Tag Archives: QuestionBox

Rethinking the UN’s Global Pulse

Update: This project is now called UN Global Pulse.

I’m in Bellagio on Lake Como this week for a Blue Sky Thinkers Workshop on the UN’s new Global Pulse Initiative. When I first blogged about GIVAS¬†as it was called back in July 2009, the Pulse Team in the UN Secretary General’s Office actually commented on my blog post. The fact that the UNSG’s Office was taking the time to read blogs and comment on them was the first sign that something about this project was very different from my previous experience with the UN.

We’re under Chatham House Rules here so I’ll just stick to my own thoughts on what I think Global Pulse should be. First, I don’t think Global Pulse should be for the UN or nation states. The global alert system should directly empower vulnerable communities to prevent or mitigate the impact of crises on their own livelihoods. In other words, Global Pulse should be a self-help system for vulnerable communities. The development and maintenance of this system should be the responsibility of the UN and governments.

So here’s an idea (still under development): why not use the QuestionBox technology and approach to create “call in” centers for information on tactics for resilience.

Question Box helps people find answers to everyday questions like health, agriculture, business, education and entertainment. It provides easy access to information in hard-to-reach areas and breaks through technology, language and literacy barriers. We do this through:

  • Live telephone hotlines connected to live operators
  • SMS (Text Messaging)
  • Mobile and solar technologies that operate off the grid
  • Open Question – a simple software to start your own Question Box project

The group behind Question Box also help several organizations start their own Question Box-inspired services. So lets turn Global Pulse into a Global Resilience Information Service for vulnerable communities. There are four key reasons I find this approach compelling. First, this approach provides a demand-driven direct service to vulnerable communities as opposed to just “watching” them. Databases of resilience tactics can be (continually) developed by either local communities themselves or government sponsored projects. This information can then be shared across towns and regions. Think of this as a “Resilience Wiki”.

The second reason I want to continue exploring this system is because the queries made using a Resilience Question Box approach are in and of themselves important indicators. Think of Google’s Flu trends project. The team “found a close relationship between the number of people who search for flu-related topics and the number of people who actually have flu symptoms.” In other words, the queries made to Resilience Question Box could serve as proxy indicators for local vulnerability. This data would then be analyzed for trends and policy making at the UN.

The third reason this approach appeals to me is because it serves the interest of vulnerability communities first and foremost. The rhetoric behind global alert systems is that they are for vulnerable communities but the reality is that these communities rarely know that such systems actually exist. The first indicator of success for Global Pulse will therefore be whether vulnerable communities are aware of Pulse. A second indicator will be whether they actually use the system.

The fourth and final reason I’m keen about a Question Box approach is because of the focus on information for vulnerable communities. In my opinion, most crises are ultimately crises in information, which is another reason why information is power. Imagine if Global Pulse could work with Member States to set up hundreds of thousands of Resilience Boxes. Think of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC). Global Pulse could provide a Resilience Box per Vulnerable Community, enabling the latter to make more informed decisions to increase their own resilience in near real-time.

Now how does one fund all this? I got a possible answer over lunch while talking to one of the participants (whose identity I can’t reveal because of Chatham House Rules). How about a Kiva for Resilience Boxes? Instead of donating money to one (or more) specific project, you could donate money for 50 QuestionBox answers to a specific community in Bangladesh. I personally find that very compelling, i.e., knowing that my money provided 50 answers for vulnerable communities. In return for my donation, perhaps I could also get a copy of the 50 questions/answers and learn something new in the process.

Patrick Philippe Meier