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Like expression and education, connectivity should be a basic right – Lauren Woodman, NetHope

In the absence of proper connectivity, you cannot
think about empowering or developing marginalized
communities, says NetHope CEO Lauren Woodman.

Please give us a brief overview of NetHope. Who are your international partners?

NetHope is a consortium of 56 leading humanitarian, development and conservation organizations in the world. We are a consortium within the technology sector. We work with more than 60-70 large technology providers, and collectively the group tries to figure out how technology can be used in dealing with the issues faced by these 56 organizations. The consortium is diverse, and the issues we address include emergency response, refugee support, child vaccination, maternal health, financial inclusion, species protection and Climate Change. Our members include World Vision, Mercy Corps and many more large NGOs working in different geographies. We also work with large technology providers such as Microsoft, Salesforce, Facebook and Google. In fact Cisco was our first partner and helped us found NetHope nearly 18 years ago. We also work with USAID, other large donor institutions and many UN agencies.

What role does geospatial and mapping communities play in this process?

Quite a lot. For example, Esri has been our partner for many years. There are so many applications of geospatial data for our members. It is not just limited to mapping the land rights. When combined with other data, geospatial data becomes very rich. For instance, in the beginning of the Ebola virus crisis, 23 of our member organizations were working in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was very difficult to get information about rural areas as there was no connectivity. Frontline health workers couldn’t be paid because it would take four days to send a text message. We went in with our technology partners and donor organizations and provided connectivity to more than 400 organizations. When we started mapping, it emerged that infection rates were falling in areas with connectivity.

Even then Ebola treatment units were being set up in such areas. However, in areas where the rates were high, there was no connectivity or Ebola treatment units. Had we not mapped these areas, we wouldn’t have found that correlation. All the data was right there in spreadsheets and tools, but until it was given a spatial dimension, it wasn’t possible to see the obvious. We have seen increased use of geospatial technology in emergency response, in coordination across multiple organizations and multiple driven agencies. We also need it to see whether we are covering all the communities that need
our help.

Do you have any specific expectations from the geospatial industry?

I think the geospatial industry has done a very good job of trying to make tools available at price points that make sense in the non-profit sector. It has done a fairly good job of trying to make systems that can use a wide variety of data and bring together data streams so that we can get critical insights to make informed decisions. One of the big challenges that we continue to face in the members is lack of skills. It’s not just geospatial data, it’s more of data at large. We can immediately understand geospatial data and see its utility. So, there is a big push in the sector to use this type of data. But we have not cracked the code yet on how to do that with all our member organizations, and how to identify the right type of skills that we need to build to get the initial benefits.

You have said that digitized is not equal to digital. Can you share the context to this comment?

If I as a non-profit haven’t kept up with technology investments over the years and think maybe I’ll just leapfrog and jump right into digital, that’s not going to happen. Neither digital nor digitized stands alone. You can do the one, and then the other one and ladder your way up, but you can’t forget one. If you just do digital, you end up with a situation that we had in the sector for many years — lots of great ideas and individual projects that are completely disconnected, not replicable and not scaled. And they won’t scale up because they are not built on a solid foundation. Digitized and digital are both necessary, but they are very different, yet deeply interconnected.

Can you cite examples of how technology can help in tackling the biggest humanitarian problems?

There are lots of good success stories in almost every sub-discipline of the development, humanitarian and conservation spaces. We talk a lot about the use of sensors in agricultural work, being able to monitor soil quality and having insight into that, and then being able to help small shareholder farmers based on what we know and not just what we think. If you can start looking at data and provide people information about when to plant, what to plant, how to plant and when to go to the market, it will empower them. Frankly, some of these technologies don’t really require a tremendous amount of training. We think a lot about how it’s hard to roll technology out, hard to train everyone, but that’s not always the case. A well-designed technology is intuitive. We have seen a huge shift in the technology sector in the past 20 years in terms of solutions being designed from the users’ perspectives.

You have talked about a very interesting and evolving environment in which there is interplay between technology and sociopolitical landscape. Why don’t you tell us a little about that?

I have been in technology for a long time, so I look back at the world where we were just putting PCs on desks. Then we made the big jump to networks inside a building. It was a huge shift as we could connect all the offices in the same company. Today, we live in a platform-driven world. You think of any individual and that individual is a part of many different networks and platforms. Earlier, the first version of any new rollout had to be reworked. That has changed. Software gets updated everyday. You look at the updates on the app store, every app gets updated in a couple of days on the fly. That’s because companies have access to the database and they know what’s happening. You don’t have to throw a product out there, wait for six months, see how consumers are using it, put them in focus group and pull that data back in. You can know that instantaneously. There has been a massive cultural shift in the technology sector. How do we solve problems related to water rights, child vaccination, education or economic environment? We can do all of this at the same time, but it requires coordination between agencies. This is where we lag behind in this sector.

In terms of projects and ideas, what can we expect from NetHope in the next five years?

We will continue to focus on connectivity. You will see us working across multiple organizations with our members engaged in collective impact programs to solve problems that affect us all. The area that we have been doubling down on over the last 18 months has been The Center for the Digital Nonprofit. We are examining this intersection between people, process and technology, which came out of the work we did in surveying our members and asking them about their shift to digital. You will see us continue to focus on providing resources, tools and guidance to help organizations address challenges and work with the donor and technology communities to bridge those gaps.

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