High-Tech Healing: How And Other NonProfits Are Tackling Human Crises

From data analysis that alleviates human trafficking to crowdsourcing that maps remote regions, these breakthroughs are improving lives.

High-Tech Healing: How And Other NonProfits Are Tackling Human Crises

When we talk about innovation, we often focus on tech companies and buzzy startups with millions of dollars in the bank. But if innovation is defined as finding faster, smarter, and more effective ways to accomplish a given task, then perhaps some of the most compelling solutions are in the non-profit sector, where the stakes are higher and the needs are greater.


As Rob Acker, CEO of observes, “It doesn’t matter whether an organization has 10 people or 10,000. Technology can allow you to reach tens of millions of people.”

Recently, on a panel at the Fast Company Grill in Austin, Acker joined two other nonprofit leaders—Tyler Radford, executive director of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and Ravi Gurumurthy, the chief innovation officer of the Airbel Center, the International Rescue Committee’s in-house innovation group to share the latest novel ways that their organizations are using tech to be effective.

Hypermobile, Hyperlocal

Located about 25 miles south of the South Sudan border, Bidibidi Refugee Settlement is the largest refugee settlement camp in the world. Home, for lack of a better word, to an estimated 300,000 refugees, it covers more than 250 square miles of Uganda’s Yumbe province. And yet, you won’t find Bidibidi on a map. So how do you bring help to a city that doesn’t exist?

Tyler Radford, executive director, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, or H.O.T., is one solution. “One of the biggest problems facing non-profits is how to account for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t appear on any map,” Radford told the packed audience.

His organization applies the power of crowdsourcing to digital cartography to make the invisible visible. Its maps more accurately reflect the realities of a global population increasingly in flux. “Mobile map apps are something most people use every day,” said Radford. H.O.T. has “a global community of more than 100,000 people, from age eight to 80, dedicated to helping us make those maps more accurate. We provide them with up-to-date satellite imagery—something like Google Earth—and ask them to trace the homes and the buildings and the roads they see. All of that becomes OpenStreetMap.”

Thanks to its army of volunteer cartographers, H.O.T. can provide accurate directions to and maps of places like Bidibidi to organizations like Medicins Sans Frontiers, giving refugees access to health. “Our goal,” he said, “is to fill in the blank areas, especially in places that are vulnerable to disaster.”


More recently, H.O.T. set 300 students loose in flood-prone Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with nothing but their own mobile phones and handmade three-foot-long rulers. “We didn’t have any good data on where in the city the floods were happening,” Radford said. Using the rulers and their phones, the students were able to map the entire city—over 800,000 buildings—and measure the drainage levels in the areas that were flooding.

“We have a mantra,” he said, “Local people, local devices, open knowledge.”

Sharing Is Caring

Acker, who runs the social enterprise arm of cloud-computing behemoth Salesforce, believes corporations need to dramatically rethink and re-evaluate how they deploy technology for non-profits.

Rob Acker, CEO

“If you give technology away for free it’s like asking somebody if they’d like a free 747 airplane and then showing up and putting all the parts on their front lawn. That’s not really doing them any favors because it’s going to cost them tens of millions to assemble it. And there’s no support, there’s nothing,” he told a packed house at the Grill. “We make it affordable and accessible – and by accessible we help you get the most out of it – by helping nonprofits maintain and optimize.”

Instead, more companies should be looking at social enterprise models.  “This isn’t about give and take, it’s about give and give. For example, the more technology we give, the more we’re able to invest back into our communities, he said. And it doesn’t stop there, our engineers offer purpose-built solutions that enable nonprofits to do even more for their communities.”

It’s not just about how you share, but what. For example, teamed up with Polaris Project, a nonprofit NGO working to fight and eradicate modern-day slavery and human trafficking, on a case management system. It allows Polaris to track where calls were coming from, how many people were being extracted, and how many were being repatriated or in need of temporary housing.


“We said to them, ‘We will invest, and we will help build this for you, but you need to share the IP with every other organization focused on human trafficking or like-type of causes,'” Acker said. The data from that system went straight to local law enforcement, allowing them to not just save individuals, but take down entire rings of human traffickers.

These types of information exchanges can have a ripple effect far beyond their intended outcomes, such as, improving relationships with locals, which facilitates future projects. “People trust partnerships and organizations working together,” he said.

Make It Personal

To say that nonprofits are cash-constrained is a massive understatement. So it makes sense that organizations are looking for ways to improve their productivity and return on investment. That’s where data comes in. “There are, at the moment, about 65 million people around the world who are displaced as a result of conflict,” said Gurumurthy from the IRC’s in-house innovation group. “And they are typically displaced for about a decade.”

Ravi Gurumurthy, chief innovation officer, the Airbel Center

The IRC currently resettles about 10,000 refugees in about 20 different cities in the United States every year. It partnered with Stanford University to find ways to use data and analytics to better pair refugees with their new homes. “For example, how can we match former Congolese construction workers with cities like Boise, Idaho, that are undergoing a construction boom?” asked Gurumurthy. “Stanford created an algorithm to do just that.”

The IRC estimates that the project, which is currently underway, will increase employment outcomes for matched refugees by up to 40%. A similar pilot, used in Switzerland, is predicted to have a 75% increase. “The results are greater than we could ever imagine,” Gurumurthy said. “And it’s totally free.”

By leveraging the same benefits that technology offers business—greater efficiency, actionable insight, and the ability to scale quickly—nonprofits are having an impact as never before. By helping refugees find new homes. By directing doctors to refugees in need. By improving more lives in new ways. Where the stakes are highest, these are the results that matter most.



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