Humanitarian Toolbox clicks with Crowdsourcing and Visual Studio Online

The idea behind crowdsourcing is that more heads are better than one. The idea behind Visual Studio Online is to easily get your project up and running in minutes on Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure. By combining these powerful ideas, a disaster-relief organization called Humanitarian Toolbox was able to build and maintain a "toolbox" of ready to deploy, open source solutions to improve the capabilities of disaster response organizations.

The need for such a toolbox became evident after the powerful earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. Both the number of volunteers and the scope of work quickly overwhelmed the IT systems in place and sent a clear message to organizations that better technology was needed to fully optimize the impact of disaster relief personnel and volunteers to natural disasters.

Despite considerable interest in the developer community to support open-source projects for charitable organizations through hackathons or other similar gatherings, projects tended to lose momentum or were not supported when a relief organization tried to use them.

“We might spend an entire day of an event characterizing the problems and requirements for developers and then only get one day of development effort,” said Gisli Olafsson, the Emergency Response Director for NetHope. “Then, the project would go dormant until the next event where again we had to spend time giving background. Getting traction and continuity this way was slow and difficult.”

The Microsoft Disaster Response organization quickly decided to support the effort. Tony Surma, CTO and Senior Director for Microsoft Disaster Response comments, “We saw this as a great opportunity to engage Microsoft talent and technology to provide scalable solutions for humanitarian organizations. By utilizing Microsoft’s engagement in both the developer and the response communities we are able deliver applications that can have a large and lasting impact.”

The Visual Studio Solution

Humanitarian Toolbox has developed three applications to date, all of which are ready for testing by NGOs.  Building on this success, organization officials are planning to develop an additional 20 applications in 2014.

  • Crisis check-in:  This application helps track and organize volunteers at a crisis site.

  • Real-time training resources:  This application provides mobile access to training resources so that volunteers can download training videos and be up to speed before arriving at a disaster location.

  • Browser newsfeed: The third application is a browser toolbar which delivers curated news links to onsite volunteers so they can easily access the latest information about the crisis they are facing.

To access these applications, the only information disaster-relief volunteers need to provide is an email address. At the same time, the team also pushes the project code to GitHub and CodePlex to encourage participation by more casual volunteers who might only want to help for a few hours.

Bill Wagner, President of Humanitarian Toolbox, explained that Visual Studio Online does a lot more than assist with code management. “It allows us to effectively gather requirements and manage the backlog. There is clear direction for people joining the project when they see the sprint planning and can trace those work items back to requirements.”

Another Visual Studio Online capability that has helped Humanitarian Toolbox development efforts are the Team Rooms, which enable online chat between team members from within Visual Studio. “I typically keep a window open to a Team Room and anyone working on a project can ask me a question immediately,” says Wagner. “They don’t have to search for my contact information and go out to Skype or Twitter. It’s a lot more efficient.”

The Next Generation of Disaster Relief

1. Expanded Pool of Volunteers
Using Visual Studio has helped get more Visual Studio developers involved in the process because they are able to use the tools and processes they are familiar with.  “We are making traction in our outreach to developers who have not contributed to open-source projects in the past because they weren’t familiar with those tools. We’re also finding that new developers are volunteering their time in order to enhance their Visual Studio skills.” Wagner says.

2. Enhanced Project Management Capabilities
Because Visual Studio Online provides a single place to completely document the project from requirements to testing, Wagner says it’s easy to have a full archive of everything that happened during project development. “Someone just joining the project can pick up a work item and see what needs to be done,” Wagner explained. “In the past crowd-sourced projects may have had their information distributed across many tools making it much more difficult for a new developer to get up to speed.”

3. Real Time Improvements Under Extreme Conditions
Since Visual Studio Online is a cloud-based service, it is frequently updated by Microsoft with new capabilities. The distributed teams working on Humanitarian Toolbox projects are excited about the ability for online code editing. “Visual Studio Online allows us to have people continue to work on bugs and updates anytime so that progress continues between events,” Olafsson said.

Humanitarian Toolbox is concentrating on adopting infrastructure and tools that will help the organization achieve its goals of having a major impact on the ability of disaster relief organizations to respond to emergencies. “Using Visual Studio Online to host projects is critical to executing our forward strategies, including our plan to deliver twenty needed solutions in 2014,” says Wagner.

For more information about Humanitarian Toolbox products and services, visit the website at:

Comments (2)

  1. jmi says:

    Really interesting, thanks​!​

    I think that you would be really interested in some of the most cutting-edge research that I have come across explaining crowds, open innovation, and citizen science.​

    And you may also enjoy this blog about the same too:

    Powerful stuff, no?

  2. arismanto says: