One of the most exciting parts of working in tech is seeing firsthand how it empowers people to solve previously indomitable problems. But the best solutions don’t just materialize on their own — they must be driven forward, often against major odds, by passionate individuals and organizations dedicated to making them a reality.
Over the past year, we’ve had the honor of working with Andrej Verity of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who is just such a person. We sat down to talk to him about Humanitarian.ID, the contact management application that transforms how responders coordinate during humanitarian disasters.
What is your role at OCHA?
As a Programme Officer, I support field-based OCHA Information Management staff by providing them with technological solutions. I bring relevant technology to field offices to alleviate IM challenges, which range from contact lists to operational web platforms to response activity tracking.
Why was the Humanitarian.ID app needed for better crisis responses?
In the midst of a sudden-onset emergency, humanitarian responders come, leave, and change locations within a crisis zone very rapidly. In addition, international responders often use local contact details, which is different than their usual (pre- and post-crisis) contact information. Therefore, contact and registration lists – which have always been managed and stored on someone’s hard drive – are perpetually out of date. So Humanitarian.ID puts the control into the individual responders’ hands. Through the app, we’ve given them the ability to say when they’re going to the emergency, which groups they’re involved with, how they can be contacted, and when they leave. What we’re aiming to do is allow connections – between individuals and across organizations – to happen more fluidly and dynamically.
When did you first begin to circulate the idea for a crisis responders app? How did that idea become a reality?
The concept originally occurred to me while I was in Haiti responding to the 2010 earthquake, when one of my responsibilities was managing a contact list. When I was at the reception space, someone approached me looking for a specific contact, and when that person was not on my list, the seeker was very upset. It was very clear that something needed to change. This was the early age of social media platforms providing geolocation check-in services, which gave me the idea that OCHA could use a similar concept. We began prototyping and testing that summer, rapidly creating a proof-of-concept and analysis of its viability, but it wasn’t until late 2013 that funding was secured. Shortly thereafter, we began developing the first version with Phase2.
How has the app already made a difference in recent disasters?
Humanitarian.ID is currently live in Nepal, the Philippines, and Vanuatu. We’ve heard a lot of anecdotal stories about how the app has helped individuals seeking specific people in Nepal. For instance, there was a shelter organization looking to transport their materials, and they were contacted by a group with the ability to do that. We’ve had many stories about people finding each other through H.ID and being able to connect in ways that weren’t possible before.
How did Phase2 assist OCHA with the development of the app?
Initially, we reviewed the concept with Phase2 to assess how our prototypes would work with modern technology, the flow of the experience, and what our approach should be. Phase2 really helped OCHA understand in what order to deliver certain features, what resources were needed, the user experience in the field, and what order of development to follow. Then we utilized Phase2’s technical expertise to build a new version in rapid fashion.
I was very impressed with Phase2’s willingness to get right into the action to truly understand what users face when trying to use these tools. David Spira, an Experience Strategist at Phase2, actually deployed to a crisis zone in the Southern Philippines to do user testing, which he then fed back into the product. The rest of the Phase2 team was equally dedicated as we rolled out the app in wake of the Nepal earthquake. We were doing trainings and testings in the field which required rapid technical changes, and they showed a great willingness to adapt to the pace of a crisis situation.
Why did you decide to build the app using open source technology?
When the tools and technology fit the need, I’m a big supporter of open technology and pushing contributions back to the community. We’ve taken that approach from very early concepts of the app, when we decided to separate the app’s interface from the database so other organizations could work with it via an API. Obviously we won’t completely open access to users’ contact info, but the authentication system is freely available for the community’s use.
How can other humanitarian organizations benefit from Humanitarian ID?
First, they can make use of our independent authentication service, which was designed to be adopted by other humanitarian organizations. It gives them a high level of trust in access mechanisms. We plan to eventually give access to responders’ humanitarian profiles to trusted groups like ReliefWeb and Humanitarian Exchange so they can provide a custom user experience on their websites to those responders. Those partners will tailor their information to a given user, and by doing so reduce the amount of information being thrown at a responder in an age when there is a constant overload. We’ve also talked to organizations like the Red Cross about using H.ID to manage their contacts in emergencies. So, there is the potential for other oganizations to not only integrate H.ID with their technology systems, but to use it to develop their own contact lists.
How do you see the app evolving in the future? What is your vision for Humanitarian ID?
I’d love to see Humanitarian.ID serve as an ubiquitous login mechanism throughout the humanitarian community, as well as the go-to application for responders to make easy seamless connections. The ultimate goal is to make the check-in process simple and reduce a lot of the manual work people are doing in emergencies.