Helping a Congolese family

Two years ago, we met our dear friend Quesney who was still in Bangkok with his children after five years in limbo trying to be recognized as refugees. We had a meal together and reminisced about our time together in Thailand, the years we kept in touch since we left the country, and what they thought about becoming Canadian citizens.

His journey and story is a complicated yet inspiring one that started long before 2008 when I first met him. In early 2008, after being introduced to my wife, who welcomed him as a fellow French speaker and gave him a purpose while she managed the education department at the Bangkok Refugee Centre, Quesney fought to get him and his children recognized as refugees – people are considered “asylum seekers” before they are officially recognized as a refugee by the United Nations – fending for themselves and trying to live a ‘normal’ life while keeping a low profile.

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Rejected by the UN to be recognized as refugees in their first few years in Bangkok, Quesney and his children sought help and support outside of the typical channels. While we had left Thailand in 2008, we continued to support Quesney by helping him find a safe place to live, helping his children to go to school, connecting him with friends who were in Bangkok, and finally finding a way to get him resettled in another country as a refugee. Ironically, this help came from Canada.

In 2014, seven years after Muriel took Quesney in, Quesney and his two children landed in Winnipeg – their new home as new Canadians. We were so happy and proud of them. I continue to be amazed by their persistence and hope for a better life.

World Humanitarian Day without Beyonce or Guetta

Every year on August 19, the world celebrates/commemorates World Humanitarian Day organized by UNOCHA, the UN organization I’ve been with since early this year. It’s a day to honor people who lost their lives in humanitarian service and those, who continue to bring assistance and relief to millions, and draw attention to humanitarian needs around the world. This is also the day that 22 United Nations staff were killed following a terrorist attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003.

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The last couple of years have been filled with celebrities getting involved from Beyonce in 2012 to David Guetta last year. This year was a bit different because there was more emphasis on local aid workers and profiling how we need more #humanitarianheroes. It was my first time being a part of the preparations for the Geneva event and so I was excited to be a part of it, especially with all the focus it’s gathered in the last couple of years. It’s nice to see how the hard work didn’t go to waste, especially with the banners we designed…

And the photo gallery I put together for work…

After spending the time to prepare and promote the event in Geneva, listening and reading all the different opinions from the Day, I found myself wondering do we need more heroes? or do we just need to recognize that doing humanitarian work is hard (sometimes dirty) work that doesn’t get a lot of recognition? There’s a great post called “We Don’t Need Another Hero” that takes a bit of different take on the campaign.

They’re humanitarians too!

We can find humanitarians everywhere and I think that’s the whole focus of the Day – to shed a bit of light on the fact that people are out there making a difference. It makes me think of the a recent trip to the ICRC musuem and learning that all the records of missing people were meticulously tracked and managed by people. Even if they can be tracked by computers, someone has to put together these systems to do it.

Or the amount of work from behind the scenes it took to get this one family to find a new life in a new country…

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All the behind the scenes work – usually not the kind of stuff that would make a good photo opp – is what’s necessary to save or change lives. Would you consider these people humanitarians? I would.

Free work for free ideas… for humanitarian education

    Ideas and solutions coming from an HFCP simulation workshop in Bangkok, Thailand
Ideas and solutions coming from an HFCP simulation workshop in Bangkok, Thailand

There’s something to be said about pro-bono work, especially when it’s for a good cause and the people involved are quite open about ideas. It’s a fair trade isn’t it – getting free work for free ideas? So when I was asked to help out on visualizing information, how could I say no, especially from my wife? She ran the Humanitarian Field Coordination Programme (HFCP) for OCHA in 2013-2014 and wanted to come up with a nice end-of-cycle report to highlight the programme cycle. This project was also a good opportunity to put my creative muscles through a workout during my hiatus from work. There were plenty of data collected during the one-year program that could be highlighted in the report, but with good information design comes understanding the story and message to communicate.

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The main message was to communicate the global nature of the report as well as the overall (positive) impressions and subject matter the HFCP provides to OCHA staff. Each phase of the programme was quite unique so each graphic was designed slightly different. I had about a week to work on the full report, including interpreting the data, copy-editing the text, and developing a structure for the information.

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I was already familiar with OCHA’s style having followed the process and design changes over the years. I made sure to stick with what I saw for this report. The only thing I really went out on a limb on was to use a “teaching” font for the titles. I recently discovered that OCHA’s corporate font is Arial because it’s the most easily accessible and used font for its offices.

