This cloud-based collaboration aims to cut consulting hours and bring data back to the field

Two men talk about using Box, an online file sharing and cloud storage company. Box along with other cloud technology vendors have formed an alliance to help humanitarian organizations make the most of the technology. Photo by: AJ Leon / CC BY

ImpactCloud.org, an alliance of cloud technology vendors working with humanitarian organizations, launches today.

Improvements in global internet connectivity have allowed more emergency responders to leverage cloud based solutions, which provide access to files from anywhere, so they can gather data, build insights from that information, and make their response more efficient as a result. By forming this coalition, Box, Salesforce, DocuSign, Okta, Splunk, Tableau, and Twilio are coming together, “to help humanitarian organizations make the most of these trends.”

The new platform will allow humanitarian organizations to reach out to any of the alliance members listed on www.impactcloud.org, and the companies will work together to figure out the best way to collaborate on a comprehensive response.

“It’s an exciting shift toward interoperability that is occurring in cloud computing,” said Bryan Breckenridge, executive director of Box.org, which works with global nonprofits and philanthropic organizations to leverage cloud platforms like Box in their work.

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“We are going to remove some of the consulting hours that development organizations would typically have to invest to demystify how these technologies fit together,” he said.

Uber, the ride-hailing app, represents one powerful example of the power of interoperable platforms, versus a proprietary stack, Breckenridge said. Uber uses Twilio for text notifications, Sendgrid for emails, and Braintree for payments.

Development organizations have taken advantage of these services too. Box has helped Team Rubicon keep track of documents between its Los Angeles, California, headquarters and veterans responding to disasters worldwide. Salesforce has helped the American Red Cross consolidate information from 150 national partners and 500 field units. And Tableau has worked with Path on a five-year “Visualize Malaria No More” campaign training community health workers to use interactive dashboards.

The coalition has listed case studies on how their platforms can be leveraged for crisis response on the Solutions Center for NetHope, a consortium of nongovernmental organizations committed to technology. By coming together, with Box bringing file sharing, Salesforce bringing structure and organization, and Tableau bringing data visualization, for example, these cloud-based companies believe they can do more to help organizations streamline their processes.

But the humanitarian sector can only take full advantage of cloud technology, or any technology for that matter, when reliable and affordable connectivity makes it to the last mile, said Isaac Kwamy, director of global programs for disaster preparedness and response at NetHope.

Simplicity, efficiency, portability, as well as offline capability, are some of the most critical factors to consider when developing technology solutions for the humanitarian sector, he added. So the coalition is only part of the solution to make cloud-based solutions more accessible to humanitarian organizations.

“Cloud-based solutions usually solve a particular problem that users face, whether it is document management, identity management, or analytics,” said Gisli Olafsson, chief technology officer at Beringer Finance, an adviser to the coalition. “It is when you combine those different solutions together that you enable complex problems to be solved.”

Most humanitarian organizations do not count software development among their core competencies. Instead they look to cloud-powered companies for ways to do more with big data for disaster response. These vendors hope to help emergency responders innovate across cloud platforms to improve their operations, and in the process learn from one another how to better serve this sector, from applying their services to disaster response to pricing their products appropriately.

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“We view our role in this as one of many enabling factors to help these organizations do what they do best,” said Corey Marshall, director of Splunk4Good. “If we can help enable them via coordination of process, communications, and technology, they can focus on saving lives.”

Cloud-based solutions can help humanitarian organizations respond to the changes brought by growing mobile phone ownership and expanding internet connectivity, like the affected populations communicating their needs rather than waiting for aid, and cash becoming more mainstream, Olafsson said.

“The way we respond has not changed much in the past few decades. We simply throw more money and more organizations at the problem,” he said.

While improvements in connectivity have powered cloud based solutions, they have also caused increased centralization as the field is able to share more with headquarters, Olafsson said, explaining this is the opposite of what is needed, which is to improve efficiency in the field.

“Solutions that enable the use of cloud based solutions in the field, in particular by enabling their use in intermittently connected environments, will give the power back to the field workers and enable them to make better informed decisions at the place where they should be made,” he said.

While the impact of the coalition remains to be seen, the members are seeking feedback from emergency responders as they determine next steps and bring in more partners, said Neal Myrick, who directs the Tableau Foundation. Over the long term, he hopes the alliance can be part of what moves emergency responders from reactive to proactive approaches, so that data is more readily available when a disaster hits.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.