NetHope in Puerto Rico

NetHope: Information Is Aid

Posted on February 22, 2018 by Michael Corley, consultant with The Patterson Foundation
“Thank you for visiting our beautiful island,” is a comment I heard more than once during my two days in Puerto Rico. The appreciation and pride in the voices making this statement was inspiring. Four months post-Maria, the people of Puerto Rico continue to face challenges, but I observed a camaraderie, proudness, and spunk, which only happens after a significant event impacting a group of people. This would be similar to how the U.S. came together after 9/11 or how a city unites when the home team wins a championship.

I flew into San Juan not knowing what I would encounter. Based on news reports, I imagined the worst. But as the plane circled to land, and as I leaned into the person sitting in the window seat to peek out of the window, I didn’t see mass destruction. I really didn’t see much destruction. As I deplaned and joined the people in the airport, I saw normalcy. Shops open, planes boarding and deplaning, and the ordinary hustle and bustle in an airport.

Leaving the airport in the taxi, I saw very little destruction. Things looked to me like a typical big city – new buildings, old buildings, dilapidated buildings. Nothing unusual. So I mustered up the courage to ask the cab driver about the hurricane. “I still do not have electricity,” he told me. “I have to use a generator eight hours a day at the cost of $15 per day. They said maybe I will get electricity back in March or April.”

Then he pointed to the left, “I live about 10 minutes that way.” And sure enough, it was dark. To my right were obvious signs of life at night – lights in windows, parking lots, and shops. To my left looked just dark, with a smattering of lights which I assumed were running off of a generator.

Finally, he said, “I still don’t have cable or TV. Four months without. But I do have a telephone,” which he held up to show me. This man’s cell phone is his lifeline to information and having cell service is an essential need for him.

It was then I was once again reminded of why the work being done by NetHope is so important. I smiled as I thought that NetHope and its team made cell service a reality for him and so many on the “beautiful island.”

My reason for going to Puerto Rico was to attend a 2-day NetHope “Learning Workshop” for the purpose of reviewing all the activity which took place by the NetHope team after Hurricane Maria (and continues today) and to identify what worked and what can and should be improved. It was positioned as a “no holds barred candid discussion to get ready for the next hurricane season.”

We met in a conference room at a CISCO sales and support office in San Juan. The meeting room held nearly 30 people, all who were in some way connected to NetHope and the work done post-Maria. I learned that only months before, this room was used as a shelter for employees and families, in addition to being a supply center for NetHope. The attendees included an incredibly diverse group of people: NetHope employees (who are often ex-techies who worked in the private sector), humanitarian response passionaries who have no problem going into a disaster under extreme conditions to provide assistance, employees of large for-profit companies (CISCO, Microsoft, Ericsson, Facebook) who are "on loan” to NetHope as part of Corporate Social Responsibility, “data geeks” who love to transform data into information, academicians who analyze and research in order to report and improve, employees from large humanitarian organizations who are members of NetHope, government officials, representatives from two foundations (I was one), and Puerto Rico citizens.

Observing the five sectors – Government, Business, Citizens, Nonprofits, and Media – working collaboratively to review the work they had done during the disaster response was inspiring and hopeful. It is amazing what a group of people can accomplish when they work together.

It is important to understand what happens when the NetHope team activates in response to a disaster. The people of NetHope are often the first to arrive onsite after a disaster, and their focus is to re-establish information and communication technology so that its member organizations (53 international NGOs), local providers, the government, and individuals can begin to communicate with each other. When deploying after a disaster, NetHope coordinates and leverages the resources of its members and its corporate partners. NetHope’s approach is, “how can we deploy technology so that communication can begin flowing among people and the organizations which are providing help and needing help. How can technology make response efforts more efficient and effective?”

In Puerto Rico, nearly 100% of communication capabilities were destroyed. This meant there were no phones and no internet. Electricity was not available. Generators were far and few between. Despite this, Rami Shakra, NetHope’s Director of Field Connectivity, was charged with getting to Puerto Rico and coordinating the efforts of the NetHope team to restore information and communications flow.

When Rami landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, several days after the storm hit, the city was dark and quiet. There was no light (no electricity), and there were few cars on the road (limited fuel and debris blocking passage). His first question was, "Where do I start?" As a NetHope employee, he was responsible for finding out how the NetHope team could begin helping. Fortunately, Rami was able to connect with one of NetHope's member organizations (Save the Children) who directed him to FEMA, who in turn, introduced him to the local government.

The power of connective tissue and relationships.

Working with the local government, Rami and the NetHope team were able to become part the group of responders who are committed to helping the people on the island. After becoming part of the group, Rami began to assess the needs of the island to restore connectivity. To say this was a daunting task is an understatement. Rami provided the NetHope team at corporate with immediate needs for equipment, supplies, water, housing for volunteers, and cash to hire people. Yes cash. No electricity means no ATMs or credit card machines. When the ATMs finally began working, each limited the amount a customer could extract because cash was in short supply on the island. Then the work began.

Since September, NetHope has had a team in Puerto Rico working to restore connectivity. The stories of how it has accomplished its work are many and inspiring. Here are a few of my observations:
  • NetHope and its members were able to obtain resources and begin taking action because of existing relationships. There were many, many examples of, “I was able to do this because I knew someone who knew someone, and that person was willing to help.

  • While NetHope implemented quick, temporary solutions, it did so with a thought toward longer-term more permanent solutions. I.e., rebuild using Category 5 strength equipment powered by solar.

  • Having access to information is critical to citizens and organizations. The number one source of information is the internet. So re-establishing the ability to connect is extremely important. Information truly is aid.

  • Leveraging the strengths of your partners is essential. You can’t have the attitude of “our way is the only way.” Because of this approach, NetHope was able to partner with Facebook to leverage its platform for communicating.

  • The people who work in disaster areas must have a unique ability to survive and thrive under difficult circumstances. Two examples: no air conditioning, and no hot water.

  • Having an honest discussion about “what worked and what could have been better” is extremely useful in making changes for the “next time.”
NetHope’s and its member’s deployment into Puerto Rico was an incredibly large-scale and spontaneous response to a bad situation. There are no playbooks on how to do what NetHope did. However, by connecting with its members and partners to learn and share, the NetHope response team is evolving, and the result will be a strengthened response to the next disaster.

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