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Leveraging technology on the frontlines of emergency: How communities of developers are taking action

From sending emergency alerts about nearby fires to mapping services in refugee camps, developers are taking action to solve global problems.

Leveraging technology on the frontlines of emergency: How communities of developers are taking action

Coming from the humanitarian sector, I’ve seen firsthand how organizations are leveraging tech in innovative ways to solve global problems. At GitHub, the more I learn from these organizations, the more I realize that the most powerful parts of them are the leaders who dedicate their lives to creating change, and the huge communities of people they’ve inspired to make a difference right alongside them.

Two of these people are John Mills, co-founder and CEO of Watch Duty, and Seema Iyer, senior director of The Hive at USA for UNHCR. While speaking with them, it was clear that they linked success directly with their passionate communities—from civic technologists to community leaders with hundreds of thousands of social media followers to people who simply learn about a crisis and want to dive in and help.

But it was also clear that to them, community also means sharing and learning from each other—even if they’re working in entirely different areas of humanitarian response. And that developers can lend their expertise in all kinds of ways to help on the frontlines of emergencies.

Camaley Jennings
Marketing & Project Manager, Social Impact // GitHub

All eyes on Watch Duty

Camaley (GitHub): This was quite timely but I actually got an alert from Watch Duty about a fire in my area right before this. I haven’t been alerted by any other news outlets yet, so now I’m more interested than ever to hear about how you came to found this organization and what you’re working on.

Headshot photograph of John Mills, co-founder and CEO of Watch Duty. He has is arms crossed and is wearing dark framed glasses, a jaunty straw hat, and a dark blazer over a white t-shirt.

John (Watch Duty): Well, most wildfires turn deadly in the first hour, yet emergency alerts don’t usually show up until it’s too late. After living through that situation a few times—you watch helicopters dropping the wet stuff on the hot stuff and your phone isn’t going off and nothing is on the news—you wonder what’s going on. So, we set out to change that.

Three years ago, I started Watch Duty after finding out that the best information coming out in emergencies was from a bunch of humans who spend their time listening to radios and sharing that through huge social media followings. Some had hundreds of thousands of people listening to them because they were the only voices during these disasters. So, we’re really a community-led organization run by a bunch of volunteers who used to do this individually, but now work together.

Camaley: It’s incredible that you’ve been able to bring this community of passionate people together. Besides normal citizens, who else is utilizing the information being disseminated?

John: Now, we’re actually selling information to utilities and emergency services to help finance our operation, keeping the service free to residents. I’ve actually met tanker pilots with $30 million aircrafts who thanked me for my service as we provided more intel than they’ve ever had. That’s when I realized the true scale of this problem and why we’re going full steam ahead.

International support with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Camaley (GitHub): Seema, I’ve followed UNHCR’s work for a long time and know what an incredible global impact you have. Can you tell me more about your mission and the innovation lab you oversee?

Headshot photograph of Seema Iyer, senior director of The Hive at USA for UNHCR. She is smiling at the camera and has dark shoulder-length hair, wearing dark framed glasses and a dark blue turtleneck sweater.

Seema (UNHCR): UNHCR has a global mission to protect forcibly displaced people around the world. Unfortunately, in the last 10 years, this number has more than doubled, starting with the Syrian crisis in 2014 and further escalating with the situations in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

I oversee The Hive, a data science innovation lab which was created 10 years ago to harness the power of data science and technology to raise awareness about refugees and design solutions to address their needs.

Right now, we’re working with UNHCR Kenya through a Microsoft grant with their AI for Good Lab so that we can help them use drone imagery and machine learning to better understand where camp features are. The machine learning code and models were intended to be open source so the final outputs are now available on GitHub. Refugees may be coming from different parts of Africa to the western part of Kenya and after they get their shelter materials, UNHCR might not always know precisely where they end up. So, the machine learning model helps show where there was an influx of people and where they set up their shelters and other infrastructure. This is going to help with planning and resource management within the camp.

Open source in emergencies

Camaley: How are both of your organizations utilizing open source? How is it important for your mission and how is it impacting your work?

John: I’ve been writing software for 30 years and using open source software my entire career. We are partly open source, but what’s really challenging for us is that we didn’t invent the thing that we are, but we are the best at it. There are other apps trying to do this and charging money, so if I opened it up completely they would just take all the work that we’ve done, charge people for it, and we wouldn’t have an organization anymore.

We are open data on a lot of things, but I’m torn internally, as a human, because we’re doing the right thing and we want to help the world, but we can’t just give everything away.

Seema: John’s absolutely right—even though we’re nonprofits we do still need a revenue model to cover our costs. So, we have to balance wanting to share information for knowledge exchange and innovation while also making sure that we have a revenue model.

But we really see open source as a way to engage people. We curate ways for people who are curious about our mission to learn about the topic and apply their skills. They may even come up with solutions that we haven’t even thought of. For example, Microsoft’s engineers created a model to identify solar panels within the camp. Now, the question is figuring out if we can use that same model and code in other situations and contexts so that others don’t need to start from scratch.

Camaley: What future goals do you have for open source in your work?

Seema: We want to become better curators of engagement and to do this we want to learn from other people that have already done this. And then we want to contribute back as well.

I think the critical signature of being an innovation lab is the dissemination of the information. This enables others to take what we’ve learned instead of starting from scratch and vice versa; that’s the signature mark of innovation. This is why open source is critical—so that we can help people more quickly understand what the needs are of refugees and how data science and technology might help.

A community of heroes

Camaley: You’ve both touched a lot on your community—what is your goal when it comes to building community and what’s the value of that community?

Seema: If you want to help in a humanitarian crisis, one of the easiest and most effective ways is to give money. But most people, especially civic technologists, want to help beyond that. And those skills are actually very expensive or completely inaccessible for the humanitarian sector because of the cost. So, we need to figure out effective ways of meeting both of those needs because it’s not always obvious how people can use their technical skills in a humanitarian setting. We need to curate those pathways of knowledge sharing, which is what our organization, The Hive, is trying to do.

John: What’s really been impactful for me and my community is seeing how a small number of people can really change the world—and software enables us to do that.

It’s really amazing to watch people engage with solving real problems like this and see it become their life force—who they are. So, that’s what’s really impactful—actually turning people into heroes. Because they are; these people are first responders. Firefighters meet them and shake their hand at what they’re doing.

That’s the beautiful part about what we can do with machines when they’re used properly. They don’t replace us, but they enable us.

Stories like this are meant to inspire, educate, and advocate for organizations that are working to incite real change in the world. With over 100 million developers on GitHub, even just a small percentage of those people leveraging their skills for good can create big change.

If you want to be part of that change, you can get involved with Watch Duty on their website. To support USA for UNHCR, visit their website.

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