Archive for January, 2013


By Julia Moline

When a house floods, it doesn’t just fill with water; there’s dirt, household chemicals, and, often, raw sewage in the mix. In the response world, this toxic brew is known as muck. To clean a flooded home, it’s not just a matter of getting the actual muck out, though.  You have to remove all damaged furniture and finishes, clean all surfaces, and dry everything out to prevent mold growth. On top of all of that, you have to document damage for insurance purposes.

In an event like Superstorm Sandy, which had such widespread impacts, muck outs are a case study in the challenges of disaster response and recovery. They are deeply personal and a challenge of scale, at once slow going and a race against time.

I spent a few days working with the New York City Donations Coordination Team in the aftermath of Sandy. Coming in looking to learn something about how response works, and with a background in flood mitigation and flood damage-resistant materials, I was fascinated by muck out coordination efforts. It was becoming clear that muck outs would be the next major need, particularly as a cold front approached and shelter space began to run low. As coordination proceeded, I noticed four themes emerging that spoke to larger challenges of emergency management in general.

1. Government-NGO coordination. The real work of rebuilding can’t happen until homes are clean and dry, but the government doesn’t have the resources to muck out each of the tens of thousands of flooded homes.  Formal partnerships with VOAD groups1 can help provide the needed assistance; a number of those have the resources and experience to help with large-scale muck out operations. Groups such as Team Rubicon and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief have experience from previous floods and understand what’s needed. Local organizations with access to large numbers of volunteers can be additional resources, even though they may lack training and experience. This convergence of organizations and resources presents an opportunity and challenge that, if managed well, can lead to a successful and empowering response.  Managed poorly, it can lead to duplication of efforts, disenfranchisement, and, worst of all, inability to help disaster victims. 

2. Rapid action, the right way. After a disaster, you try to act as quickly as possible to get life back to normal. With muck outs, however, up-front speed might not always translate to time savings or better results in the long run. It’s tempting to skip some of these steps, or to only take the first step of getting the muck out of the house. If a house isn’t allowed to dry fully before reconstruction begins, moisture can lead to long-term mold problems that can require years and thousands of dollars to fix. If damage is not documented, the insurance reimbursement process can be prolonged. Doing these things all at once can save a lot of time and money. It’s more important to take the time needed to do the job right, rather than focusing on doing the job fast.

3. Data collection and situational awareness. To ensure that every area in need is covered, to avoid duplication of efforts, and to provide necessary follow up with homeowners, tracking and mapping is a critical step in a coordinated muck out effort. Because no single organization has the capacity to meet all of the needs, mapping also helps to ensure that each area is covered. Still, few organizations can spare the people to canvas needs and collect enough information to create a meaningful, complete dataset, and this is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.

4. Supplies and logistics. Having the people to do muck outs isn’t enough; cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment (gloves, goggles, etc), hammers and other tools are needed in bulk. Although volunteer efforts and donations are necessarily managed separately, close coordination is required to make sure that volunteers have the resources they need to do what they show up to do.

These four themes are common to all areas of disaster response and boil down to a few key elements: personnel, process, plans, and products. Each of these elements must be present for a successful response. When failures in response occur, looking for improvements in each key area can help to improve response. For instance, a map of affected areas will do no good if there is no coordination among government and not-for-profit organizations. Truckloads of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies will not solve anything if there is no way to get those supplies to muck out volunteers. And thorough action plans will not be successful if there is no mechanism for training and information sharing.

New York City is one of the best-equipped cities in the world for such large-scale coordination challenges, and will hopefully be able to learn and improve its own processes. As Sandy recovery continues for the months to come and winter approaches, we are sure to see new relationships forming, new information flows, and innovative data collection and tracking techniques.

1Link to: http://www.nvoad.org/


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By Hisham Bedri

I recently attended the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) launch event in Washington DC as part of the MIT delegation. As a belt-way outsider, I always thought USAID and government agencies were distant ivory towers–untouchable by peasants like myself, however this event changed my perspective on USAID. During the event, professors and students from the HESN universities (composed of MIT, UC Berkeley, Duke, Michigan State, William and Mary, Makerere, and Texas A&M) had the chance to meet the leadership of USAID and learn about their renewed commitment to harness the power of science and technology for international development. What was it like to be in the National Academy of Sciences building and the National Press Club next to the top USAID officials and administrators? Remember Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory? Yeah, It was like that.

