“By Failing To Prepare, You Are Preparing To Fail.” – Benjamin Franklin.

In the last several weeks, I’ve been learning a lot about emergency response from TC103 facilitator, Timo Luege, who will launch the latest round of the Tech Tools & Skills for Emergency Management online course starting today.

Since I met Timo, I’ve been struck by his calm demeanor and composure, which is a key and necessary trait to sustain a career in emergency management and humanitarian aid in the face of crisis situations. After he shared some good practices for disaster emergency response, I asked him:

“How does one remain so calm when working in a career in disaster response?”

His answer?


According to Timo, “Training, preparation and having protocols and processes in place for different scenarios are the best guarantee for remaining calm during a crisis. This is especially true for security. There are too many organisations that don’t prepare or support their staff properly and expose them to situations they don’t know how to handle.”

That said, is there enough training in place for emergency managers to have more success in disaster response and resilience for future unforeseen disasters? What have been some of the best emergency management trainings and preparation guides?

What role can technology play in helping to manage disaster response? Looking to learn disaster response tips from professionals who have worked in disaster areas? Sign up now for this 4-week online course on Tech Tools and Skills for Emergency Management, which begins on November 24!


It’s no secret that we’re passionate about the power of volunteer technical communities here at TechChange. We helped link volunteer communities with response organizations for the Digital Humanitarian Network procedures simulation, as well as streamed and assisted with online participation in last year’s International Conference on Crisis Mappers.

When a disaster occurs—an earthquake in Haiti or a landslide in Uganda—it’s often up to non-governmental organizations and volunteer groups to coordinate urgent emergency relief. Communication is the backbone of this disaster recovery, yet is currently limited to prohibitively expensive satellite phones and short range radios. Cell phones might work briefly if the towers are still up.

In response to these challenges, the web has been abuzz about two promising technologies that could change the way we connect in times of crisis: dependable ways to connect volunteers, refugees, and the general public in harsh environments and disaster zones.

The first technology is a new device: BRCK, a rugged cellular mobile hotspot. Roughly the size of its namesake, BRCK promises an eight-hour battery life, a powerful WiFi antenna, and Arduino-like extensibility. The Ushahidi team, the nonprofit behind the Kickstarter-funded project, dubbed it “[the] backup generator to the internet.”

While BRCK itself doesn’t present any new ways to connect to the internet, it improves and reinforces existing methods. The connection options make it a really powerful router; a business in Mozambique, for example, could use the BRCK’s redundant network connections to setup a WiFi router that had both Ethernet and 3G/4G backbones. However, while all these specs are useful, this device was probably not meant for crisis response (read: when cell service is unreliable). The weakness of this device lies in our current limited communication infrastructure.

To solve the need for a dependable remote cloud, Google unveiled just that: a mesh network of balloons. That’s right: internet-enabled balloons, floating in the sky, traveling with the wind currents in the stratosphere! A sort of hybrid of satellites and cell towers, Project Loon promises to set up highly flexible deployments of access points wherever they are needed. So, when an earthquake strikes New Zealand, Loon balloons can float over and beam an internet signal to the affected area on the ground.

In theory, this network is a wonderful idea. It’s portable, fast, disaster-proof internet. But the exact aspect that makes this project novel is the one that will create the most challenges. Google will become a sort of air traffic control for its own thousands of balloons, which require direction and maintenance. Users of Loon will also need a special Google antenna—the balloons unfortunately don’t transmit in the WiFi signal band. But for disaster situations, where the need for communication often means the difference of human lives, it appears to be a novel and practical idea.

Perhaps a comparison is in order. It costs an average of $150,000 to build a GSM cell tower with a maximum signal range of 35 kilometers (the effective signal radius is smaller, however). No one really knows how much a Loon balloon will cost—so far Google has been light on the details of the project—but we do know that each balloon has a coverage radius of 20 km. That means, to beat out the cell tower in terms of cost per square kilometer covered, each balloon needs to total less than $50,000. Likely a bundle of electronics attached to a solar panel hooked to a balloon will cost much less.

(The math: a GSM cell tower costs $150,000. Max radius of 35 km. Max area covered is π352 ≈ 3850 km sq. Loon balloon costs unknown. Max radius of 20 km. Max area covered is π202 ≈ 1260 km sq. Thus, a GSM tower covers about three times more area than a balloon.)

