “software ties together intelligence data to improve information for troops about the possible location of roadside bombs planted by insurgents.” Nonetheless, it was also a perfect fit for an organization like Team Rubicon, which “unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with medical professionals to rapidly deploy emergency response teams into crisis situations.”  While the outpouring of people wanting to help has been heartening, new problems arise when organizing large groups of ad-hoc volunteers.

Volunteers from the Clinton Foundation  (Credit: Jon Morgenstein)

Volunteers from the Clinton Foundation

Fortunately, the tech fit the mission. Far from having an existing organizational structure or a known set of capabilities (like a proper military unit), this had been a seat-of-the-pants improvised human logistics, making those most in need with those most capable.  Palantir’s philanthropic team had been discussing doing some disaster-relief simulations to test its capabilities for this use.  When Sandy suddenly threatened the eastern seaboard, the drill became the real thing, with Palantir scrambling to set up the server infrastructure and mobile handsets for Team Rubicon’s use. (“Philanthropy Engineers Embed with Team Rubicon for Hurricane Sandy Relief,” Palantir Blog, 11/14/12)

The setup was ready by November 4th, just as recovery operations were swinging into gear. Imagined as operating system for data problems, Palantir’s software was able to pull in information from multiple sources of data, fuse it together into a coherent picture of the state of the peninsula, and then allow Team Rubicon operators to efficiently dispatch volunteers (say, a chainsaw team) to where they were needed the most (a list of the fifteen biggest downed trees). But tech isn’t perfect. “Check the data. At the end of the day, just because it’s in Palantir doesn’t make it right.” stated Brian Fishman of Palantir from inside the bus HQ. “Circumstances change, and a functional technology infrastructure requires regular updates to the data in the system.”

So, will Palantir and Team Rubicon change the way organizations think about disaster response? “I don’t know, maybe,” stated Morgenstein, “In the military we say, ‘Amateurs talk strategy, pros talk logistics’. These tech guys have made the logistics a lot easier at the operational level, and the military culture you see in Team Rubicon of delegating decision-making downwards to the person closest to the problem, is perfectly suited to an operation like this.”

Brian Fishman of Palantir at Team Rubicon FOB Hope

What we do know, however, is that putting the right tools in the right hands has the potential to create a team where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. With Palantir and Team Rubicon, response operations will continue to iterate and improve over time, with the ultimate goal being to develop better response mechanisms for the next time disaster strikes. The best indicator of Team Rubicon as a learning organization may have nothing to do with the technology. At the end of the “Day of Action,” our team leader Zach (pictured, below right) turned to the group and asked us: “What could we do differently? If you see something you think we could be doing better, please let us know so that we can keep getting better at this.” Even when it comes to disaster response, tech is only ten percent.

TechChange provides online training in Tech Tools for Emergency Management. If you’re interested in learning more, consider applying for our next course. Class starts Jan. 14!

Interested in joining Team Rubicon? Please consider donating time or money to further their work. Learn more about Team Rubicon.

Zach and Dan of Team Rubicon

Zach and Dan of Team Rubicon

TechChange is excited to announce a new partnership with Transitions (TOL), a Prague-based journalism and media training organization with a focus on the post-communist countries of Europe and the former Soviet Union. Running a variety of programs – from the publication of one of the first online magazines to cover political, social, economic and cultural issues in the region since 1999, to providing young reporters with intensive training on best journalistic practices  – TOL has been a regional leader on media and democracy building efforts.

Bringing their expertise on media and journalism development to their target region through our eLearning environment, TOL will be running their course: “Reporting on Education,”  adapting a course that the Guardian Foundation originally created for TOL and the BBC’s iLearn platform. And though journalist training is a broad endeavor, even when focusing on a particular region, we’re hoping that this course will help to not only train journalists, but also to elevate national and regional policy dialogue on the issues of educational reform, open governance and democratic accountability.

Counting gets underway at a polling station in Moscow following Russia’s Presidential election, 4 March 2012.*

This new institutional relationship and course topic comes at a time when the role of the media in promoting such topics is an ever salient issue, particularly in Eastern Europe. Over the past few months, the Kremlin has tightened control over various aspects of civil society and acted to counter what it views as foreign interference in Russia’s sovereign affairs, moves that included booting USAID, a key funder of media training and other efforts, out of the country.

