Reactive to proactive: How Start Network uses tech to combat crises

Third Sector Promotion Salesforce

Third Sector sits down with Helen James, Head of Communications & Digital at the Start Network, to find out how this global network harnesses the power of its members - and technology - to achieve its mission.

Third Sector (TS): What’s the Start Network’s mission?
Helen James (HJ): The world is changing at such a fast pace. Start Network’s mission is to catalyse a new humanitarian system that can better respond to today’s crises – and those of tomorrow. Much reform is needed to drive a new era of humanitarian action. 

As head of communications and digital, it’s exciting to engage global organisations to create new ways of working. My job is to get the message out about how we are trying to change the sector, and how and why others should join our movement.

To bring positive disruption to the global aid system, we don’t come up with policy papers - instead, our focus is on action.

TS: What are some of the biggest problems you’re tackling?
HJ: There is too much centralised decision making in this sector. People make decisions about crises thousands of miles away, which means they don’t necessarily meet the needs of people on the ground.

We’re changing this. For example our Disaster Innovation Labs aim to make innovation localised, by working with community groups to understand crises in greater detail, and then invest in local innovators’ solutions to ensure their communities are better prepared if disaster should hit.

Another of our programmes, is the Start Fund (the fastest, collectively-owned, early response fund in the world, and releases money to combat humanitarian crises very quickly) which aims to put decision making back into the hands of local teams with project selection being done at a local level and giving NGOs in the country more control over decision making.

Another huge challenge is that global aid agencies have to wait for crises to happen, wait for headlines to be made and wait for the money to be provided. It often takes weeks during which time people are suffering. We are taking steps toward a proactive response model rather the reactive model currently in place.

TS: So how does this work?
HJ: Our Anticipation team uses technology and data with the help of our collaborative forecasting network, FOREWARN (Forecast-based Warning Analysis and Response Network), to predict and forecast when crises may occur. The Start Fund also disburses funding before crises hit. Using both means that agencies can take fast action to limit the damage as much as possible – before disaster even happens.

In practice, it has amazing outcomes. For instance, in Sri Lanka, Oxfam has developed an innovative early warning system for floods. Automated water level monitoring sensors have been placed in reservoirs and fields, which trigger SMS messages to disaster management authorities and community members when water levels reach a critical point. We supported this last November and it will be further rolled out in due course.

Similar predictive work can be done for droughts around the world. Using data to monitor the water moisture content in the soil, and looking at rainfall data, allows us to better predict droughts and identify vulnerable communities.

Our members put together pre-agreed response plans for the potential impact. Using predictive modelling of data, they can anticipate when crops will fail, plan for food shortages and prevent potential famine. By monitoring rainfall data, our teams know when to disperse money toward carrying out the necessary work to minimise negative impacts.

Our ambition is to normalise this way of working and upskill agencies in using this predictive data modelling to understand when a crisis might occur and how to plan in advance.

TS: What are your biggest challenges?
HJ: We operate across global boundaries and we have two main challenges: the challenge of wanting to deliver more and do more while keeping a small team.

We created a new independent charity in May, the first stage in making Start Network a global platform for change. Tech will help us automate, create scale and deliver more. Our members are also establishing Start Network hubs in different locations around the world to encourage localisation.

We also want to build a community as a movement. As we are in the process of creating the Start Network hubs, we want those hubs to have agency and power to deliver and manage their own work, and collaborate with others. We’re using technology to bring people together and enable them to learn from each other – building a community.

TS: Can you share some examples of the work Start Network does?
HJ: Start Fund is our global rapid response funding mechanism that enables agencies to receive money within 72 hours of a crisis. As well as being fast, it’s there to respond to crises that are overlooked by other global aid bodies.

In 2018, the food security crisis in the Sahel and Mauritania was ranked as one of the most forgotten crises of the year, despite the warning signs. But the Start Network was there to enable agencies monitor the situation early: then the Start Fund was awarded funds to respond to the situation. In December 2017 Catholic Relief Services and Action Against Hunger were awarded an Analysis for Action grant. This would allow them to conduct needs assessments and collect market data in Mauritania to analyse trends and inform the design of any future intervention. Their findings led to the release of funding in June 2018. Catholic Relief Services worked with the World Food Programme, and local organisations, the Naforé Association and Djikké banking services, to distribute cash transfers to the most vulnerable families in Kankossa. This cash was used in a variety of ways, but mainly to purchase food. The number of households eating three meals a day increased to 52%, up by 15% from before the intervention. The money was also used to pay for healthcare and to pay off debts incurred because of crop failures.

TS: How has your approach changed over time?
HJ: We have had to evolve our thinking - this is where has really helped. Start Network collates information and makes it easily accessible to our members across the network. We needed a way for members to collaborate and share knowledge – as well as create ways for them to speak directly with the team here.

We host data on the Salesforce platform and push it into our website and out through emails, so that members and donors have visibility of live information about responses we are achieving – we also send text alerts, so members can see what is happening on the go.

TS: What are your plans for the future?
HJ: Now that we are independent we must focus on coming together around our vision and mission. We also want to refresh our brand and messaging to align around vision and strategy - so people can start talking about Start Network in these terms.

We are now focused on action. New Start Network hubs are taking shape and we are in the process of bringing in new members based in locations where these hubs are being set up.

TS: Can you share with the readers how Salesforce helped Start Network with growth and innovation?
HJ: Salesforce has been fundamental in helping us build a community that is more streamlined and transparent for our members to share information in real-time. In 2017, we launched our Start Fund Member Portal, built on Salesforce, giving our team a way to manage the data around the Start Fund in one place. We can now push email alerts to our huge database of members around the world, as well as engaging our stakeholders.

The platform was also brought in to help us ensure that decision making was transparent and open to scrutiny – by publishing it on our website, Start Fund can be held to account. And many more people are able to engage with decision making.

It also helps with automation and our goal to grow our membership and operate on a larger scale. Tech enables us to do more with our existing resources.
Salesforce is a really key partner and has been incredibly helpful for us, with advice on how to approach our projects and how we can be making better use of technology. Being part of the Salesforce community really does allow us to learn from others, meet potential partners and have a platform that supports driving change through our work and mission. Salesforce has played a key role in helping us innovate and grow.

Want to learn from more nonprofits like this trailblazer? Join us at DOT org London on October 2nd. Learn more & see the full agenda below.

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