IT Lends a Helping Hand: An interview with NetHope's Edward Granger-Happ

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 01-28-2005
The relief workers toiling in the tsunami-battered nations of southern Asia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia don't just need money; they need IT support. Like all professionals, their effectiveness and productivity can be amplified by IT—only in their case it means saving more lives and restoring communities more quickly. But field workers for organizations such as Save the Children, Oxfam, and CARE must do their work in nightmarish conditions, often without electricity, phone lines and the human basics.

Edward Granger-Happ, the chairman of the board and a founder of NetHope, Inc., is a CIO on the front lines of the tsunami relief effort. NetHope is an organization made up of IT executives from 15 non-government relief organizations who have banded together for cooperative effort rather than competitive advantage. NetHope members share information and know-how, and work together with corporate partners such as Cisco Systems, IBM and Microsoft to develop, share and supply equipment, software and communications services for their members' relief workers.

Granger-Happ doubles as the chief technology officer of Save the Children, a Westport, Conn.-based charity and relief organization and a NetHope member. He left behind a 24-year career in the private sector, first as an executive with First Boston, Lotus, Chase and Data Broadcasting Corp., then as senior partner and founder of a management consulting firm, to join Save the Children about four years ago.

CIO Insight executive editor Allan E. Alter spoke with Granger-Happ about NetHope's founding and mission, its work in tsunami relief, and how CIOs and other IT managers and professionals can help NetHope provide technical support.

What is NetHope?
My 30-second description is that we're a group of the largest international non-profits who have banded together to bring ICT – information and communication technology – out to the most challenged areas of the world in which we work. The members are 15 of the largest international non-profits, representing a collective $3.5 billion relief and long term development aid. NetHope is in Sunnyvale, Calif., because that's where our executive director and finance director are. The members of the board come from throughout the U.S. and the U.K.

What is its mission?
To make a difference in the world at the point where our members' programs touch children and families. The analogy for the for-profit world is where the products meet the customers. Our primary focus is the field worker who is sometimes hours or miles away from even the central field office in the country, administering relief programs like those in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, as well as long-term development, HIV, education, economic opportunity, and conservation-type work.

Why was NetHope started?
It started with a white paper, called "Wiring the Virtual Village," I wrote during my first nine months at Save the Children and presented to Cisco Systems in March 2001. Essentially, it said if we band together as a group of non-profits, we can solve our communication and technology infrastructure problems faster and cheaper than if we continue to try to do it on our own. We all have the same IT issues: in the U.S and Europe IT infrastructure is taken for granted, but in the areas we work we can't even take electricity for granted. My compelling hypothesis No. 2 is that if we band together to solve these problems, we would be much more attractive to corporate technology partners. A technology company that is interested in philanthropic work could benefit 15 non-profits if it contributed technology, money or people through NetHope, not just one. They would leverage their gifts and time much more than with one-off grants to individual non-profits. It's also lower risk, because if one or two non-profits have difficulty implementing a grant (always a big concern for corporate partners), the other 12 or 13 who had success can help the other two come up to speed. I spent the first 24 years of my career in the for-profit world, and I was very encouraged by the openness and willingness of non-profits to share internal information and cooperate.

In early April 2001, I got a call from Cisco, when they were launching their Cisco Fellow program. Right after the dot.com bubble burst, companies like Cisco had a significant economic downturn. One expense-neutral alternative they found to downsizing was to give managers the option of working with a non-profit, and they would pay for a portion of the expenses. Financially, you come out better if you do this than if you lay off employees; otherwise, you'd have to pay severance and unemployment, and then hire a recruiter when you wanted to fill the position again at the end of the downturn. Two thirds of Cisco Fellows, however, return as an employee. They asked if we'd be interested in that, and I said absolutely. We hired the first Cisco Fellow in June 2001. That was Dipak Basu, and he's been the executive director of NetHope for its first three years. Dipak gets the credit for taking this vision of a cooperative among non-profits and making it happen. I was really just the idea person.

By the way, when people returned to Cisco after doing this fellowship program, they all said it was critical to their development as leaders. So now Cisco employees have the option of doing this for several months. It's become strategic for them.

