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Gathering real-time feedback in haiti can improve disaster response

Posted by Marc Maxson on February 1st, 2010

Judging from some of the comments GlobalGiving donors have made on recent haiti updates, I gather that television news falls short of presenting a multifaceted view of the earthquake recovery effort. There is a mix of ongoing challenges with some successes. Last Friday someone wrote in:

Sent: Friday, January 29, 2010 4:36 PM
Project ID: 4559 / IMC provides medical care to Haiti
Project URL: http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/haiti/

It gives me a first hand account of what medical relief is taking place as oppose to what’s being transmitted over the airways showing de-humanizing conditions with no relief nor help in sight!! They’ve aired trucks of food being returned to warehouse while Haitians are starving and waiting for FOOD!! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!! YOU ALL ARE IN MY PRAYERS!! IF I COULD GET THERE, I WOULD!! GOD’S PROTECTION FOR ALL OF YOU AND IMMEDIATE SALVATION FOR THE HAITIANS!!

We currently rely on our partners and their staff to provide eyewitness accounts of the ongoing work. But there’s no reason we couldn’t open it up to any eyewitness. Mobile phone texting may be an easy way for us around the world to get to know each other better. Great innovators like Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS and Erik Hersman of Ushahidi are turning phones into web 2.0 reporting tools. Highlighting this pressing need, Washington Post Writes:

“Much as truth is the first casualty of war, reliable information is one of the early casualties of natural disasters. Until fairly recently, disaster responders relied on their senses, and their common sense, to identify problems. The notion of measuring what you could see was viewed as an academic and slightly effete response to things such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

The survey this week didn’t ask questions of a random sample of Haitians in the way that a medical trial would. That would have been a huge and time-consuming undertaking. Instead, it sought out individuals expected to know what was happening to the people in their area: mayors, village directors, health officials. The places weren’t chosen randomly either. The designers chose fairly evenly spaced sampling sites, with extra ones in the heavily damaged Port-au-Prince area.”

What they [the CDC] found is that you can gather most of what you need to know to manage a crisis in real time with anybody, going anywhere, asking for feedback using a less formal system. To me, as a neuroscientist, it makes perfect sense. You need rigorous controlled trials to assess medical benefits that are small – like a 10% difference. But when the questions are knock-you-over-the-head obvious, like “who’s dying on this block” or “who’s handing out supplies?” and there’s no ambiguity from one witness to the next, you can do away with conventional sampling.

About a week before the electronic ink was dry on this Washington Post article, Ushahidi’s Haiti immediate SMS-based crisis response center had already logged hundreds of eyewitness reports from regular people about everything from looting to service delivery. See for yourself at haiti.ushahidi.com .


What do NaNoWriMo and GlobalGiving have in common?

Posted by Marc Maxson on October 14th, 2009

nanowrimoIf you’re not one of the more than 100,000 giddy writers who eagerly looks forward to writing a novel in 30 days, let me explain.  NaNoWriMo means National Novel Writing Month. Each November I (and many others) take a stab at writing a 50,000 word novel – not because I expect to get published – but because the process itself is satisfying. In fact, part of the joy is diving in to the challenge together. My fellow writers and I use the social networking site to monitor our progress against our peers, as well as to converse about sticky points in our manuscripts. This reminded me of GlobalGiving itself. Here are other points of similarity:

  • Both sites are designed to foster competition against oneself, with specific time deadlines. (We use the new project challenge to kick-start new organizations)
  • Writers get weekly  “pep talks” from famous writers. (Granted, we’re not “famous” at GlobalGiving, but we try to give good pep talks!)
  • Writers provide regular updates to their pages on progress, and send “nano mails” to peers. (GlobalGiving helps projects keep donors updated on progress regularly)
  • We chart our own progress towards 50,000 words daily, and follow each other’s chart on profile pages.
  • We do it out of love, with only a handful of writers realizing that it takes money to keep the platform humming along. NaNoWriMo depends on donations, just like GlobalGiving.
  • Everyone can win by writing a NaNoWriMo. On their “about us” page, they say they “value enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft.”
  • Creates a strong “we’re in this together” mentality.

National Novel Writing Month is all about getting people to take their first plunge into writing without risk. I look to them as a model for the sort of friendly environment we hope to foster for the world of nonprofits. GlobalGiving is a safe place to start a relationship with people from a distant country or just down the street, by giving as little as $10 to a cause you share with them. You never know – relationships like these might lead to that great idea for a novel.

There are only about 15 days left to sign up for NaNoWriMo. I’ve already learned a lot about myself through writing. Join Me!