TechChange has helped organizations address these challenges and co-authored a piece in the Huffington Post (USAID’s Eviction From Russia: An Opportunity for Online Learning as E-Development) expressing that:

“there is reason to believe that using widely-available technology, democracy promotion organizations have the potential to greatly influence dialogue by amplifying local practitioner voices, and giving domestic organizations a channel for collaboration with international experts.”

This is where we are hoping that our partnership with TOL will further distribute valuable content – including across closed or semi-closed borders – and build up the capacity of a core group of journalists to report in an informative and engaging way on the sometimes complicated field of education. After all, the task of training journalists in this case isn’t geared just toward building a better media, but also a better, more equitable education system and more modern and democratic societies. We’re hoping that this first course will be yet another worthwhile addition to this process.

*Photo Credit: Credit: OSCE/Jens Eschenbaecher

Interested in digital activism and citizen journalism? Check out our 104 course on digital organizing, which will be run January 7 – February 1!

Best practices conferences are critical to the growth of any community. The sharing of ideas and capturing of collective lessons-learned allows for those both in attendance, and those reading any after-action report, to proceed with their respective related projects having gained new insight, or having made new partnerships with other like-minded individuals and organizations. However, just as websites are now building responsive design as “mobile first” and desktop second, it’s time to start thinking about these events differently. No longer should we think only about planning offline events that “we webcast,” but rather about global conversations facilitated by online engagement that have an in-person conversation or presentation at its core.

Patrick Meier, co-founder of CrisisMappers, Digital Humanitarians & Standby Task Force speaking at the ICCM

In no community of practice is this more true than with Volunteer Technical Communities (VTC’s) like crisis mapping, which depend on the goodwill, real-time information, and online cohesiveness that can be properly augmented by online engagement. And keeping in line with both the principles of crowdfeeding and the fostering of global online learning communities, this past week’s International Conference of Crisis Mappers exemplified the benefits of online integration, as mappers and technologist from around the globe gathered both online and in Washington, DC for four days of conversation. By providing the global VTC with the ability to engage via a live webcast and an interactive chat forum, the information shared in the halls of the World Bank shifted from being mostly for the benefit of conference attendees, to truly engaging with the global community of crisis mappers.

By livestreaming the event, the ICCM’s webcast enabled the inclusion of over 950 additional attendees – almost doubling their audience!


Looking ahead, it isn’t just the Crisismappers team that would be best served to continue focusing on this level of digital engagement. In many ways they are thought leaders in this field through their engagement with online learning communities. However, other international organizations that focus on issues such as open governance and transparency often fail to lead by example on these issues, holding conferences that are limited to small audiences, and comprised only of individuals who can afford the time and airfare necessary to be in attendance. As distance learning practitioners, we feel strongly that effectively used learning tools can act as a driving force for social change. And in the case of live events – by bringing more voices to the table in low-cost way, simple information sharing mechanisms such as this can enable otherwise disparate communities and engaged individuals to be both teachers and students, sharing in the collective learning experience.

Linton Wells from National Defense University speaking at the ICCM

Today, the barriers to entry with this kind of online engagement are so low, that all takes is a bit of planning and a small amount of technical know-how to get up and running. I would even wager that the cost of breakfast at your event is significantly more than that of ensuring web connectivity and online involvement. And while communities of practice used to be local because business and organizations were local; today, globally minded organizations must ensure global engagement, as technology has reached a point at which there’s almost no excuse for allowing only those within a close geographic proximity access to your event. As we said – leave the bagels, keep the connectivity.*


*TechChange would still be delighted to eat breakfast at your local Washington, DC event, including bagels if that’s what is on the menu.

Go to the live webcast (starts Friday, Oct. 12 at 2:00pm)

Good news, everyone! TechChange has been asked to livestream the second day of the 2012 International Conference of Crisis Mappers on Friday, October 12! If you’re not already following the livetweets on hashtag #ICCM and from @CrisisMappers, please do tune in!


ICCM Livestream Schedule for Oct. 12, 2012

Note: This is a shorter schedule than the one listed on the full agenda.

