How even failed projects make an impact on the world

Good things come from projects that fail

Fail faster
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Without realizing it, I joined the open source movement in 1999 during the midst of the Kosovo refugee crisis. I was part of a team helping route aid supplies to local humanitarian organizations running transit camps across Albania. These are the camps that refugees often arrived at first before being moved to larger, more formal camps.

We found that refugees in the transit camps were not being registered or provided with any way of alerting family members of their whereabouts. With no registration system in place, we decided to build one ourselves linking laptop computers and satellite phones to export our information to a United Nations refugee registration database. Microsoft volunteers were setting up a registration system in close cooperation with the UN in a nearby camp, and we approached their team for help to figure out how to get our computers to sync, which turned our project into a community initiative.

To me, what made our project an "open" initiative was not that we succeeded in solving how relief workers can register refugees from remote locations, but that we tried regardless of success or failure. Because we had some failure, like we never were able to get our computers to sync.

In thinking about community initiatives worldwide, I think it's important to take scope of what different groups of people are trying to do separate from the outcome of their efforts, because even failed initiatives contribute to making an impact on the world. Too often we pass over or discount failures, and instead highlight success stories, but in doing so, we miss the wealth of groundwork called "failures" that drive innovation and build the foundations of success for tomorrow.

For example, the International Aid Transparency Initiative is an open data sharing standard and framework with an active open community behind it. Humanitarian and development organizations use IATI to report detailed information on aid activities, with transactions and results in a machine readable format. In eight years, IATI has grown to become the professional humanitarian community's open data sharing standard. Government development agencies like the UK's Department of International Development and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs are mandating its use.

IATI brings together donor and recipient countries, civil society organisations, and other experts in aid information who are committed to working together to increase the transparency and openness of aid.

In spite of its growth, in terms of its ability to benefit reporting organizations and the number of organizations using it, IATI's potential is far from being realized. But by accident, IATI has done something it didn't originally set out to do. IATI's efforts to make aid flows more transparent have made it possible to vastly improve the future of humanitarian crowdfunding by creating the perfect data source to power tomorrow's next-generation intelligent crowdfunding applications. Soon platforms like Google's One Today, Facebook Giving, and tools like Siri, OK Google, and Amazon's Alexa, will be able access and process information on thousands of aid activities to show how they fit together to help people.

As a result of getting involved in improving the technology behind humanitarian operations, I have learned that all of our collaborative efforts matter, and that making a meaningful impact on the world is available to us all.

If you're interested in getting involved, I've started an initiative called Beehive to work on how to power humanitarian crowdfunding applications using data to inform giving.

About the author

Brent Phillips - Former United Nations staff person and veteran relief worker. I've long been interested in the science and technology behind humanitarian operations. I'm particularly interested in open data sharing and humanitarian financing and I'm currently, heading an open source initiative joining humanitarian organizations and tech volunteers that's solving and modeling how IATI can be implemented at the crowdfunding level. IATI is an open data sharing standard and framework professional humanitarian...