When a humanitarian disaster occurs—a massive earthquake or major flooding, for example —organizations like Catholic Relief Services, or CRS, rush in to provide assistance. But relief operations can be chaotic and difficult to organize, particularly when multiple organizations are involved. The challenge is to provide a coordinated response, so those affected by disaster get the relief they need in the fastest, most efficient way possible.
Modern technologies have the potential to dramatically improve disaster relief coordination, as well as other outcomes in the humanitarian and social impact sectors like aiding the homeless and combating climate change. Unfortunately, technology-based solutions are either out of reach or difficult to implement successfully for many organizations like CRS.
“We know that technology can help us work more collaboratively and effectively with other aid organizations, but unfortunately Catholic Relief Services and many of the organizations we work with simply don’t have the internal resources to dedicate to developing technology on our own,” said CRS’s Sheila Thornton. “So when we had the opportunity to work with Pivotal Act, we jumped at it.”
Pivotal Act is a program that partners with humanitarian organizations and charities to identify, design, and develop practical solutions to pressing challenges around the world. The program is the brainchild of Aly Blenkin and Ellie Ereira, a product designer and product manager, respectively, at Pivotal. Blenkin and Ereira recognized the challenges the humanitarian sector faces when it comes to putting technology to use for good and wanted to help. They developed Pivotal Act as a way for organizations like CRS to not just afford modern technology, but to design and implement technology-based solutions that truly meet the needs of users and have a beneficial impact on communities in crisis.
“For some humanitarian and social impact organizations, the financial burden is too high. In other cases, technology is getting built, but the work is often outsourced or developed in ways that don’t involve really listening to the people that will use the technology,” Blenkin says. “So technology gets built, but it doesn’t get used or it’s not effective.”
To avoid that type of outcome, Pivotal Act involves developers, designers, and engineers from Pivotal Labs building and learning collaboratively with clients. Projects apply a similar methodology used in other Pivotal Labs engagements but tailored to the needs of the humanitarian and social impact sectors. It includes extreme programming, people-centered design, and lean product management. Most importantly, the people that will use the solution and their needs—not technology itself—are always the center of attention.
“I think we can help people step back and understand the problem, who is going to use the solution, and who it will be helpful for instead of coming at this from a purely technology perspective,” said Ereira. Pivotal Act is “focused on the entire product development lifecycle and iteratively building solutions based on real feedback from users. It’s very much how Pivotal Labs helps large enterprise build software that customers love, but from a humanitarian and social impact perspective.”
From Prototype to Platform
The engagement with CRS illustrates the Pivotal Act approach. CRS is a member of the Collaborative Cash Delivery Network (CCD), a consortium of 15 NGOs that work together to deliver cash (in addition to physical goods and resources) to affected communities. Cash programming is gaining popularity in the humanitarian sector, as it gives people additional flexibility in times of crisis and supports the local marketplace.
As with any large group, collaboration and communication are critical to CCD’s success. But member organizations were struggling to effectively share data with each other during disasters to minimize duplicated efforts and to ensure cash was being delivered to where it was needed most. Working together, Pivotal Act and CCD analyzed what’s called the cash value chain, interviewing a number of stakeholders to identify the biggest challenges impeding data sharing throughout the process. The result of the engagement was a prototype of a system for a new data sharing platform, which the CCD plans to implement soon.
“The people-centered research and systems prototyping was really useful. It helped us zero in on the crux of the problem and design a targeted solution,” said CRS’s Thornton. “In addition, we have a lot of stakeholders and it’s hard to ensure we’re taking all their input into account. With [people-centered research], they know their thoughts are being considered in design.”
The Collaborative Cash Delivery Network is an early Pivotal Act client.
Part of Pivotal’s Mission
Other early Pivotal Act engagements include work with the Red Cross to design and implement solutions to limit the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations in Vanuatu and Indonesia, and a project with Elrha to make toilets safe and accessible for people in refugee camps in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
“We work across the full product life cycle from design through to development and iteration,” said Ereira. “And it is a collaborative approach. We learn from our partners, just as they learn from us. Our goal is to enable the people we work with so they can continue iterating on the solution and develop new solutions after Pivotal Act steps away.”
While still in its early days, it’s clear Pivotal Act is already having an impact. For Pivotal CEO Rob Mee, it’s just the beginning of what he expects to be an important initiative that enables Pivotal to carry out its mission.
“We want to transform how the entire world builds software, not just how the commercial world builds software,” said Mee. “All these humanitarian organizations are trying to do good in the world and we hope Pivotal Act can help them achieve their goals.”