CIO interview: The challenge of delivering IT in a refugee camp

The United Nations (UN) looks after 58 million refugees. Naginder Kaur Dhanoa, CIO of the UN High Commission for Refugees speaks about the challenges

Globally, the United Nations (UN) looks after 58 million refugees. Managing the technology to help support that effort in the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is a very different world to the private sector where UNHCR director and CIO Naginder Kaur Dhanoa has spent most of her career.

"It is amazing the challenges of trying to get technology into the field to refugee camps. The first thing people running the Za'atri camp in Jordan ask for is not tents and blankets, but where they can charge their mobile phone," she says.

For Kaur Dhanoa, Gartner's so-called nexus of forces - namely social, cloud, analytics and mobile - are as relevant to the people who run a refugee camp as they are in a corporate location.

Like many large enterprises the UN runs a raft of enterprise applications, such as Peoplesoft. The UNHCR also runs a results-based management system, which provides information for donors on how their donations are being spent.

But with a large number of field-based staff, Kaur Dhanoa says corporate applications may not work for a specific situation. For instance, data on displaced people is logged, either centrally or through a decentralised approach in the field. "There is always a challenge of uploading. Some things happen in real time, some don't," she says.

The main issue for the UN is one of bandwidth. "In the Western world we are used to 100Mbps. At the UN we have locations where bandwidth is 128kbps and we are upgrading to 256kbps. This network is satellite-based and runs across 162 locations globally," Kaur Dhanoa says.

"We are one of the UN agencies that uses satellite a lot, because it is secure in the sense that the data will get there, the link will stay up." 

The agency is field-based so this network will be used to connect field staff to the HR module of an ERP system, and raise requisitions using the finance module.

Along with satellite communications, she says the UN also uses MPLS and local internet service providers. "The ISP market has really opened up, such as the dark fibre to Mombasa under the Indian Ocean," says Kaur Dhanoa.

IT trends

Kaur Dhanoa attended the Gartner Symposium in November 2013, where digitalisation was one of the big trends being discussed.

"There is a lot of hunger for the digital officer," Kaur Dhanoa says. However, she regards the evolving role of chief data officer as one that will become more relevant at the UN with the application of big data analytics: "Digital is becoming iconic and fashionable. But the need for data has always been there."

Speaking on industry trends, Kaur Dhanoa says: "Three years ago cloud was hyped. I remember when my colleagues were discussing cloud. I'd say, 'really?' You need to go underneath the trends. Some of us who have been in IT long enough would say we've changed the brand. But the thinking is still the same."

She believes the same is true of virtualisation. However, the bring your own device (BYOD) trend does represent a different way of thinking: "The tables have turned and the customer is saying to the CIO, 'I am bringing this device, make your systems resilient, make your network resilient'."

Kaur Dhanoa admits IT needs to support more devices: "But we cannot just open the floodgates. There may be 92 different types of tablet. Who is going to support them?"

So the UN has not taken a firm decision to support Apple because Lenovo laptops are good enough: "It comes back to a support issue. If someone [insists] on bringing in a Mac, I am pretty flexible." 

The Mac can be used, but support will take longer than with a corporate laptop, she says: "I think CIOs need to be flexible, and at the same time not lock down IT." At the same time, she feels users are doing their own first-level technical support, instead of calling the helpdesk.

Given the stories in the press of major IT project failures, such as Obamacare in the US and the UK's NHS National Programme for IT, Kaur Dhanoa says the business is losing its faith in IT to deliver successful projects. 

"The business has a budget and does not need to go to IT. They [business people] have some ideas, get in a consultant, pilot a project and tweak it to work across the organisation. This leads to the proliferation of IT in non-IT organisations," she says.

But Kaur Dhanoa feels IT can play a significant role in supporting such shadow IT so long as the IT departments sets clear policies for web applications and licences, and offer something like a service catalogue.

 The first thing people running the Za'atri camp in Jordan ask for is not tents and blankets, but where they can charge their mobile phone

"You have to leave your doors wide open so the business feels it can come and talk to you," she says. Such an approach may go some way to tackling the discontent the business has with IT when people from the business say: "I don't want to go to IT because they won't want to do the project and if they take it on they will take forever and will cost tens of thousands of dollars."

Two-speed IT

Kaur Dhanoa is a big supporter of two-speed IT, where agile, innovative programmes are not hampered by the checks and balances needed to operate traditional enterprise IT efficiently. She says: "I am open to two-speed IT. We have an innovation team, which is placed outside the IT division and works with the senior management.”

But how do you motivate people not in the innovation team? "We have awards for people who come up with innovative ideas that are implemented. We also take in people for the innovation team not just from the head office but also from the field," she says.

The innovation team also operates virtual teams, which enables more people to chip in their ideas.

The changing role of communications

Kaur Dhanoa says the new generation of workers will not immediately turn to email and memos for communicating in the corporate world: "They will be on Facebook and as IT people we have to recognise that and bring it into the organisation. You can't ask people to send an email. They may just want to tweet."

The UNHCR has recently moved from Novell GroupWise to Microsoft Exchange, which offers presence, access to Microsoft Lync and unified communications. But why not deploy Google? She says using Google for email, was not an option. 

"We are extremely conscious of anything in the cloud since we operate across UN jurisdictions. Until the lawyers give us the green light we will not go for Gmail," she says. That said, the UN is building its own private cloud.

The communications revolution brings with it cyber security issues. It boils down to identity, says Kaur Dhanoa: "How do I know you are the person sending who has sent me an email? Sometimes a phishing message can look so genuine."

Progressing to CIO

Born in Nairobi in Kenya, Kaur Dhanoa's career in IT started 25 years ago, where she worked as an assembler programmer in the airline industry. She worked for a time at Sita where she ran the Y2K programme in Geneva.

Kaur Dhanoa moved to London to work for Transport for London in 2002 and then moved to Raytheon where she worked on the UK border programme, before taking her current role at the UN.

The UN was her first opportunity to work as a CIO and she has now been working there for almost five years.

"The mandate given to me was to set up an efficient and effective IT organisations which has involved a major transformation of IT and people," she says.

She has made the helpdesk a "22-by-6" operation and set up an IT service centre in Amman in Jordan with 56 staff. Kaur Dhanoa says the World Bank indicators showed than Amman was the best place to locate the centre, from a safety, skills, family and life perspective.

"From a technology point of view, the major providers like Cisco and Microsoft were present in Jordan and the local population was very IT savvy."

She says that setting up in Amman has enabled the centre to be closer to major UN operations in Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and now Syria.

"From a logistics perspective it is also easier for us to go from Amman to Africa where the majority of work is located."

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