What is NetHope doing now to help the tsunami victims?
The key thing NetHope is doing is a project that began a year ago with some technology that had been developed by some Cisco engineers in North Carolina working with Inmarsat in London as a response to the Sept. 11 emergency, where communications and networking was knocked out in New York City. They came up with some off-the-shelf components they put together in a single box to provide what I call a "network-in-a-box." In relief situations you want to establish voice and data communications in 72 hours or less. In the initial stages of disaster relief, the first relief workers are highly mobile; they are doing situation assessments, determining what the key needs are and marshaling the resources and the equipment that's necessary to fulfill these needs. You need to have voice and data communications to make that happen. So we saw that network-in-a-box as a potential "net relief kit" (NRK). The kit, which is built by Cisco and now in its second generation, is the size of a weekender suitcase. It's meant to be out in a field location; it's ruggedized, runs off a car battery, and is cooled by multiple fans. It can support up to 50 laptops and four or more wireless telephones. It gives us a box with a handle that people flying to the disaster area can bring with them. NetHope has been the driving force behind developing that project, and Cisco has donated the engineering time and expertise to put the box together.

We had done two lab tests of the NRK and were scheduling field tests in Africa for this quarter when the tsunami hit. Our emergency people had reports about the problem within hours. Save the Children's field office at Banda Aceh was hit and our field office people were lost; all but two were later accounted for. We also lost ten midwives with a community partner. Many of the NetHope managers, like Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Save the Children and others, who are responding to this emergency in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in Myanmar and India, said we need to take this NRK and get it into the field. We said this emergency will become our trial. It's not the typical way you build and do a trial, but if there's anything we've learned in IT it's that speed is essential in product development.

The way emergency response works, you get initial response people who try to get in there as soon as possible, determine the situation and what the needs are, and the people in headquarters try to martial the resources and goods—locally at first, so there's no shipping, but longer-term usually from the U.S. and other sources. This first phase is highly individual and highly mobile. These initial response people took satellite phones, thanks to an agreement we had already worked out with Iridium. We had daily conference calls among members of NetHope during the first phase, and shared our technology assessment information and discussed who can bring what technologies to bear. That information sharing and consulting among members is of enormous value to organizations like Save the Children; we don't have a large IT staff, and it feels especially small when we're operating in triage and crisis mode. That happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now it's happening in Indonesia.

The second phase in emergency response involves groups of people, but they're also highly mobile and need to talk with one another. We're now starting the second phase, and that's when the NRK will be used. Many of these groups will operate in tent communities; when we get in with the NRK, we connect their laptops. The kit is just going over now. Our director of networks will be the point person for the first kit. He's landed in Jakarta, and he'll be gathering the equipment he needs and will be going to Banda Aceh in the next few days.

How many NRKs will be going out?
We've asked for ten. That's the preliminary request, and we haven't heard back yet what's possible. That's the challenge. They are still custom-made; it's the dedication of the engineers at Cisco in North Carolina that's putting them together. We're going to try to share the NRKs as much as possible, but there are bandwidth issues there. In some places we can only get a 64K connections, and there's only so much bandwidth you can share. Bandwidth is always an issue.

Not until the third phase do we establish a more permanent office, and we will outfit that office with a VSAT or other connections, LANs and desktop PCs. When you get to the third phase the NRK is irrelevant because you get a VSAT in a more permanent building.

The final way NetHope will be of value will be taking its learning and experiences and sharing it with non-members and developing countries. That's part of the philanthropic value of what NetHope is doing: Just as we benefit from our knowledge-sharing experiences, we want to turn around and open that to others.

How will that knowledge-sharing be done?
NetHope members actually use IBM Lotus Domino QuickPlace, a donation IBM Lotus made to Save the Children. We have a library of posted documents and information, a discussion area, and folders for each of the emergencies and projects on which we're working. It's a fully searchable and indexed knowledge base of information, and we have close to four years of information in it now. And here's the tie-back to how open non-profits are to sharing information: If the head of network engineering at Oxfam has discussions with three satellite phone providers in the European Union, he'll summarize it and post it for the rest of the members. We don't all have to talk to those three EU phone providers.

What will you be doing in the next two to eight weeks to help the tsunami victims?
I think phase 2 will last at least 90 days, maybe longer. With the extent of the damage we're seeing in the Banda Aceh area, it may take significantly longer before we can establish a field office that has electricity and communications.

