Building a Virtual Village: Software Helps Connect Relief Organizations to Those in Need

REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 14, 2002 — An information technology manager’s job can be a challenge in any organization, providing and supporting myriad technologies, devices and applications. But when the office is in a small African village where few have running water and electricity, let alone Web access, that’s when IT managers really earn their pay.

Save the Children and Mercy Corps are two such organizations. With offices dotting some of the most remote parts of the globe, keeping their employees outfitted with necessary hardware and software to stay connected and provide relief is a critical part of their mission.

To help them in their efforts, Microsoft recently made software donations totaling over US$5.2 million to the two organizations: $4.5 million to Save the Children for desktop and server upgrades, and $739,000 to Mercy Corps.

The grants are the first two made in a Microsoft Community Affairs pilot program of International Technology Leadership Grants. The program encourages nonprofit organizations to use innovative technology solutions to improve their efficiency and effectiveness.

“Microsoft has worked closely with international relief and development agencies and on several occasions we have worked together to create solutions as a part of a disaster response effort or as part of a sustainable community solution,” says Bruce Brooks, Microsoft’s director of Community Affairs. “We’re proud to provide technology and expertise to help make their mission more successful.”

For Save the Children, the donation will help extend and standardize the technology infrastructure. “A real advantage of the donation is that we can standardize our software globally,” says Chief Technology Officer Edward Granger-Happ. “It makes things like support, training, and adoption much easier. We look to partners like Microsoft for the application opportunities so the desktop user in Malawi can have the same collaboration power as the person in Connecticut.”

Save the Children began in 1932 in New York to help Appalachian families suffering from the Great Depression. Today, the organization works in over 40 countries, and provides relief to children in need of healthcare, education, economic opportunity, and disaster relief.

Mercy Corps also works around the world to provide relief, and to create sustainable programs to help people build secure, productive and just communities. The agency operates in more than 30 countries, reaching 5 million people. Extending and standardizing the technology platform with products such as Microsoft Windows XP, Office XP, Visual Studio .NET 2002, and SQL Server 2000 is intended to help Mercy Corps become more efficient as an organization.

“This donation enables us to develop and model technologies that can be adopted by local organizations,” says Peter Dickinson, Director of Information Technology at Mercy Corps. “Grass roots system development is innovative and tenacious. More and more, technology can directly foster innovation and inspiration in humanitarian development.”

Like any large organization working in multiple locations, relief agencies can use technology to make their operations more efficient. Save The Children has developed several systems that, with the help of various technology-industry partners, let them track progress on their projects. In the summer 2001 in Nicaragua, Microsoft Consulting Services donated time to develop an application running on Pocket PCs, which were donated by Compaq. The application was written in Spanish, and helped field workers of Save The Children collect disaster information.

“Our field workers went out on mopeds and could update disaster preparedness information and feedback to our offices,” says Granger-Happ. “The Pocket PCs make an ideal data-collection device in situations like that, with their small size and long battery life.”

But technology and IT development bring another benefit to the business, one often as important as the operational advantages. Relief organizations typically develop technology projects in partnership with various local agencies. These projects teach local people valuable skills, and also provide the community with software and hardware that can be used for other projects. Helping establish technology in these areas helps support the organizations’ goals of fostering long-term, sustainable economic development.

“Our goal is to put ourselves out of business,” says Dickinson. “We use technology to help build a sustainable solution in the areas we work in.”

One example, says Dickinson, is an application called KREDITS, a system for tracking micro-enterprise loans. Based on Microsoft Access, the system was developed by Mercy Corps in Kazakhstan, and adapted for use in Bosnia and Kosovo. A local partner in Bosnia now uses it to manage its portfolios of economic-development loans totaling more than $15 million.

Relief organizations are also finding better ways to partner through technology, especially during disaster situations, both natural and man-made. Sharing information — whether by collaborating on a grant application or tracking the shipment of food and medicine to a disaster area — via technology is helping both Save The Children and Mercy Corp more quickly and effectively provide assistance to people in need.

To this end, Microsoft and Mercy Corps worked together to develop a tracking system called FACTS, the Food and Commodity Tracking System. FACTS is a collaborative effort involving several nonprofit relief and development organizations, led by Mercy Corps and including Save The Children, Project Concern International, Food for the Hungry International, American Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services. The system is Web- and XML-based, and allows an agency to track and report on virtually any commodity, from donor to end-recipient. It can manage dozens of simultaneous relief operations throughout the world, providing real-time access by all parties to one common data set.

“Once in full production,” says Dickinson, “it will help by providing greater accuracy and timeliness of information on shipments, inventories, and distributions, so that commodities can be managed more effectively and efficiently. In other words, it will enable us to meet critical human needs with the correct quantities and to meet them more quickly.”

In long term, Dickinson continues, “FACTS will provide even greater efficiencies by enabling commodity management professionals that are responding to an emergency to share information across agency boundaries.”

Internet access is another major challenge for these organizations. While the world is changing rapidly, there’s huge variation in the means — or lack thereof — to connect to the Internet in the dozens of locations in which these organizations work.

“Our number-one technology issue is connectivity and communications with our field workers. We’re working in areas of the world where basic infrastructure simply doesn’t exist,” says Granger-Happ. “In many places, it’s a challenge just to find a phone line to get a 9.6 kbps dial-up access, and even then lines often don’t stay connected for more than five minutes.”

Granger-Happ said in many places without a viable telecommunications infrastructure, Save The Children connects via satellite phones, which provide 9.6 kbps connections, but can also cost upwards of $4 per minute. Still, new affordable telecommunications solutions are increasingly becoming available. Only a year ago in Pakistan, 128 kbps Internet service cost $4,000 monthly, Granger-Happ recalls; he recently signed a deal for a 256-kbps DSL line that will cost only $300 a month.

“The world’s changing rapidly,” says Granger-Happ. “When we can have the consistent bandwidth we need, the whole nature of the conversation changes. We can do things like help field workers in separate locations hold a virtual meeting, and share large files that would otherwise take one to two hours to download.”

Save The Children hopes eventually to use technology to grow their efforts in ways that aren’t possible today.

“Our vision in IS is to help make us all part of one virtual village,” says Granger-Happ. “We can use the Internet to let a donor enter the child’s world, setting up virtual tours and real-time presentations. We can enable conversations that don’t happen today, like having children in an education program in Africa make a presentation on the Web that donors can watch.”

“If I can create conversations — between children and donors, between our offices, between us and other NGO offices — that’s where I want to be,” he says.

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