Thursday, January 28, 2010

15 Days in Haiti

I've been getting the usual questions from folks that I know ever since the earthquake happened in Haiti. Are you going down there? Are you working on it? I can usually answer these pretty quickly (#1 -No and #2 - Yes). I have only been on one international trip since I began working in this field (India) and that was right after I moved over to the team exclusively handling disaster response in our organization. I've never shied away from accepting overseas assignments (whether its support or ground work) but I have tried to specialize in domestic work since there was so much potential for our group in doing more in that arena. The rest of my group focuses primarily on international response work so I've been able to wear both hats from time to time.

On Thursday I was asked to make my second trip outside the US. It will be quite different than my trip to India - I have no doubt of that. I was given some latitude to check with my wife before committing to it and I definitely appreciated that since my wife isn't too fond of my extended travels. I know the next few days will be hard for her but I have complete trust in her support and ability to watch our 2 little grown folks while I'm gone.

My assignment on the ground will be working on the logistics side of the response, in particular the transport and distribution of shelter items. I won't be going in alone on this and my involvement in some of the early planning on the stateside piece is helpful as well. Originally this task was going to go to someone else but visa issues have held him up and I'm coming in as a short-term solution. Better to be option B than option D I say.

So what does this mean for this space in the next few weeks? Hard to say. I'd like to think that I can find some time to post daily updates in this space but I expect to be working longer hours (this always seems to happen wherever I travel for work) with limited internet access from time to time. I'm leery of turning this site into a diary of sorts as well (although it can come close to that from time to time depending on the topic I'm dealing with.) Twitter seems like an easier venue for me to deal with right now...but I'm willing to sacrifice a little bit of my sleep and sanity to keep this space current too. My final verdict would be to encourage you to subscribe to the RSS feed for this site and see what happens. I also hope my 2 or 3 regular readers (if I believe the site statistics) will continue to stop by and hit me with a comment or email...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti Earthquake: Crunching the Numbers

Today is Tuesday, January 25th, 14 days after the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti and sparked a massive disruption in the lives of Haitians in their home nation and abroad. Let's look at few moments to take a look at some of the numbers so far:
The stories and commentary behind these numbers are more important than the numbers themselves when it comes to finding long-term solutions to Haiti's problems. As events continue to unfold in Haiti it will be interesting to see just how well the government of Haiti, the UN and foreign governments can work together to bring security and aid to the affected communities. Hopefully the ongoing recovery efforts will continue to be covered as vigorously as the first 2 weeks were following the disaster. That being said, there hasn't been much in the news lately about the last tsunami we've seen in the news or the last major earthquake (although to its credit Indonesia has a bit more awareness and resilience for this type of threat.)

Photo courtesy of du.schultz via Flickr.

Note: Looks like CNN was in a number crunching mood today as well - I guess that's to be expected as we hit the 2 week mark.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Movin' on Down to the East Side

It's a bit of a challenge these days for me to find time to keep up with general news circulating around the Internet but I have noticed some references to a new report released by the Brookings Institute that I think are worthwhile noting here. We'll take a break from the Haiti earthquake coverage here for a moment and spend some time on this topic.

"The Suburbanization of Poverty: Trends in Metropolitan America, 2000 to 2008" highlights trends that  I hope a lot of folks (community development professionals, social service providers, planners, politicians, etc.) have already had a suspicion of or are paying attention to today. If 1/3 of all poor people in the United States live in the suburbs of large metro areas as this report indicates then we need to make sure that our fellow citizens that fall in this category have sufficient access to the things they need to help them break the poverty cycle regardless of where they live. That means they need low-cost but extensive transportation networks, multiple health care facility options, and access to jobs that pay decent wages. I can't help but think that one of a number of factors at play in these shifting trends was the large availability of affordable housing in the suburbs that the nation cranked out in the '90's.