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The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched the HFCP in 2008 to cover the core areas of OCHA’s work and is organized around a blended peer-learning structure comprised of three phases. This includes 1) knowledge-based online learning; 2) skills building workshop; and 3) self-development learning. Over 500 OCHA staff members have participated to date.

Filtering out “Butt Dials” and saving lives with technology

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I find the combination of Qatar and humanitarian action an unlikely partnership. It’s just not something that comes to mind when I think of how the world has come together to better respond to and address large scale disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, or even the current situation of Typhoon Haiyan that just passed through the Philippines and on its way towards Viet Nam and upwards to Hong Kong and China. Yet, the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI),  a national research institute established in 2010, has partnered with some of the most innovative thinkers and doers to come up with ways to understand how better to respond and understand disasters, and ultimately save lives.

One of these thinkers is Patrick Meier and doers is the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). I was fortunate enough to have been invited to a talk earlier this week where Meier came by to chat about the role of data (i.e. big, global, social, etc.) and technology in humanitarian action, a young field filled with promise. Meier is an internationally recognized thought leader on the application of new technologies for crisis early warning, humanitarian response and resilience, serves as Director of Social Innovation at the QCRI, and is an avid blogger. A shout out also goes to Andrej Verity of UNOCHA who organized the talk and is passionate about the role that (digital) volunteers and technology can play in humanitarian response.

During the one-hour talk, Meier went through a range of topics from human vs. machine computing, microtasking, the power of digital volunteers, dealing with the overload and verification of information, data philanthropy, credibility of communication, and how to find a balance or the competitive advantage between new and traditional sources of information. All the focus was on the humanitarian space and how to better respond to and provide relief in times of disasters or emergencies. Yet, the concepts behind the talk – how data can be used to make better decisions, improve planning, and create a more resilient and prepared society – can be (and is already being) applied to areas beyond the humanitarian space, for instance in social and environmental development. They key is how to take advantage of technology, the benefits of having human judgement, and how to make sense of all this “stuff”.

Overflow of information is as paralyzing as with no information.

The focus shouldn’t just be on tech because we still need “detectives” to verify information, even if algorithms and computers get better at fact checking. At the same time we also need to understand that traditional ‘crowdsourcing’ methods and ‘trusted sources’ of information also aren’t as reliable as we think they are. Here are a few notables Meier brought up during his talk:

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Another reason why people are an important factor in all this talk about technology and the use of information for decision-making is the fact its use will be defined by society and governments. There needs to be a political will and space needed to move (humanitarian) technology and information/data forward and to be taken seriously. Released a couple of months ago, the UNOCHA report “Humanitarianism in the Network Age (HINA)” sums it up nicely on page 41:

Technology can only be as effective as the system it supports. What is clear is the need for Governments and the international humanitarian system to open themselves to new approaches.

Website for The Cluster System in Timor-Leste

This collaborative website was developed for the humanitarian community in Timor-Leste to support their work and information exchange for coordination relief and response operations. One of the main issues from coordinating various United Nations organizations involved in humanitarian relief was understanding what each other were doing to make relief efforts more effective and efficient. This site was created as part of a request by the humanitarian coordination unit and the humanitarian coordinator in the country. Using the cluster system established by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the site was developed using Google Pages to allow each cluster to maintain their respective sections, including uploading documents, meetings and news for the benefit of the community. The site was also used as a source for coordination activities and meetings so all clusters were aware of key humanitarian events happening in the country. You can access the site here.

The Humanitarian and Recovery Update

In addition to designing the HR Update logo, I also edited and designed the layout and publishing of the newsletter. The quarterly newsletter on humanitarian, disaster preparedness and recovery activities in Timor-Leste highlighted current and potential humanitarian conditions in the country, which include the issues of food security, internally displaced people’s resettlement, housing, flooding, and contingency planning. You can find the three issues of the Humanitarian and Recovery Update here.

Houses at Risk from Flooding

This map was created to provide an overall analysis of the flood vulnerability of areas in Timor-Leste, as part of an assessment prior to the rainy season in the country. The map was developed to support the humanitarian response as well as to help develop contingency plans by the United Nations and emergency preparedness measures to support the Government of Timor-Leste. The spatial and statistical data used was from national statistics and the United Nations Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT).