New technology to bridge IFRC's digital divide

Edward Happ, global chief information officer of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Photo by: IFRC

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societiescontinues to spin innovation in its operations through its private partnerships. This time, it has designed with Microsoft a new communications platform that could benefit over a million volunteers worldwide, says IFRC’s Global Chief Information Officer Edward Happ.

The new platform will call for the adoption of Microsoft Office 365 and other products as the standard communications and collaboration tool among the IFRC country divisions of the world’s largest humanitarian organization.

Currently under trial in Bangladesh and Namibia, the trial is expected to be used by over a million IFRC volunteers and staff members who, in turn, serve over 150 million beneficiaries worldwide.

Happ, at the forefront of this initiative, details in an exclusive interview with Devex how IFRC’s fruitful collaboration with Microsoft has borne a “more strategic use of technology” which saves the IFRC time and money, while enhancing linkages within its global network.

What makes IFRC’s upcoming communications platform different?

Communication in our organization is much broader than email, however email is the common language of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. It is the common venue for connecting with each other in all corners of the globe in which we work.

What’s new is the delivery vehicle. Currently, we use traditional data centers that consume huge amounts of time and money in our organizations. We spend over two thirds of our IT budgets and time maintaining business applications and technology infrastructure.

Rather than through data centers, which is not our core business, we will move to email delivered by Microsoft’s data centers. The office, if you will, has moved from our building to our partner’s building.

What does the new platform seek to address?

Our organization has an internal digital divide where National Societies [IFRC country divisions] in poorer countries do not have the same technology tools and access as others.

One of things we strive to achieve is our principle of universality. From a digital perspective, universality means that people in the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement — our employees and volunteers — can work with the same level of technology tools.

What cloud-delivered IT services promise is a common platform, an end to the digital divide within our organization, and a level playing field to deliver on our mission to reach further and do better for the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Over the long term, we also expect a hard savings return on our investment. However, the ability to scale up during disasters or in the normal growth of our development programs means that a substantial part of the value proposition for this program is cost avoidance. In many cases, this means doing more with the same resources and investment.

How does your partnership with Microsoft fit into these objectives?

Our partnership with Microsoft reflects a change in our technology strategy. Through the partnership, we will look to overcome the challenge of fostering stronger Red Cross-Red Crescent National Societies through the use of technology and innovation.

Through our partnership, Microsoft will provide us with access to the latest cloud-based technologies, including email through Office 365, as well as online training for employees and premises licenses for under-resourced countries. This means we are able to hand over some of our operations to Microsoft, which specializes in running and managing data centers.

Then we can shift gears into what I call the ‘mission-moving business,’ which emphasizes spending more of our technology time and funds on improving the technology that directly helps beneficiaries and those in the field who are working with the most vulnerable people in the world.

When will the new platform be deployed and what will be its expected cost?

We are a federation of independent organizations, with each Red Cross or Red Crescent Society having its own governance. In our world, we do not roll out a standard for all take up in a “push” approach. Instead, we offer attractive alternatives for all to consider under a “pull” approach.

With our partners, our job is to make a platform so attractive that everyone wants to join. We believe we have done that with Microsoft and the Office365 program.

As for the cost, it varies for the size and status of the society. Each national society can “opt-in” to the program. Remember, we want to create a level playing field; that means helping some more than others.

Why is there a need for better ICT platforms for such organizations as the IFRC?

During the early stages of a disaster response, good communications are essential. The effectiveness of our response is tied directly to how quickly we can assess situations, share the information on needs, and deliver supplies and services in response.

Our IT strategy hinges on providing more mission-moving ICT. That means using technology that helps deliver programs in the field, and technology that impacts volunteers and beneficiaries directly.

We believe that the world of the beneficiary is increasingly a mobile phone world and we look to mobile-based applications as the growth area for our ICT portfolio.

*Some sections have been reposted with permission from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

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About the author

  • Johanna Morden

    Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.