One of the authors of the report (Elizabeth Kneebone) had this to say in regards to how the current recession has affected these trends:

The first year of the recession has already translated into significant poverty increases nationally, with suburbs once again showing the fastest growth rate in the number of poor. Looking at the unemployment numbers for 2009, we can expect even greater poverty increases to materialize in metro areas across the board. We have also seen unemployment grow at a faster pace in suburbs than cities over this time period, and more suburbanized industries—like real estate, retail, construction, and manufacturing—have borne some of the greatest job losses during the downturn. Taken together, these factors suggest that the trend of suburbanizing poverty is likely only to continue, if not accelerate, in coming years.

Other folks have put forth some good observation on this research so I will stop here for now and recommend that you check out their sage commentary:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Leadership in a Crisis (plus other Crises just for kicks)

After an extended weekend bogged down with a pesky stomach bug, work carried over from a hectic workweek, and the usual weekend activities it seemed natural for me to spend a bit of time today talking about leadership in a crisis. Especially since some people had a much harder weekend than I did. As a side note I did find out why Twitter is referred to as a microblogging site - you had a better shot of hearing from me via that venue then on this one the last few days.

Why leadership in a crisis? I believe anyone can be a leader at some point in their lives (Caveat: I don't write books on leadership so give me a break for a little while as I get going on this one.) but its the rare group of individuals that can do so in a crisis. Even fewer can do so "successfully" in a crisis. I spent a good bit of my college years in the Army Reserves and ROTC so I've always had an appreciation for the way the military approaches this concept and I believe the American public in general has confirmed that over the history of our country. Leaders can be taught and trained to be better leaders but it still takes something extra to do it well when the bullets start flying at you (literally and figuratively speaking.)

Today President Barack Obama has a whole lot of crises circling "Chocolate City" (no offense intended - just wanted to pull off a semi-relevant reference to "Talk to Me", the Bootsy Collins "Unsung" episode, and the Obama/MLK Day interview in a 24 hour span on TVOne). Let's rattle off just a few:
  1. Health care/Social Security reform
  2. Iraq/Afganhistan/Where in the World is Osama bin Laden
  3. The Recession (with a capital R)
  4. ...and now we've added Haiti.

Could we handle those crises if we were in those shoes? It's easy for us to play Monday Morning Quarterback with our favorite sports teams but when lives are at stake its much harder to look ourselves in the mirror and say we can do better. If I'm right very few could do so and be honest with themselves. The closest some of us will come is to be in a position similar to this exercise I wrote about in an earlier post.

My point here is not to defend the actions that the US government is taking in Haiti this point - they've done some good things and not so good things so far and they'll probably do more of the same over the next few weeks. My point is that at least we are in a position to ask and hold our leaders accountable for this crisis (while other crises eat up some of our time and energy) - imagine what it would be like if we didn't have any decent candidates to fill those shoes?

Let me know what you think in the Comments section. Also, if you haven't done so and are able please do what you can to support Haiti. You can go here to donate to one of the groups you favor most or click on the earthquake response banner that's now up on the right side of the blog.

Image courtesy of US Navy

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Working in the Dark

It's a bit of a challenge to hear from someone in a place with no working cell phones, Internet, or power. I think its hard for most of us to imagine what that's like in this day and age. If we were to add to that situation the extreme distress of over 3 million people we might be a bit closer to understanding the experience of being on the ground in Haiti right now. We can't know for certain until we're in that situation no matter how vivid an account you get from someone first-hand.

My organization is still wrestling with basic issues. Is all of our local staff okay? As far as we know yes, but we haven't heard from all of them directly. Can we get around to do an assessment? Yes, but who knows when we will reach a point on the road we'll have to turn around. At the headquarters level two of our most important tools at this stage are Twitter and Skype. Satellite phones are great until everyone tries to use them to coordinate primetime television coverage in the field for US audiences.

Everyone wants to help. I mean everyone. I don't know if they've had a chance to check out Wikipedia before but Haiti was not the kind of place I'd send any type of volunteer on Monday nor on Tuesday. A lot of our time was spent today showing people how to help - not a bad way to spend time but something that can be managed easier with the right messaging. We shine a bit of light on a dark situation.

You also hear stories as the day goes on. One aid worker who comes back to whose home community only to find several family members have passed away. A mid-air collision of VIP transport just narrowly adverted while other planes taxi in the air for hours trying to land in Port-au-Prince. The stories remind you that everyone is coming into this with a few knowns and a lot of unknowns - just hoping for a little light to be shed in the right spots.

