REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 22, 2006 – Disasters happen.
And while there’s little – if anything – that can be done to prevent acts of nature such as hurricanes, tsunamis or earthquakes, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) can tell you that technology does enable efficient and rapid communications during times of crises, when speed, collaboration and efficiency can make a true difference in people’s lives. Last year, CRS teamed up with Microsoft to develop a portal tailored to accelerate global relief response to the South Asian earthquake and tsunami. It gave CRS a way to foster better and faster communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing among its staff operating in the region and at headquarters.
“The SharePoint [Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003] environment is so intuitive that our tsunami-emergency-response teams were able to focus on their primary mission – providing assistance to people in dire need,” says Paul Cunningham, director of CRS’ management information department.
In an effort to facilitate similar successes and improve humanitarian relief efforts across the globe, Microsoft is donating US$41 million in software and cash to NetHope and The Interagency Working Group on Emergency Capacity Building (ECB). NetHope is a membership organization comprised of the chief information officers and/or chief technology officers of 17 global non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in international development. The InterAgency Working Group for ECB is comprised of seven of the most active agencies in this space, including CRS, Mercy Corps and Save the Children. Their focus is to improve collaboration and capacity in disaster response, including improving the use of information and communications technology to assist in their work.
This grant is part of Microsoft Community Affairs’ ongoing effort to improve its contributions to the nonprofit sector, by providing tools and technology to NGOs. Through the years, Microsoft, along with others in the industry, has supported community-based programs to provide access to technology. By partnering with nonprofit organizations, the company seeks to create innovative solutions that strengthen nonprofits through better communications systems and technology.
“Microsoft has played a catalytic role in fostering strong partnership among leading international NGOs, enabling them to unleash the power of technology to solve common problems cooperatively,” says Molly Tschang, NetHope’s Executive Director. “This collaborative model creates leverage for technology to dramatically improve the efficiency, speed and information sharing by those who need it most during emergencies.”
Establishing Online Collaboration
NetHope’s members will use Microsoft’s donations to aid major systems upgrades, moving from IT infrastructure that often has been cobbled together over time – and across a number of global offices – to a more unified platform using Microsoft Windows XP and Microsoft Office.
Microsoft is also supporting the ECB’s efforts to establish online collaboration and conduct a broad technology assessment across the seven agencies. The assessment will serve to guide future technology investments within and among the various organizations. One example of such an effort is an online learning center, which will provide a cohesive place for emergency personnel to gather resources and learn about country-specific protocols and procedures. The ECB also is pursuing a “staff capacity dashboard” solution that will allow relief organizations to track their performance metrics against sector standards.
“The numerous disasters last year brought increased collaboration among NGOs, and with the help of companies like Microsoft, the organizations are working to build even stronger ties in the hopes of better coordination now to improve results during the next disaster,” says Greg Brady, ECB’s Project Director.
A Collective ‘Aha’
Before the tsunami disaster, CRS used traditional communications methods – telephone, e-mail and personal visits – to coordinate overseas activities. The tsunami, however, did not respect national or organizational boundaries, necessitating that the agency deploy more advanced tools that companies like Microsoft can provide.
“As soon as we saw the SharePoint Portal Solution, there was a collective ‘Aha,’” says CRS’ Cunningham “This was exactly what we’d been looking for to foster better communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing among our worldwide staff.”.
The portal homepage provided an entry point for all CRS employees to access information they needed for their daily work. Most program information previously transferred via e-mail was available through the portal. For example, CRS workers filed situation reports daily or as warranted by changing situations and needs. Previously routed to lists of individuals via e-mail, these documents were made available 24 hours a day from any location with an Internet connection. The portal provided a central location for photos, press releases, media kits and related information that enabled CRS to present a consistent view of its operations to the outside world. Staff travel also was facilitated because visa requirements, security updates and transportation schedules are easily accessible.
Today, the tsunami portal is being used by CRS staff and consultants in Europe, the United States and Indonesia, who are working together to develop a prototype monitoring and evaluation system for CRS’ rehabilitation efforts. CRS is sharing its experience with other relief agencies. In cooperative studies seeking ways to improve emergency response, portal technologies are regarded as an emerging best practice. The goal of the ECB effort is to truly break down the walls that have existed in the NGO community – bringing increased sharing of knowledge and problem solving that can build greater collaboration in the field during a time of crises.
Accelerating Transition from Relief to Development
Jim White of Mercy Corps agrees. As program operations director, he says that Internet-based technologies provide faster and better communication, coordination and planning. White oversees all of Mercy Corps’ humanitarian programs in the Middle East and Central Asia
The non-profit relief agency will be using Microsoft’s latest donation to support both its relief and development programs, as well as to augment its expertise in accelerating the transition from relief to development. Globally, Mercy Corps aims to improve its ability to share information across the organization, and particularly between emergency relief workers and development teams. Mercy Corps will be using this software to improve its monitoring and evaluation.
“Microsoft’s data management tools will have an increasingly significant impact on our health programs that promote community-based public health interventions, our livelihood programs in rural agricultural development, and our economic development programs in finance and business services,” White says.
Tools such as Microsoft Office Excel, Access, Groove and Share Point provide fundamental building blocks – the constituent DNA – with which field personnel can build innovative technical solutions to local problems. That is why, White says, these tools are so critical to Mercy Corps.
“Sadly, disasters do happen,” says Pamela Passman, Microsoft’s vice president of Global Corporate Affairs. “Through our long-term involvement with disaster response, we have built programs designed to maximize use of our technology expertise as well as our cash contributions. Our partnerships with non-profit organizations are designed to provide long-term value for the organizations and their ability to respond in crisis situations,” “As a successful company and global corporation, we at Microsoft believe it is important to help improve humanitarian efforts through financial donations, technical resources and the volunteer efforts of our employees worldwide. We believe our most effective response to these situations is to put our tools and technology into action.”