[Guest blog post by Nick Martin, co-founder and president of Tech4Change]

From Local Training to Global Capacity Building

At TechChange we believe the best way to learn crisis mapping tools like Ushahidi is to immerse participants in dynamic simulations in which they are forced to make challenging decisions with limited time and resources. TechChange designs and runs simulations for a number of conditions including the outbreak of disease or famine, human migration, aid and resource delivery, agricultural production, mobile money transfer, and much more. A key component of this approach is conducting trainings in regions that could benefit most from the application of technology. Recently, we have used Ushahidi for an election monitoring simulation in Kenya, and to track checkpoint closures, medical emergencies, and other significant events in the West Bank.

In June 2011, TechChange also partnered with the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and Ushahidi for the Universities 4 Ushahidi program (U4Ushahidi). For this project, we took a more global approach by training a network of civil society leaders from conflict zones at USIP headquarters in Washington, DC. Students came from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and other conflict-affected regions for a week-long course. A key part of the course was the TechChange Afghanistan election monitoring simulation, where we divided teams into different roles as UN staff and local election monitors, conducted multiple rounds of training with lesson recaps, and challenged all their efforts by having a “Taliban” team, who submitted false reports, intimidated voters, and even broke into the system as an administrator. We believe that by allowing participants to use these types of tools within a environment that includes simulated challenges and risks, they will have increased ability to deploy the Ushahidi platform and implement it effectively in their home countries.

Why is this important? The success of Ushahidi as a crisis-mapping tool is inseparable from the strength of the community that uses it. By cultivating a global network of local experts in conflict zones, we are creating the capacity for greater coordination and collaboration among individuals who face similarly challenging circumstances. But in order for this community to thrive, it must extend beyond classroom to include a combination of face-to-face trainings and continuing support. We are excited to be developing innovative and interactive online learning experiences to complement in-person hands-on learning.  Our newest online learning course is entitled “Tech Tools for Emergency Management.” It features Ushahdi, FrontlineSMS, Sahana, Open Street Map, and GIS. We’ll have another post about our online courses later this fall so stay tuned. Read more about TechChange online courses here.

Finally, in the spirit of open-source, we’d like to share our simulation framework. We are constantly working to improve this model, and are excited about any ideas and feedback from broader Ushahidi community.

General Simulation Guidelines

GameMaster: “GameMaster” is the term we use to identify the person or people running the simulation. The GameMaster must ensure that all details of the simulation are accounted for and must be able to adapt the simulation depending on how quickly or slowly participants are learning, how effectively the technology is working (technology always breaks), and a host of other variables. Having a few extra volunteers on hand to keep things running smoothly can make a huge difference.

The Arena: The “arena” is term we use to designate the physical space for the simulation. For every simulation that we run we try to ensure that the arena is big enough so that teams of participants are out of view from each other but not so big that the GameMasters have trouble making sure everything runs smoothly. If your training takes place in one classroom, we recommend making use of other classrooms, hallways, study areas, and outdoor spaces, as long as it’s not too disruptive for others. Also be sure stay within wireless or mobile coverage!

Hardware: Having at least a few computers on hand is a must. If you want to use SMS you’ll need a few cell phones and at least one GSM modem. In our travelling tech bag we have 4 laptops, 1 tablet, 4 cell phones with “pay-as-you-go” SIM cards, and 4 unlocked GSM modems for FrontlineSMS, which we’ll explore later in the post.  Every arena presents a new set of technical challenges so, it should go without saying, — test and re-test everything. However, even if something doesn’t work, this can be used as a powerful learning opportunity in a debrief.

Software: For Ushahidi simulations we usually set up a Crowdmap instance but we have also installed Ushahidi on our servers. If you are planning to integrate SMS, FrontlineSMS can be downloaded here, installed on a computer, and linked to the Crowdmap. We wont go into detail about how to link Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS but if you are interested you can watch this video.

Coverage: Wireless coverage is important. Make sure that signal strength is strong enough in all the key places of your arena. If you are using FrontlineSMS, also make sure that mobile coverage is available in your arena.

Time: Generally our simulations take between 1-3 hours including a debrief at the end.  The GameMaster(s) should also be prepared to extend or curtail the simulation depending on the mood of the participants and whether or not the learning goals have been achieved.

Context: We usually prefer to create a realistic context for our simulations and base them on real events or actual circumstances within a country or region. However, depending on your training audience you may want to create a fictitious country if you are concerned for any reason that creating a context specific simulation might undermine your training goals.

Closing comments

Facilitators should be comfortable being creative with their scenarios.  It’s OK to be over the top or to throw some curves into the simulation!  Simulations can break the monotony of a class, or provide an opportunity to put those hours of lecture to work solving a problem that is germane to what students will face in the field.

We are eager to help other organizations design and deliver simulations for their members and teams so if you’re interested in having TechChange work with you, just send us a note at info [at] techchange.org