Image above courtesy of Associated Press via New York Times.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Long Day's Night

It has been a long day. Even when you know it will be a long day its hard to over come it in your mind. My day started out with the normal routine of getting my daughter to school followed by a very brief check-in at the office to make sure I wasn't needed urgently after Tuesday evening's earthquake. I then proceeded to a scheduled meeting at the FEMA field office just north ofdowntown for the morning.

The morning meeting was primarily aimed at providing a wider audience of folks an overview of the state's Disaster Housing Task Force, which had been activated rapidly last fall after the flooding here in the Atlanta area in September. It was interesting to note the following observation from one participant (paraphrased):

In some ways we are more prepared for catastrophic disasters and how to work with our local/state/federal counterparts than the smaller disasters like an EF-3 tornado that wipes out 12 homes in a rural county. The tornado won't trigger a federal declaration (and activate federal resources) but it can be more challenging for the locals to recover from and for the state to support.

Had to agree with that observation based on my experiences to date.

The rest of the day saw me wearing my international hat rather than my domestic hat in terms of work. Situations like the one currently going on in Haiti produce a chain reaction of rapid-fire crises and decisions to be made in order for voluntary organizations to develop their plans to be a part of the post-disaster solution. I must admit there is a certain rush that comes from this work and knowing that you are going to be a part of the solution for thousands of people struggling after such a cataclysmic event but it also brings more stress and frustration with it. We try our best to do what we can given the circumstances. As a group we've spent a good bit of time just making sure our local staff is okay and safe as well as planning how to get "feet on the ground." I was specifically assigned the task of investigating our potential for generating Gift In Kind for a potential response as well as connecting with a few of our key partners. My boss came into the office this morning but will hopefully spend this evening in Santo Domingo and cross the border into Haiti tomorrow afternoon to start the assessment process.

I'm going to try to use this space to give you (the reader) a brief glimpse into the details of the work that gets done behind the scenes with a nonprofit/NGO that is gearing up for major work after a disaster over the next few days. By now you will see a lot of coverage on the general situation from thousands of media outlets (traditional and social) so there's not much point in me duplicating those efforts.

I will point out that Haiti was a hard place to send volunteers before Tuesday and it is even more so now so the best way for people to help in Haiti is to make donations to the cause they feel best suits their intent in these early days (there is a reason why the UN has decided to make Haiti one of the 13 places around the world with a semi-permanent peacekeeping mission.) If you want to make a donation (no matter how small or large) you should check out the InterAction list of agencies for the Haiti response.

Image above courtesy of Getty Images via CNN.

A Tale of Two Earthquakes

As I write this it is fairly early on a Wednesday morning. I didn't plan on posting articles in the middle of the night when I started this blog but I find its best to be productive when your brain won't turn off at 2:47 in the morning.

Unless you've been extremely busy and detached from all sources of news and information for the past several hours you have probably heard about Tuesday evening's earthquake near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The situation there as we can best tell at this point is deadly serious. It was interesting to see the Larry King Show last night feature both a management disaster (Conan vs Leno) and a natural disaster and it was quite easy to guess who would be on Anderson Cooper's show immediately thereafter. There are lots of pictures showing the destruction caused by this quake floating around the Internet from the last hour or so of daylight on Tuesday. I won't post them here but you can check some of them out by visiting PicFog.

As we wait to hear more about the situation later on today I think its interesting to note that only 3 days prior to the Haiti earthquake we were looking at news from Northern California regarding the 6.5 earthquake there. The relative difference in Richter scale (6.5 versus 7.0) and distance from the surface (18.2 versus 6.2 miles) is of little use in comparing the two earthquakes. What we're looking at here is the huge distinction between communities that have been mandated to be resilient and have the resources to properly prepare and mitigate this type of risk and communities that have had little to no chance to build up any resiliency at all (especially after being hit by 4 tropical storms in 2008.) Today we find that Eureka, CA (about 29 miles away from the CA quake epicenter) is cleaning up its town with no injuries from the weekend's event. We know that is far from the case Haiti will be in as the UN and the national government hope to account for all of their people, let alone maintain operations, as daylight arrives on the island country.

