Ivan Gayton on geeks and primitive fieldworkers: a tale of two cultures
As a project manager for MSF, a medical emergency humanitarian agency, I attended this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, in the company of a friend and collaborator from Google who is involved in crisis mapping. We gave a presentation on some mapping work we had done together, and inevitably we discussed the differences and similarities in our geek (high-technology) and primitive fieldworker (humanitarian) cultures.
At SXSW we had the chance to share that cultural crossover with a broad audience of geeks, fieldworkers, and an assortment of others, all of whom shared an interest in the intersection of humanitarian work and technology. My main take-home message was: we are not alone. We humanitarians tend to take pride in our ability to deal with problems by stretching our ingenuity and using only what is available in the field. My friend from Google was astounded at what we do with spreadsheets, saying “I didn’t think that this could be done without software coding capacity.” We use spreadsheets as databases, stock management systems, maps, payroll systems, and sketchpads.
Humanitarians need tools and information, particularly during crises. The tech world is bursting with possibilities to provide just that, often free of charge and with an astonishing level of professionalism. I hope that this meeting of cultures continues to deepen and that the early promise of these innovations translates to real benefit to the populations in crisis that we serve.