  • 2:00pm-2:10pm Welcome remarks by Dr. Jen Ziemke, co-founder of CrisisMappers
  • 2:10pm-2:20pm Intro remarks by Dr. Patrick Meier, co-founder of CrisisMappers
  • 2:20pm-3:30pm Ignite Session 1: Talks 1-16 [Preston Auditorium]
  • 4:00pm-5:15pm Remarks: Neils Holms-Nielsen [World Bank], Christiaan Adams [Google], Dan Palmer [JCU], Tara Cordyack [GeoEye], Camille Cassidy [DigitalGlobe] Special Remarks: Salem Avan, Chief, Knowledge Management Service / United Nations, Office of Information & Communications Technology Keynote Address: Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of UN Global Pulse
  • 6:00pm-7:00pm Ignite Session 2: Talks 17-31 [Preston Auditorium]

If you’re interested in learning more about this class, please check out the course page for more details on speakers and course topics or apply now to reserve your seat.

This coming Monday, September 3, class will begin for TC103: Tech Tools and Skills for Emergency Management, which aspires to give a comprehensive introduction of everything a helpful techie needs to know in an emergency: designing a cross-institutional response plan, crowdmapping who needs help, coordinating boots on the ground to save lives, and protecting those who are most vulnerable from any additional harm, let alone yourself from legal liability. Here are just a few thing that we’re really looking forward to in this upcoming course:

As much of the Caribbean braces for the possible effects of Hurricane Isaac, Neil Laslett of the American Red Cross will discuss some of the technical challenges in anticipating and responding to emergencies. From the use of Hurricane App, to easy-to-use SMS donations (provided by mGive), disaster relief worldwide is transforming and being transformed by technology. Looking at how mapping tools can also be used in these types of situations, Robert Soden of the World Bank will talk about GIS issues for disaster response based on years of experience as both a developer and an analyst. Finally, we’ll hear from Vincenzo Bollettino from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Through his work with the Satellite Sentinel Project, he’ll speak to the nexus between technology and human rights.

But the tools are only part of the story, now that disaster responders can tap into networked communities of interest that can help process massive quantities of data in a timely manner. The most obvious example of this is Ushahidi, which rose to the forefront due to its Haiti earthquake response. Ushahidi Trusted Developer John Etherton will talk about how technologists can design and adapt technology to empower crowds to make a difference. But crowdmappers need help and protection too — legal liability expert Ed Robson will talk about how networks like Crisis Mappers and Standby Task Force can protect themselves from legal liability in this developing space.

We at TechChange are truly excited about the current lineup for TC103. The best part of our job is being able to work with a diverse group of students from all around the world, and being able to sharing in the collective learning experience. See you in class!

If you’re interested in mapping in crisis zones, consider taking our course Tech Tools and Skills for Emergency Management that runs from September 3rd – September 28th. 

Cross-posted from Greg Maly’s blog, Multitracked. He is currently working on a mapping based research project run by the University of Denver in New Delhi, India.

This past May we published a blog piece outlining some of the basic lessons learned from TechWeek at Korbel. One of the main takeaways was that technology solutions, though a potentially powerful set of tools, are only 10% tech and 90% people power.

This includes not only putting people in the drivers seat for the use of these tools over time, but also at the onset of any project when considering the need, or gap, they are intended to fill. A few months later, these lessons have become ever more salient as my team from the University of Denver works on the design of a maternal and child health monitoring system for the community of Jasola – a high risk population that borders the Yamuna river in New Delhi, India, and consequently suffers from high child and maternal mortality rates.

Keeping the importance of local ownership in mind from the onset of our project, and working with our local counterparts in the region – a Gender Resource Center (GRC) staffed by women who both live and work in the community – we began by holding a series of focus group discussions with the primary stakeholders in the region: young mothers and pregnant women, doctors who run small health clinics, and community health workers. In each meeting a number of grievances arose, from a lack of resources and shortage of doctors relative to the size of the population in the region, to the difficulties of maintaining effective communication between doctors and patients. As an example of the effectiveness community driven conversations, through these focus group sessions we learned that knowing the location of pregnant mothers was one of the greatest obstacles to routine checkups. This we could work with relatively quickly.

A simple fix was the breakdown of the community into the separate Mohallas, or neighborhoods, which are already well known to community members, but haven’t made it into any form of visual representation. A few afternoons of community mapping using handheld Garmin GPS units and an OSM update quickly fixed the problem and moved the conversation forward a few steps, allowing new ideas to unfold – many of which came from the GRC staff themselves.

Like many health projects around the world, this one has a long way to go. The problems are greater than any solution of this scale can begin to truly address. However, small wins like these slowly begin to even the playing field as communities become empowered to address problems one a time, and with sustainable solutions that do not require a large number of additional resources. In this case, we’re happy to report that community members are on board, including some young mothers who have joined the conversation. Updated maps are being connected with a system that will aim to track mothers from conception through to birth. And though our DU team is set to return home in just two weeks time, I can already tell that the community members see the benefit of this project, and are ready to push it forward with or without us for the long haul. Who knows – there might even be a tablet involved. Stay tuned.