Number of Africans with cell phones now equals population of US

Posted by Marc Maxson on October 6th, 2009

4 billion cell phone usersThe New York Times reports there are now as many Africans with cell phones as there are people in America. This is something that we are very aware of at GlobalGiving. In fact, my biggest project over the next 6 months is to figure out how to make GlobalGiving more SMS-accessible for those 300 million Africans who have cell phones, but not necessarily electricity or running water.

There are over 4 billion people with cell phones in the world today.  Others, like TxtEagle founded by Nathan Eagle, have already started exploring how Africans with basic $20 mobile phones can be put to work. In the US, the Extraordinaries distribute an iphone app with the same goal in mind – crowd-sourcing simple tasks to anyone with 5 minutes of free time and a valuable skill, such as translating text from Swahili.

Why would there be a big demand for swahili translators? Because some day people in Africa might want to send text messages about their lives to others.

I met with the FrontlineSMS guys recently to see if they might help GlobalGiving get those SMS text messages from people in African villages directly onto our GlobalGiving project pages. If you have ideas on how we can do this, or want to help us test various approaches, please let me know by commenting.

Per capita, Pitcairn Island is GlobalGiving’s #1 recipient in the world

Posted by Marc Maxson on September 24th, 2009

As the metrics guy, oddities sometimes appear in the GlobalGiving database. For example, today I learned Pitcairn Island received $158 per resident through GlobalGiving project #996: Boat-Shed Construction at Pitcairn Island. When there are 50 people on one island, $7,301 has a major impact.

Pitcairn Island facts:

  1. These guys are the decendents of the Mutiny on the Bounty crew, and their Tahitian wives
  2. All are Seventh-Day Adventists
  3. They have their own Internet domain, “.pn”
  4. They now have a boat shed, built by GlobalGivers!

If you are interested, the top 6 countries supported through GlobalGiving per capita are:

  1. Pitcairn Islands (pop. 46)
  2. Liberia (pop. 3,317,176)
  3. St. Vincent and the Grenadines (pop. 116,812)
  4. Rwanda (pop. 7,810,056)
  5. Haiti (pop. 7,527,817)
  6. Kenya (pop. 31,639,091)

Sadly, support to the other countries comes to a mere 2 to 7 cents per citizen.

What it all means: The Global Open Challenge Leaderboard

Posted by Marc Maxson on September 17th, 2009


Earlier today, Dennis Whittle was looking at the Global Open Challenge leaderboard over John’s shoulder.
“Can you believe it? This page is getting more traffic than our homepage!” John said.
“Naturally. This is where the action is,” I said.

Meanwhile, our accountant James has been clicking the refresh screen every 2 minutes. “Look, an organization just overtook the #5 spot!”
What does it all mean?” Dennis asked. “This is the most dynamic thing on our site. I was at a conference, and someone mentioned his experience getting on the site and this leaderboard in the same breath.”

I am realizing that it all adds up to something different than we ever expected.

Now, I think our impact comes by transforming nonprofits to be more effective, more responsive, and more successful in turning those million little earth changing ideas into a better world.

This transformation comes in the first 30 days, if it comes at all. We train organizations on social media. Some adopt the best practices. Then we test everyone.

Those who fail still gain, sometimes even more, because the staff come back with a new hunger for learning. That hunger is what the official aid guys have been struggling to create for decades. And we get it for free, because everyone wants to be noticed and validated on the leaderboard.

It takes failure before some realize that we mean it when we say that they own their success. The work they do determines the funds they raise, not some granting foundation. Regular people empower the organization, especially when the people see they are part of something meaningful, a community with a cause. This dynamic is why the leaderboard matters.

As a PhD neuroscientist and a teacher, I fully believe testing and failure is how we make progress. Scientific research is about learning through failure. The Open Challenge is a test of whether nonprofits have a sustaining community of supporters.

Winners like Critical Exposure who built that community during the open challenge can attest to being transformed in three weeks (from Jared Schwartz of Frogloop.com, a nonprofit online marketing blog):

  • “We regularly updated our supporters on the fruits of their labor and during the final weeks of the competition.”
  • “We pointed our supporters directly to the real-time standings.”
  • “Many of our supporters later told us that as the competition entered its final days, they wore out the refresh buttons on their browser keeping tabs on the competition.”
  • “Our supporters were 100% emotionally invested in the competition and did whatever they could to help Critical Exposure win.”
  • “They actually wanted more updates from us!”

What it means:

A community based organization in Zimbabwe can now compete with a 501(c)3 nonprofit in New York City, if enough people care about them. What matters is how passionate their supporters are in advocating on behalf of the great work the organization is doing.