Senior Advisor to President Obama on Science and Technology John Holdren and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shaw at USAID HESN Kickoff Event

Senior Advisor to President Obama on Science and Technology John Holdren and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shaw at USAID HESN Kickoff Event

Just as Charlie walked through a factory filled with magic and whimsy, I was walking through one of the epicenters of international development in the world. This is where policy is made. These are the people who make the hard decisions. USAID opened its doors allowing us to meet its top officials, and gave us knowledge of its inner structure and capabilities.

The best take-away from the trip was meeting university professors, students, USAID officials, and other honored guests, all of whom were passionate about international development and science. I was surprised to see so many development labs and such a strong commitment to appropriate technology. There is a growing interest among engineers and scientists to focus their efforts on developing regions and emerging markets.

During our time together – shuttling between offices, eating meals, and participating in a science fair – there were plenty of opportunities to “geek out” and discuss research in depth with peers. I particularly enjoyed discussing geo-spatial analysis with researchers at the College of William and Mary and food security and conflict with researchers at Texas A&M. In addition to informal socializing, I was very interested in the work presented during the science fair. While a lot of impressive research was shown, I think first prize goes to UC Berkeley’s iPhone based microscope for its simplicity and potential impact on remote medical diagnosis.

There was also debate, particularly about how to approach global challenges within engineering education. There is a need for more engineers with skills, passion and the ability to work across conventional fields. Some argued that it is time for a new field: “development engineering and sciences,” while others believe in changing our traditional engineering and science curricula to incorporate the concepts of sustainability and development early. No matter the solution favored by individuals, it was evident to everyone that change was coming.

Difficult questions were posed and facilitated in round tables by Washington’s young leadership. I had the opportunity to meet Presidential Management Fellows (PMF), Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF), and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellows. These young people are rising stars within the government and are a driving force for HESN – providing organizational backbone as points of contact for universities and finding ways to connect research with USAID needs.  Meeting this group of young people contrasted with my prior vision of government as a clunky, uninspiring machine. This is not your grand-dad’s government; seeing the inner-workings of USAID made me believe that change is possible and that there is serious hope for the future.

MIT crew at HESN kickoff event in front of National Academy of Sciences building

MIT crew at HESN kickoff event in front of National Academy of Sciences building

USAID’s new commitment to science is an important change to the world of international development. International aid and development has become a dynamic field with huge changes in philosophy since the 1960’s. What was once an avenue to give assistance and show compassion (through in-kind donations and investment) has become a specific mission to make lasting and serious change. Officials at the agency were very excited about the use of mobile technologies, geo-spatial analysis, and statistical evaluation for the sake of development goals like healthcare and food security. Furthermore, USAID is playing an active role in crowdsourcing solutions to development problems. The office of Innovation and Development Alliances (IDEA) has organized hackathons and open-data challenges to address development issues. This is exciting because USAID is embracing new opinions and hearing new voices.

I’m impressed by this new commitment because we are taking an appropriate approach to science and technology. Technology by itself is not the silver bullet that will save the world. Often there is a great deal of excitement surrounding newly designed products that turn out to be ineffective in the field. Unless a product is designed with culture, supply chains, and sustainability in mind, products deployed in the field will probably fail. Rarely do we hear when a development product or project fails or learn from our mistakes. The silent failure of products holds back the revolutionary power of technology in international development. USAID is acutely aware of this effect and is combatting it in its new commitment by including programs (such as CITE) to evaluate technologies across multiple platforms, including technical feasibility and supply-chain robustness, and produce easily accessible reports to inform designers about results.

USAID plays an important role in international development and international relations for the US. This new commitment to science and research partnership is very exciting. If humanity can engineer a way to the moon, ending poverty should also be achievable. This partnership is a giant leap in the right direction.

Hillary Clinton on HESN: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hhXGKeGoX_s

Where does MIT play a part in this?

MIT was awarded the USAID partnership for its IDIN and CITE programs. The brilliant minds at D-Lab, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and the Humanitarian Response Lab have drafted these two programs to fill a gap in innovating for interanational development. The first part of MIT’s propsal is IDIN, a global network of innovators sharing ideas and best-practices. The second part of MIT’s proposal is CITE (Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation). These two initiatives are critical for USAID’s technology transfer and innovation efforts.


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