Anyone who has planned a conference knows that they’re a lot of work. Lining up speakers. Coordinating room schedules. Coming up with discussion topics. Promoting the event so that people show up. And, oh yeah… learning stuff! That’s important too.

The event we’re talking about here is TechWeek@DU, which ran from April 16th – 19th at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in Denver, Colorado, and was brought together by the school’s Global Health Affairs ProgramHumanitarian Assistance Program, and the Center for Sustainable Development and International Peace. Five events in four days involving experts from Denver, Washington DC, and the greater Boston area, and discussing some of the most pressing issues in and around ICT4D. From crisis mapping to mHealth – for a week the Korbel School had tech on its mind.

But what began as an effort to bring this conversation to the DU community quickly become a realization as to the incredible amount of work being done in Denver, and that sometimes it takes the mere act of getting people into a room together for the whole to become greater than the sum of their parts. With that said, here are four lessons that I learned during TechWeek:

Lesson 1: Tech is only ten percent.

Tech is, and should be, for everyone. However, there are no silver bullets that will magically kill the beast that is complex operations and make our work easy. The reality is that the solutions we’re talking about here are 10% technological innovation and 90% people power. While advances in information and communication technologies can be leveraged to enhance the efficiency or effectiveness of one’s work – at the end of the day, the user remains responsible for the success (or failure) of any program or operation. What truly matters is how you use these new tools- so education is, and must remain, a priority.


On a personal note – this is ultimately one of the reasons why I joined the TechChange team. Having learned the value of leveraging technology for my own work in peacebuilding and development, it is my belief that our community writ large would be well served to remain informed as to the latest and greatest tools to suit our individual needs. And by learning not only how to use these emerging tools in our own work, but also how other organizations apply them in new and innovative ways, we can work together to strengthen the community as a whole.

Lesson 2: Ethics matter, especially as tech puts us all on the battlefield.

What does it mean that we can now access new levels of information about people in crisis zones? What are the potential risks that come along with this new opportunity for data collection, management, analysis, and response? As we learned from Nathaniel Raymond, Director of the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative – we’re all in the war because tech makes it global. Putting dots on a map may seem harmless, but any and all sensitive information can be used in previously unforeseen ways. As such, the question of ethics are paramount, and must be regularly addressed as we continue to intake and output large quantities of data and information.

Lesson 3: Technology isn’t as important as how we put it together.

Satellites existed before SSP, education before TechChange, maps before HealthMap. It’s not always about inventing new things, but rather putting them together in innovative ways that add value.

This lesson is especially apropos to the work of Dr. David Scales and his team at HealthMap. Using their data aggregation system to show where outbreaks are occurring around the world – which is based on the news feeds of major health organizations and a number of other sources – global health practitioners are able to track health emergencies in real-time, take steps to prevent the further spread of disease, and ultimately save lives.

Lesson 4: Denver is already on the cutting edge!

When we started TechWeek, I hoped to bring in outside tech experts, but also showcase DU. It wasn’t until I had a chance to meet the team at pirate tracker, hear more about KP’s work with, learn about the upcoming launch of the TIPS program through the work of Professor Debbie Avant, engage in discussions with Korbel PhD students Roni Kay O’Dell, Keith Gehring, and Jonathan Moyer on how ICT has evolved over time, and see the overwhelming enthusiasm of the student body at DU on ICT4D, that I really learned how amazing DU is already in this field. We’re not only active, but even on the cutting edge!

So if the goal of this year’s TechWeek was to bridge the divide between different types of experts working in complex operations, then thinking about the ways we can showcase more of Denver’s amazing talent at the next round of conversations may just be the best place to begin.




Conclusion: For TechWeek, like in technology, it’s not about the tools but about the people.

At the end, I learned more about the tools than I thought I would. But the most valuable parts of TechWeek happened in the conversations between the presentations. Once again – it’s not just about the technology, but about the people. Thanks to our speakers for bringing these tools to life and to the students who showed up. And thanks to all of the amazing members of the core team who made everything go off without a hitch. While TechWeek is over (at least for this year), it is my hope that this is just the beginning of a larger conversation we can continue in years to come.