If you've been to this site before you may have noticed that the posting schedule has been pretty regular (Mon/Wed/Fri) up until this point. That schedule has gone out the window at this point so look for updates from me before and after work for awhile. Thanks again for stopping by.

Monday, January 11, 2010

RSS Anonymous

I think I'm starting to develop an addiction to RSS feeds.

It was a very casual habit at first. I noticed the little orange logo at the end of certain web addresses one day and decided to find out what it meant. I figured out how to subscribe to a few random things that I checked from time to time (craigslist seaches for Mac items, new articles from the newspaper, new posts in my hometown team's fan board...) in the FireFox menu bar. It was simple, it was easy...and they just kept coming in.

More and more sites started to add RSS capability. Then my employer rolled out SharePoint to all of the departments and I found I could keep up with documents related to my work just by adding the feeds in Outlook. I would read everything...and then go find more things to subscribe to.

Things accelerated when a friend of mine recommended I try using Google Reader last year (thanks Brian). I started off with a few subscriptions here and there but when I didn't see any new updates coming in for an hour or two I went after my subscriptions. "Surely, there must be something going on that I need to scan in 3 seconds or less," I'd say to myself as I went feed hunting.

I looked at my statistics in Google Reader a month ago and was shocked to see 80+ subscriptions in there. "What? That can't be right." I cut loose a few that only produced updates every 4 or 5 days, then added a few more that updated 4-5 times a day. Looking at my stats today (Sunday) is a bit more disturbing than it was at the end of last year. It's time for me to take the first step. 

Here are some numbers:

  • Subscriptions: 106
  • Items read: 14,045
  • Frequently updated subscriptions: 1) Articles - 67.3/day 2) eRepublik military events widget - 58.1/day 3) craigslist atlanta/church search - 49.7/day 4) Top Stories from Newser - 49.4/day 5) Metro news (AJC) - 24.0/day

My name is Giovanni, and I'm addicted to RSS feeds.

Hey, I know I'm not the only one. You can tell me about your RSS problems in the Comments section. I should also point out that RSS is a really great tool to use in the same fashion as Twitter. Both can sometimes be too much of a good thing though...

Special thanks to Matthew Inman for the RSS graphics. You can check out his site at (I need to get me one of those short urls one day...)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tunnel Vision

On Wednesday our city paper had an interesting article about a proposed tunnel under east Atlanta. My first reaction upon reading it: Typical, just typical.

This wasn't the first time I had heard of this idea. Or the second. AJC writer Jim Wooten thinks it’s a "cracker-jack idea". I disagree - let me count the ways:

  1. This is another way to direct funds away from public transportation (i.e. MARTA, GRTA, the Beltline) that could handle higher loads of traffic in a more efficient way than building even more highway miles.
  2. This is a band-aid idea (and an expensive one at that) for our current growth woes. (We should not have allowed such rampant growth to tax our infrastructure in the first place, but hindsight is 20/20.)
  3. I'm sure the folks in charge here are smart people. But they do know that cars produce carbon monoxide, right? Where is that going to come out of the ground? Are there going to be vents near the Carter Center and Grant Park?
  4. Can someone name me any "successful" tunnel projects in the US over the past few decades? By successful I mean completed relatively close to budget and on schedule. I can do the opposite easily - Boston and Seattle would start off the list.
  5. Do we really want to run more highways through established neighborhoods (under or over ground)? The Downtown Connector pretty much killed the thriving black communities it went through in the 50's.
Flower Sample
Proposed tunnel (courtesy of GADOT)

I could go on but let's talk a bit about what lies beneath the surface of this proposal.

This is just typical "Atlanta versus Georgia" politics at play. There's a reason why our state legislators have let any community leave the city of Atlanta (Dunwoody, Milton, Alpharetta, Sandy Springs….) and sided with the suburbs over the city on almost every political issue for decades (its not just a race thing either.) If the state could get a new capital building in Milledgeville for free I'm sure most of them would be happy to avoid Braves traffic in the summer. Surely they know they'll get a big fight on this from the neighborhoods this tunnel would go under or the connecting toll road would go through - history will repeat itself for the most part.

