Monday, January 28, 2008

New Staff at InSTEDD

We have two new members of the InSTEDD team and I couldn't be more pleased. You'll see their bios appear on the Bio page but Olaf and Suzanne are just as remarkable as the rest of the team, have both been working around us for a while, and will fit right in as full-time members of the staff.

Olaf Conijn - a Dutch development star

Olaf is a stunning coder, considered "incredible" by our director of engineering, Ed Jezierski (and Ed himself was considered a "force" at Microsoft, leading the "Patterns and Practices" group before joining InSTEDD, so one star is apparently able to recognize another...) . Ed's known Olaf for a while and has watched him develop software for several years. Olaf, though, is modest about his achievements, noting only that, as a teenager, he found he "liked writing computer programs". Only when pressed does he mention that he was teaching coding to world-class professionals (some at Microsoft) when he was 17. He's now all of 25 and living in Amsterdam. He'll be working on platform development and tool integration for our deep-field cross-border reporting systems, and helping national Ministries of Health meet reporting requirements for the new International Health Regulations that came into effect in June of 2007.

Suzanne Jul - a perfect match for InSTEDD

Suzanne is a PhD computer scientist and disaster maven with a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Washington and a PhD in Human-Computer Interface from the University of Michigan. She then got interested in disaster response tools, became a Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer, took courses in disaster response and International Humanitarian Law while consulting for Cisco, worked in the Katrina response and in disaster exercises for the State of California, then showed up on our radar after working at the ISCRAM Conference in the Netherlands last year (Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management). I talked with her during a meeting at the Technical University in Delft and was impressed with both her career achievements and her pragmatic intelligence. Lots of common sense, and a huge desire to put all of that careful training to use somewhere that matters. So she started at InSTEDD last week. I've seen her portfolio and she's perfect for the interface design problems we've seen all over the humanitarian support space.

The team is looking at shortcomings in humanitarian tools

About that interface design problem. Suzanne is particularly important because so much (not all, but most) humanitarian software has been either designed for other tasks and adopted simply for ubiquity and access, or it was designed precisely to meet a perceived need by someone who DOES that job, but isn't trained in software design, quality assurance, or interface optimization. Now InSTEDD has the luxury of staff trained in all three, PLUS experience in the field and a near-constant exposure to real field conditions because we test our stuff in places like the Mekong Delta, Olympic National Park, and the Costa Rican cloud forests.

Nothing is ever guaranteed, but this is shaping up fairly well.


Seoul and Water Disasters

I’m in Seoul, Korea attending the UN’s “Second Meeting of the High-Level Expert Panel on Water and Disaster” and I’ve learned a great deal in just a few hours. Participants around me are from Bangladesh, England, UNICEF, the Japan Water Forum and a dozen others, and the opening speech this morning at 9am was delivered by a man who was, unexpectedly, named Prime Minister of South Korea at 10:30.

I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet today, listening to the problems seen in Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh, and the arguments for including slow-onset events under the label “water disasters” (like groundwater depletion and river contamination in southern India, for example) so that they can get the attention they need. It's a small room at a nice hotel (made smaller by a LOT of media cameras) and the participants seem to know each other fairly well. The conversation has been structured, but informal, and I've noted the remarkable range of problems we face globally that are rarely considered in the West. After one long description of the consequences of livestock loss in hurricanes, there was an extended discussion from Colombia, for example, on how to make Disaster Risk Assessments as much a part of development and reconstruction as an Environmental Impact Statement. And how to make disaster risk reduction as ubiquitous an effort within a population as seatbelts are for injury avoidance and safe sex for HIV transmission reduction.

I spoke on the place of InSTEDD and our partners in the aftermath of acute water disasters like floods and typhoons, including some of the tools we’ve found or built that might be helpful there. The talk was apparently very well-received and we’ve a new set of conversations underway with colleagues we’ve just met this morning. One discussion included a nice idea for linking a regional disaster response planning team in Central America using VSee (

After my talk (which was on requirements for effective response to disasters in general, not just disease reporting) I heard that peasants in Colombia, a country riven by violence from narco-trafficking, still consider floods a greater threat than anything else in the nation. And that India now gets 50% of her daily water from underground aquifers - water that’s been percolating slowly downward for millennia, is now being withdrawn at a far greater rate than it’s being replenished, and is clearly a disaster in the making.

One of the most interesting items I heard was that the Netherlands has a very clever initiative for improving global water and sanitation called AKVO ( They are using tools based on Wikipedia, Ebay, and RSS to help link local communities, trusted local partners, lenders, and donors in a mesh of small-scale funding that is directed to clean water and sanitation provisioning. It's efficient, and transparent, and a decent model for linking those who have to those who need. It’s a nice idea and I wish them great success.

My presence at this conference, requested by a respected colleague from the Canadian Foreign Ministry, is not directly related to the immediate efforts at InSTEDD, but the attendees apparently found what I talked about worth discussion and inclusion, and I’ve now learned a lot about topics I’ve never examined before. It’s just an extra overnight stay as I pass through Seoul since I’m on my way to Bangkok to join the team in Thailand for a few days.

We'll meet up in Thailand and, after talking with some members of the Mekong Basin Diseases Surveillance consortium in Cheng Mai later this week, we'll migrate into Cambodia for some deep-field epidemiology assessments near the Lao border and a large set of conversations with people and organizations already working in the region.

I'll leave Seoul tomorrow, but if anyone has thoughts regarding support to clean water and sanitation needs after disasters, please drop a note into the forums and we'll make sure your ideas get to the conference coordinators. Be sure to tell us if it's ok to have them contact you and how they should do it.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Looking around at the beginning

I've had an interesting and exciting few months since arriving as CEO at InSTEDD in October. Much of that time has been spent traveling with colleagues to visit difficult areas around the world, talking with professionals expert in epidemiology and disaster response, and hearing from communities and governments how hard it is to watch for diseases and prepare for disasters in the face of innumerable other obligations in their days. Through subsequent conversations with the superb staff at InSTEDD, we've been sorting out how and where InSTEDD can be most effective and we have some ideas.

We're now designing tools and developing partnerships that we think might help us put together resources that make sense. Over the next few months I'll mention a few of those capabilities we're thinking about, and why, and I'll ask for your opinions. When we later find something interesting and useful we'll talk about it openly, evaluate the pros and cons honestly, try what seems useful in the field, and tell you here, clearly and fairly, how it went.

When it comes right down to it, those on staff at InSTEDD have quite a bit of experience, so know very well how big the world is, how many smart people are already trying to help around the world, and how little we know about what's out there. So we'll be obvious when we ask for advice, and I look forward to hearing from those who can help us design and build simple, robust, effective, and free tools for the humanitarian community.