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Tech’s Shifting Role in Conservation, Aid and Development: A Summit Reflection

by: David Gadsden on 10/22/2012


During the week of October 8, NetHope held their annual Global Member Summit on the beautiful Microsoft Campus in Redmond, Washington. While any given NetHope Member organization makes a vast impact in the world, the potential of drawing together the information technology leadership of 37 of these organizations, in the spirit of communication and collaboration, is truly unparalleled. This event closed the loop on five consecutive NetHope Summits I’ve had the honor of supporting on behalf of Esri, the global leader in GIS technology. Over the past week I’ve been reflecting on this year’s Summit and my Summit journey which began in the Spring of 2009. I wanted to share a few of the themes from last week which I believe reflect a shift in the role of technology in conservation, aid and development. 

  • We are all in this together. For over ten years, NetHope has provided a backdrop for collaboration among leading humanitarian nonprofits. While competition for limited funding often leads to complex dynamics between organizations, the level of engagement at NetHope transcends these issues and provides a forum for their members to share their experiences and challenges. This approach helps members lower their operational costs and improve their efficiencies and communications. The theme of the combined strength of members working together to invoke positive change was repeatedly reinforced last week. As Edward G. Happ’s recent blog post articulates, the stakes could not be higher. An increasingly mature and robust technology landscape and strong bonds among the NetHope members present the possibility to leverage these fundamentals into collaborative platforms for actionable decision support.
     
  • The Cloud is changing everything. The broad embrace of cloud computing is enabling a truly services oriented platform for NetHope Members to communicate and collaborate. The last two Summits have focused largely on the cloud and the opportunities and disruptions it represents.  This year seemed to mark a turning point in the cloud discussion from exploration to embrace. It seems the membership is ready to put the cloud to work and this new computing paradigm might actually be central to achieving a higher level of collaboration and coordination across the NetHope membership.
     
  • What is innovation without scale? The critical importance of scaling innovation became very clear last week.  Beyond the Summit I’ve seen this theme resonate broadly. Donors are experiencing a sort of ‘pilot fatigue’ and great projects focused on small areas / populations are not sufficiently moving the ball forward. Many thanks to Dr. Maura O'Neil, the Director of Innovation at USAID, for bringing this important topic to the floor and for helping remind us why we are focused on innovation in the first place, if not to bring about widespread positive change.
     
  • Mobile is not enough. The explosion of mobile devices in the communities where NetHope Members serve represents an unprecedented opportunity to extend information communication technologies into the field. The refocus on the data that mobile technologies collect and extend to the field and the role of that data in the context of broader information management, was a welcomed observation. Successful implementation of mobile solutions require well defined Data Management capabilities to both fuse and relate field data with other mission critical information systems.  Without robust thinking and design around Data Management and basic governance, investments in mobile solutions risk the same fate as pilots which don’t scale.
     
  • Analyze It. As major nonprofits have embraced information communication technology and demographic and environmental information is easily discovered and consumed, we are entering a ‘data rich’ operational environment whereby we can seamlessly incorporate diverse datasets for decision support. It’s not enough to collect, store and visualize data, the opportunity to leverage diverse datasets from internal, public sources and trusted partners into actionable decision support tools is more accessible than ever. Cloud computing, mobile data collection, collaborative partnerships all speak to new opportunities to connect the dots and actually change the game of technology and aid.
     

Regarding GIS, we’ve come a long way since the initial GIS break out session in the Spring of 2009. It’s been amazing to see GIS evolve from a politely tolerated hallway discussion to a central theme with many NetHope Members. From the beginning we’ve focused on the organizational, or enterprise, use of GIS which, while at times complex, represents the greatest potential impact. As cloud computing puts enterprise GIS in reach for any nonprofit, the time for geographic collaboration, decision support and analysis is now. Our focus in 2013 will be to put Esri’s cloud GIS platform, ArcGIS Online, to work for NetHope as a robust collaboration and decision support tool. Having witnessed GIS transform countless organizations over the past 20 years, I could not be more excited for what the next five Summits will bring. 

David Gadsden is the global program lead for Esri’s Nonprofit Organization Program. Learn more at http://ww.esri.com/nonprofit