While these technologies might just be developing, they are really promising. Ultimately, I think both of these technologies could be used together; since you need a special antenna with Loon anyway, why not add one to the BRCK, so you can have a trifecta of connections: Ethernet, cellular, and Loon? This redundancy would be really powerful.

We won’t solve global internet infrastructure overnight, but these prototypes show us the way toward the future: creative solutions to fix real world problems in times and places where it’s needed most. Keep your eye out for new developments, it will no doubt get more interesting!

Are you interested in the future of our connected world? Join us for TC103, our exciting new course about technology and emergency management, starting in August.


When I graduated college two weeks ago, I thought I was done taking classes for a while. Yet, instead of hanging out with friends, finishing season 4 of Arrested Development on Netflix, or even going for a run, I spent my first weekend in DC back in a classroom.

Early Saturday morning, I joined Nick Martin, CEO, at George Washington University to assist him in teaching a two-day, graduate level course on using technology for crisis response and governance. This wasn’t your run of the mill course though. Rather than introducing theorists with lofty ideas, abstract from the reality of disasters on the ground, Nick crafted the course as a realistic, hands-on approach.

As a fun beginning to the day, Nick broke the students into small groups to learn how to use Twitter. Tasked with creating accounts that impersonated celebrities, some of the students crafted hilarious Tweets and interactions. Among my favorites:

From there, we examined a series of potential solutions for crisis response. We considered how mobile phones could be used to collect and analyze data, how we could use CrowdMap and OpenStreetMap to visualize data and dynamically respond to changing geographies, and how social media could be leveraged in conflicts to raise money or locate survivors. This overview of the different platforms allowed us to focus on both the benefits of each solution and, more importantly, the limitations.

The second day of the course featured more hands on implementation of technologies and zombies.

Yep. Zombies.

In this simulation, we were preparing for an inevitable invasion of zombies in Washington, DC. New York City had already fallen, so the students had to design and implement plans for both alerting citizens of the apocalypse and ascertaining how prepared they were. By trying to implement tools such as FrontlineSMS, Magpi, Open Data Kit, and FormHub in a disaster scenario, it quickly became apparent that certain tools were preferable for certain scenarios. For instance, while FrontlineSMS would be fantastic for disseminating information, it would be challenging to run a survey on it. Open Data Kit and Magpi work wonderfully if you have an Android phone, but falters on an iPhone. Formhub, while offering both an Android app and a web-based form, can only accept surveys created in a .xls file type—definitely not prohibitive, but it does require an extra layer of expertise.

After we saved the world, or at least DC, from zombies, we explored a few tools in the sector of finance, health, and governance. Among the highlights for me were m-Pesa, a fascinating mobile-based money transfer system started in Kenya; MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, which sends valuable information to pregnant women concerning caring for their child; and CrowdHall, a rethinking of the town hall meeting for the digital age.

Both the breadth and the depth possible in these two days impressed me. The number of tools we used demonstrated the tremendous advances and potential of technology to address crises as they arise. Despite my belief that I could avoid a classroom for a few years, exploring these potential solutions was the best possible foray back into education.

Much of the event data that new technology is making available to practitioners contains geographic information, and to take advantage of this we need a way of thinking about geographic information in a predictive way.  Combining today’s post with last week’s “Corralling the Data instead of the Data Corralling Us” post, we get a data filtering methodology that gives us data that is timely and geographically relevant in the field.  This will set us up for next week’s post, which will explore how to use time and space filters to maximize the value of software like Swiftriver which significantly speeds the process of data collection and management for project leaders and analysts.


Before getting too carried away with Facbeook’s Places app, look into how smartphones are locating and coordinate relief efforts in Pakistan’s natural disaster, via crowdsourcing.

On August 18th 2010, Facebook enabled the Places app, introducing a 3D human element to the traditional status update, allowing you to “immediately tell people about that favorite spot.” Places is similar to FourSquare, a smartphone app that lists thousands of places for you to check in at, based on your GPS location. According to Michael Sharon, product manager for Places: “the next time you head off on vacation or go to a show, check in with Places to find out which friends are there,” either via your iPhone or touch.facebook.com.