Again, NetHope is focused on that relief worker, the relief worker who is doing the food distributions and handling medical programs, crisis intervention in terms of psychological counseling for families and kids, and relocation services. Our job is to make that field workers' job as easy as possible, by giving him communications and by minimizing the amount of paperwork he needs to do. If you remember what it was like to work without e-mail and a computer, and think about how much easier it is now to do that much more, we want to give the same advantages to the field worker. We're bringing in laptops, LANs, wireless telephones, satellite telephones, portable satellite dishes, larger satellite dishes for the longer term, and the NRK is the network infrastructure that sits in the middle of that.

Communications is critical for security. In Iraq, communication is essential to make sure people are safe and accounted for. These areas we are going into now for tsunami relief have tenuous situations; there's a civil war and insurrections going on. Security is an issue there as well. It used to be, before the UN was bombed in Baghdad, that non-profits were immune. We could go in as politically and religiously neutral and meet dire needs wherever we went. That whole world changed with the UN bombing in Baghdad; we're no longer immune, we're now one of the targets. There have been kidnappings and bombings. It's a different world for non-profits. Now we have to spend time on security planning that we didn't have to do before. And that requires better technology.

What can IT executives do to help the tsunami victims and NetHope?
To the degree they have bandwidth or technology they can share, that is of significant interest to us. Many laptops and desktop PCs are on two-year leases; CIOs ought to take them as they come off lease and donate them to non-profits, and get the tax write-off if you do the buy-out. It's a win-win. Check with your accounting department first, of course. We have a third-party "wiping service" to delete any data from the donated machines.

How can companies share bandwidth?
Many companies have paid for large amounts of satellite transponder space; it's the rented space on the bird itself. To the extent they have transponder space on satellites that cover India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, they can help. We still have to put satellite communications equipment on the ground, but the most expensive part is often the recurring transponder space rent. We've talked with some corporations about sharing network infrastructure, but global companies are in the major cities and that's not where we typically are. But they will have satellite transponder space. Many companies rent space for peak periods. When it's not peak time, there ought to be ways to donate transponder space.

There's another way CIOs could help, and that is to volunteer to act as advisers to the non-profit IT directors, from NetHope to the individual IT directors at the non-profits. Save the Children spends less than 1.5 percent of revenue on IT, and our headquarters IT department is 23 people for a 3,200-person organization in 40 countries. So we're excellent at taking slim resources and stretching them to do incredible things. But when you layer on top of it a disaster of this magnitude, where you have to turn your attention to those things, getting help and advice on more efficient ways to do the day-to-day blocking and tackling, or to even come and volunteer to fill in to do those things, would be very valuable. We're good at stretching things thin to run a normal operation, but add a disaster like this and it becomes an abnormal operation. We have daily stand-up meetings to look at everyone's top three things they are doing that impacts their response. There could be lots of other things that don't happen. Having people who are experts at crisis management and in applying medical triage to business situation would be invaluable to non-profits.

What kinds of people from an IT staff would you want as volunteers?
It could be as basic as help-desk people who can configure PC laptops before they go out in the field. It could be network engineers who can run our data centers. At senior-management level, advisers on how to apply triage and crisis management to most efficiently manage hour-to-hour with our limited resources.

To help, go to www.nethope.org. There's a link to contact us at http://www.nethope.org/contactus.html. Or call us at (408) 525-2451 or e-mail us at info@nethope.org. Those calls and e-mails will get funneled to Molly Tschang, our current executive director, who will take it from there. If anyone is interested in particular in Save the Children, contact me by email at ehapp@savechildren.org rather than call.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
NetHope doesn't happen without our corporate partners, especially Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Immarsat and Eutelsat. Microsoft and Cisco have worked with us from day one when this tragedy struck, asking us how they can help. Cisco has responded by speeding up the Net Relief Kit, and employees at both organizations are donating to Save the Children. They've been incredible partners. Beyond business partners, these are organizations that really care about making a difference, and they have taken a keen interest in having NetHope succeed.

And just two human-interest points: This is my third career. I worked on Wall Street for the first 14 years of my career, with First Boston, Chase, Lotus and Data Broadcasting Corp. Then I ran my own management consulting business in IT and balanced scorecard work for ten years before joining Save the Children. Which leads me to my second point: I could double my income at any corporate firm, but what's more important to me at this point in my career is having the ability to make an impact every day in what I do. When we get IT right, more kids get fed, more kids get inoculated, and more kids get educated and taught. The value of that is immeasurable. So my whole model has turned from pursuit of success to pursuit of significance.