I suspect the official stance from the DOT and the Atlanta Regional Commission will remain the same on this until they can find the right amount of funds (and I'm sure private interests will give it to them for the chance to make billions off of metro residents in tolls) despite new leadership coming in for the city and the state in the near future. Hopefully this idea ends up being as successful as the Northern Arc (I'm sure the DOT still flinches whenever someone brings that political bomb up.) 

I'll bring more updates on this project in future posts - its just too fascinating a story for me not to say something about it in this venue. Let me know what you think in the Comments section. (Don't worry, I won't blast you for liking the project, just some healthy debate. We all know the problem is a tricky one to solve.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In the beginning…there was SimCity

As a kid I had no idea what urban planning was. I liked cities, I liked real estate (courtesy of my summer vacations helping my grandfather with his rental properties in Milwaukee), and I figured there was some future in both of these interests for me. I also liked building things with Legos - had no idea that could be a career option (If I had a time machine…). At some level I understood that certain places had a better "feel" to them than others due to someone saying, "Let's not stick these kinds of buildings near this landfill/cemetary/airport/etc." I understood that Milwaukee was a city that had been shaped differently than Atlanta for various reasons.

SimCity didn't make me a real estate tycoon or a urban planning expert but it did open my eyes to a certain extent on how communities can be shaped and built. I remember playing it on my first Mac and at school and spending hours trying to build big cities. According to Wikipedia the game first came out in '89 but I don't think I saw it until I was 8 or 9 ('90). Like any simulation game it had its loopholes and flaws but I was always curious to see how I could Test the limits of a city's infrastructure or build a place where businesses and residences worked together happily. If I made a mistake I could always send in Godzilla In to finish off the inhabitants. Of course, I was really doing more than just city planning - I was really acting as a city administrator with total control over zoning and budgeting.

I did graduate to other Sim products like SimEarth, SimTower and the updates to SimCity (SimCity 2000 & SimCity 4) but after awhile I noticed that these simulations Started to lose some of the essence that made me such a big fan of the original. I could barely get SimCity 4 to run on my PowerMac Performa with all of the graphic details and would sneak on to my parents' computers in their home office to try using theirs. By the time the Sims rolled around I had lost a good bit of interest in the games. My appreciation for being in the shoes of the people making plans for cities and suburbs never waned. I like to think that the original SimCity compares to the Sims in the same way that you would compare Miles Davis to Kenny G (no disrespect to you Kenny!).

The other day I noticed that I could download SimCity onto our new Nintendo Wii and I've also found out the game is available for the BlackBerry and the iPhone. It's Not Tetris but I'm sure tons of money has been made off of the franchise. One day I may get a little nostalgic, perhaps in the summer, and crack open the game again.

Do you have want to reminisce or talk about your SimCity experiences? Just leave me a note in the Comments section. If reading this post makes you want to play again hold on to your wallet -  you can go here or here and get the old version for free. Another cool link is this Wikibook on SimCity and Urban Planning. Enjoy!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Decisions for Recovery: How would you implement a response program?

A co-worker shared the following website link with me a few weeks ago and I decided to check it out on the morning of New Year's Eve while catching up on some loose ends for the year:

It's a high quality interactive quiz that was put together by the British Red Cross to show real-life problems that are faced by humanitarian aid agencies as the implement a disaster response program and give you a very general idea of why they made some of the decisions they made in their work. I can't say I agreed with every "right" or high value answer for each of the questions that were posed but there's a reason that there are so many organizations and agencies out there that seek to help disaster affected communities. As an example, one question asks you where to obtain timber for rebuilding homes (locally or importing) and it seems logical to me to use local materials relative to the type and design of homes normally built in the community. Local materials may not be plentiful right away but could easily be used in the future if the family is adding onto a simple "core house" to make it more liveable for an extended family.

I'd encourage you to give it a try and come back here and let me know what you thought of the quiz.

Special thanks to the British Red Cross for allowing me to link to their site and share the image above. You can visit their blog at