Relief agency CIO gets creative when deploying technology to danger zones

Aid workers worldwide rely on David Goodman and the International Rescue Committee's IT team for tech tools.

For David Goodman, the term "workplace" means something quite different from what it does for other IT leaders. Since 2007, Goodman has served as CIO for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which helps people displaced by conflicts and disasters in challenging areas of the world.

He and his IT team of about 35 people must deliver innovative systems to support the IRC's mission. In one project they tackled about two years ago, the team deployed a custom emergency response portal that's accessible both online and offline using Box, a cloud-based content management service. Here, Goodman talks about how he addresses projects like that one.

David Goodman

Tell me about the portal. The challenge for us is we're not in the cloud in a lot of places we work; there's no Internet. So our movement to the cloud has to be very thoughtful in unusual ways. It's not only about security and all the other things [most CIOs consider] but whether you can actually access the cloud.

The emergency response team came to us and said they needed a place to organize their information so responders could access it. We needed a solution that was very lightweight when you're online and had capabilities offline, too. That's where Box came in. We use Box as a document repository, and we use the API that Box provides to connect to a content management system from Django. We use that as a front end. Those documents live in Box -- you can access them via a portal or Box. And when you're offline, you have access to all the Box documents because the documents cache offline.

Did the portal transform the way IRC responds to emergencies? It empowers the team to be much more productive and much more efficient in the information they're gathering in the field and sharing with colleagues. It allows them to manage their work in a much more effective and collaborative way.

How does IRC's work influence technology needs? We have a roster of staff emergency response professionals, and they're deployed from home countries in a short period of time. So we need a technology platform that can be nimble. We need as little setup and overhead as possible to make sure they can be productive as quickly as possible.

They're carrying smartphones and standard corporate laptops, with a Mac or two floating around. They're very resourceful. They can find a Wi-Fi hotspot, like at a U.N. site. And they use BGAN -- it's essentially a satellite-based Internet connection device, so you plug it into your laptop. The quality of connection is poor and it's expensive, but most emergency response folks have one, or have access to one.

Are you using other cloud-based systems? We're deploying Workday [cloud-based financial and HR software]. The way I approach the cloud is it's another option for delivering applications. I started by looking for the HR system that best meets our needs. I didn't start by looking for something in the cloud.

There are benefits to the cloud but, all things being equal, if an application is the best fit for our organization but I have to host it, I'll host it. I have a robust infrastructure team and data centers.

The other piece is that the cloud isn't always available. As we looked at Workday, we were able to get comfortable with that. But if you're an expat in a field location, and you have to do a performance review, you might have to do it offline.

What challenges do you face as you do more in the cloud? First is the connectivity issue. In a lot of the places where we work, connectivity isn't the ubiquitous tool it is in the West. And when I ask vendors about their offline capabilities, they have no answer. Very few vendors are going to put any resources into that because it's a very small market.

The other interesting aspect is that the funding for cloud is on a per-user basis, and [paying for cloud-based tools as an operating expense] is difficult for us. It's much easier as a capital expense because of our funding model. That has made things a little challenging. Other than that, it's pretty straightforward. We get the benefits of a multitenant setup: We get [automatic] upgrades, we don't have to worry about maintenance, we're able to be more flexible.

Do you have IT challenges that for-profit organizations may not encounter? Generally speaking, yes. Connectivity is a big one. Also, our funding model: Most of our money comes from grants, so there's this whole challenge with overhead. We often use the phrase 90/10, because 90% of what's given to us goes to programs. That means 10% or less goes to infrastructure or overhead. That makes it difficult to do large projects because they require a lot of funding.

Technology has come somewhat late to the NGO [nongovernmental organization] sector. There's a lot of us CIOs doing really exciting stuff, but they haven't been doing sophisticated technology for a long time because we spend quite a small percentage of our revenue on IT -- 2%, 2.25%. That's quite low for a global organization.

How do you address that challenge? Creative ways of accessing funding. It's hard to find donors to fund infrastructure, but we try. We try to build funding into grants. We try to be very lean and very smart about where we spend money. There's no magic bullet. We have to be very smart about how we deploy resources.

What can IT leaders at for-profit organizations learn from your IT setup? You learn how to do more with less. You tend to break things down to the core elements and make sure every solution will solve the problem. There's not a lot of fat to trim, so you get very focused.

The other thing is if it works here, it works anywhere. I say to potential vendors, "If you want to test your product, we're a great place to do that. If it works in IRC and we're in South Sudan, it will work anywhere."

Do you get something for that? I think our partnership with Box is indicative of that. I had a receptive audience when I started talking to Box. I caught them at an interesting moment: They were thinking about [a service for nonprofits]. So I think we helped each other. At the last summit [for NetHope, a consortium of NGOs], I asked Box to bring some engineers to have a technical brainstorm about what it's like to work in a limited-bandwidth environment. There is a whole developing world [that needs] these tools.

What's your biggest tech challenge right now? Serving the newly articulated appetite in the IRC for sophisticated and integrated systems. We have a new CEO, and he has brought in new energy on many fronts, one of which is systems. We have a multiyear road map of fixing and integrating, adding new systems, building systems.

The biggest challenge is that the organization is starting to appreciate the impact of efficient systems and platforms and data, and it's up to us to deliver in an organization that has the funding structure I described. So it's trying to help the organization understand what it really takes -- it takes time and money -- and helping them understand that we might have to take smaller bites as we build up capacity.

Are there new technologies you're using or piloting that will deliver capabilities you don't have now? We're deploying tablets and remote data collection in the field, retina scanning to do identification of refugees, particularly in Syria. We're using things like text messaging.

The refugee context has changed. It used to be that when you think about refugees you think about a large camp. Now in Syria they're middle class and they've escaped with the shirts on their backs and their cellphones. So we work with them with text messaging.

We just created something we call internally Rescue Yelp. If you're a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and you want to get a review of a local service, you can go online and get that. It's using pretty straightforward things to get to an interesting place.

This story, "Relief agency CIO gets creative when deploying technology to danger zones" was originally published by Computerworld.

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