Yesterday, I wrote about the way technology has been used by individuals to create a virtual community of “The Diaspora.” Of course, many will recognize this as a decentralized, or distributed, network. There exists no central clearinghouse for information, except for those pockets of friends that have the ability to develop lists, and then farm them back out to friends and family.
The Washington Post’s story identifies another need–connecting those who are not connected, because they were unable to flee. For many reasons (all of which will be debated and discussed over the months to come) large numbers of people were unable to evacuate the city of New Orleans. They are effectively cut off from communications, even when located in what was called at the time, the refuge “of last resort.” The challenge? Who should be tasked to pull together these groups, collect the information about the survivors, and those that did not, and get the word out? Historically, that has been the role of the American Red Cross–a role fulfilled through the use of paper, pens, and pencils, and lots of sweat equity. Now they are tasked with finding highly technical means of doing this very thing.
The question that is being worked through is actually one tackled by many a business course. “How does one define oneself?” If the Red Cross views themselves as a provider of relief and comfort, but not technological services, then is their organization prepared to handle such a request? Should the Red Cross be in this business, or should they partner with another organization that perhaps would be better suited for these sorts of technical challenges?
And most importantly, should there be only one organization/firm/business to tackle and coordinate the technical challenges?
These are heady times for technology. This isn’t about the “internet bubble” of the late 1990s. It isn’t about technology stocks making people wealthy. We now see technology being used to ameliorate the wounds of our brothers and sisters. Technology with heart.
I have rarely spoken here about my research, but now is perhaps a time for me to speak. I have supervised several research efforts looking at the way we provide support to humanitarian relief operations. While much of it has focused on general command and control type issues, perhaps the most interesting one was a paper that tried to develop a centralized checklist for the NGOs to use to coordinate logistics/supply chain support. Imagine, 30 or 40 different organizations, each trying to get their materials and their people into the ravaged areas, hindered by few/no roads, limited airport access (ramp space is precious–especially if you also have to host a “tent city”) and each optimizing their loads for their cargo, not for the overall cargo required to go in to a disaster area. Quite a challenge.
The problem? These organizations either cannot, or will not, work together. And none can or will take direction from the US Government. Wow–imagine trying to corral these cats…