An Open Letter To The Humanitarian Technology Community

by Jon Thompson on August 12, 2009

Dear Humanitarian Technology Friends-

Please stop what you are doing and start worrying about bandwidth. If you really want to save lives this is the ONLY thing that matters. This is not a stab at your egos or your good efforts rather it is an attempt at redirection of an industry that has been missing the point for quite some time.

First of all, don’t have any more conferences because clearly they don’t help.  Don’t meet and discuss things either at a big giant conference in some drab, over-priced hotel in San Jose or as a little tiny group of committed volunteers in the middle of friggin nowhere.  Why? Because 1) the people who really need to be at the big conferences will never be able to afford the price tag and 2) if there are only five of you sitting around a table in the middle of nowhere the only thing the rest of us get are Flickr or TwitPic images – not helpful! Talking is clearly just a waste of time because we have been doing it forever and we are not one step closer to tackling the real issue – bandwidth. So, enough with the conferences.

Camps fall into this category. Do not camp unless it is with your family and don’t take any laptops. Camps are these weird things that geeks do because I don’t think their father’s took them on real camping trips when they were kids and now that’s why they’re geeks. If you really need to satiate that urge drop me a line and I will find a nice camp spot for you in a remote village where it is 130F in the day and not much cooler at night, your sleep is punctuated by automatic weapon gunfire and the bandwidth really really sucks.  Then you will get an idea why your camps are missing the point and why IT IS ALL ABOUT THE BANDWIDTH.

Enough with the maps. The only person and group that is exempt from this is Mikel Maron and OSM. Everyone else just please stop with the friggin maps.  We got more maps than we know what to do with and NO ONE READS THEM. Seriously, are you really going to get in a car anywhere in the developing world and tell the driver where YOU think HE/SHE should go? No. Never. You won’t. Because if you do odds are you are going to get both of you killed and odds are the driver is going to tell you to go stuff yourself. So, leave the maps at home and stop trying so hard. They are really really pretty but they are 99% of the time JUST EYE CANDY. And for all you map folks that have whiz bang mapping tools but you can’t quite figure out what they are good for – please join the bandwidth group.

Predicting disasters. Don’t try. It ain’t worth it because you probably won’t get it right. That’s why they are disasters. If we could see the future then they wouldn’t turn into disasters. You can’t predict an earthquake (I know because I grew up in San Francisco and NO ONE back home ever correctly predicted and earthquake) and so you cannot predict a tsunami. You can WARN against a tsunami after the earthquake has already happened, hence the new alert system in Aceh, but don’t waste money and time trying to read tea leaves. Swine Flu wasn’t even predicted by a tiny little outfit in Redmond, WA while everyone else seemed to miss it. All Versatect did was monitor the news and make some really good guesses. And, when the event happens and you didn’t predict it don’t try to make up for it my alerting us all because Twitter will have beaten you to it. (Please see my previous post.)

Consortiums. Nope, don’t start one. The conferences are nice but again the question is: What have you done for me lately? Consortiums are reasons to have conferences (see above) and a good way to blow donor cash. Disband, give back the awards and call it a day. And, when you really think you’ve come up with a good reason to stay together you should still just pack it in because hotel donuts shouldn’t cost that much.

Boxes with wires and crap hanging out of them that connect everyone to everything. These are a joke and an engineer’s waste of your corporate donors money. No box with wires sticking out of it that looks like something from Short Circuit and for which there are no spare parts has ever saved a life.  If for some reason one of these contraptions was involved with saving someone’s life it was just pure dumb luck that it was plugged in at the time and it still had nothing to do with saving someone’s life. Save the parts for a repairing your VCR or the Coke machine in the hall but do not ever bother to build another ridiculous box that weighs 200lbs, eats power and makes the claim that it will replace my $70 Nokia because it won’t.

Lastly, DO NOT TRY TO MAKE EVERYONE TALK TO EVERYONE ELSE BECAUSE NOBODY WANTS TO TALK TO ANYONE ELSE. You have never ever understood that no one is going to tell everyone else everything they know and they sure as hell are not going to do it in the public domain and on someone else’s server. It will never happen. There is a slim chance that people will collaborate but that is a very tricky fix that I will talk about later but suffice to say it has nothing to do with what you are working on. Please understand that aid workers collaborate in very very specific ways and those ways do not resemble a networked love-in! Collaboration usually takes place over beer/coffee between people that know and trust each other and it happens when you are not in the room. That is the way it has been happening since I can remember when and your lines of code aren’t ever going to change that fact.  Yes, yes, it would be so nice if it did but it won’t and it can’t so stop trying and join the bandwidth team.

The bandwidth team is the only one that really matters and it is the only one that everybody ignores because they didn’t friggin invent it and they cannot be innovators and ‘mavericks’. Yep, mavericks. I cared so much about it I actually started my very own NGO to try and fix it. Alas, reality caught up with me and I realized that if the mavericks don’t care about bandwidth the donors certainly won’t. But we did some good work and had a good time and significantly improved the BANDWIDTH situation for aid teams in the field. When was the last time you diddled with someone’s bandwidth?

At this point the only thing that matters is a squid caching proxy and probably the AdBlock Plus plugin for Firefox.  You want to save the world? There you go. Just go install a squid caching proxy in every field office and make them use Firefox with AdBlock Plus and you’ll be 99% of the way there. It is not rocket science, it does not cost the sort of money you are used to blowing and the stuff has been around so long that you know it works.  On the other hand the crackpot stuff that you jokers dream up is sure to break and not do anyone any good.

So, will someone please go call Duane Wessels in Boulder, Colorado and get him down out of the mountains to help build out his creation (Squid) into something that is actually useful? I am sure he would be perfectly happy if you bought him breakfast at a cafe down the street from your house and then funded his work building a squid box. And, if he doesn’t want to do it at least get his blessing. (Nope. Stop. No conferences. Stop planning.)

There, I gave you the secret sauce – the squid box. It is really just a box with NO WIRES sticking out of it and the only thing it does is serve as a proxy for a LAN. On one side you have an Ethernet port and on the other side you have an Ethernet port and a little green light so that you know the thing is working. The person who carries it to the site and installs it simply takes the line from the VSAT and plugs it in one side and the line from the router and plugs it in the other side. I am sure someone can figure out how to power it via the Ethernet line and if you really need to admin it I guess you could if you felt like it.

Ultimately, there should be no need to admin the box and it should just work plain and simple.  I know, I know, all the camp geeks are now giggling and saying ‘That’s not how it works’ but I bet if they put down their overpriced conference food and stopped flying all over the friggin place wasting money and spewing carbon they could probably figure out a way to make it work. I mean the stuff has been around forever so it cannot be THAT hard to figure out. At least I think if all those ‘mavericks’ out there bothered to swallow that bitter pill and faced the fact that they are probably working on a dead end project they might just decide that the path of least resistance is the best one.

Donors need to wake up and figure out that the solution has been right in front of them and will someone please tell Google to stop with the ads? They are seriously trashing all those low bandwidth/high latency networks that aid agencies rely on day in and day out. There sure ain’t no reason for them to be giving away dollars when they are just gumming up the system.

Ok, mavericks, the comment section is open.  Have at it.



UPDATE: The above was written at 2am.  6hrs later and I am back to my friendly old self. Yes, of course you all are doing important work and a lot (some) of what you are doing is totally relevant and worthwhile. Please keep it up.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Map Kibera - The First Useful Humanitarian (Tech) Thing To Be Done In A While
November 30, 2009 at 9:11 pm
jra’s thoughts › A rate-limiting HTTP proxy in Go
February 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm

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