CIO interview: Cloud lacks silver lining for NGOs

David Goodman, CIO of International Rescue Committee, needs a cloud that is open and flexible and available offline

David Goodman, CIO of non-government organisation (NGO) International Rescue Committee (IRC), needs a cloud that is open and flexible and available offline.

Goodman is the organisation’s first CIO and he has headed IT for seven years. His objective has been to professionalise IT and provide value at a strategic and tactical level.

As IRC has grown from a multi-million dollar organisation to one with an annual budget of half a billion dollars, IT has had to adapt. "I have all the problems of Unilever, but none of the resources," he says.

The scope of IT is typical of a large organisation and covers everything from infrastructure to business applications.

But IT is also integral to IRC's strategy to use technology in programme delivery. For instance, he says a technology solution such as SMS is beneficial in urban refugee situations, like in Syria where people leave their homes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and their mobile phones. 

"The urban refugee situation is acute and we use technology to facilitate the work," says Goodman.

The CIO likes the idea of cloud computing, but recognises it is not lined with silver. "We love the cloud. I don’t want to host [infrastructure myself], but there is a dark lining. There are many places where the cloud is more expensive."

He says the idea of taking off-the-shelf cloud applications and making them work for IRC is not effective.

We love the cloud [but] there are many places where the cloud is more expensive

David Goodman, International Rescue Corporation

There is also a cultural shift involved in moving IT costs into the operating budget. "Per user financial adjustment is hard for us. Managers have to make a decision, which they didn’t need to do before," says Goodman.

IRC offers Box for cloud-based storage. The business has the choice to pay for it and use it, but users are not able to use Dropbox instead.

Goodman also believes that homogenous applications from the major suppliers are not a good fit for IRC. "I went for a dinner hosted by Aaron [Levie, the CEO of Box] recently, and was asked my thoughts on the new Microsoft CEO [Satya Nadella]. I don’t care. We have all built our career out of Microsoft, but take something like SharePoint – it is a product designed to do 12 different things and it is not appropriate for IRC," he says.

Trying to grapple with all the features all at once is not realistic for IRC, and Goodman prefers an infrastructure driven by an application programming interface (API), which is open and can be integrated easily.

SharePoint overkill

IRC built a typical intranet based around Microsoft SharePoint. "We deployed a wide a range of features for collaboration, but the challenge is that SharePoint is not designed for the context we work in," says Goodman.

He says SharePoint was not designed for a global NGO. "We tried using SharePoint, but it did not feel like a long-term solution. We needed something lightweight, but SharePoint was very complicated."

Our emergency response team needed a portal for emergency response procedures, with a document management system that would enable staff to collaborate and work offline

David Goodman, IRC

Goodman considered outsourcing, but says this would get expensive because "SharePoint expertise is not a core competency".

"We tested 30-40 intranet products and found nothing that could work offline," he says. This was a key requirement given the challenges of maintaining connectivity. "Our staff work in areas that don’t have connectivity."

Since he could not find anything suitable to buy that fitted IRC's requirements, Goodman started deconstructing what constitutes an intranet. In his definition, an intranet has a single search scope and content management.

"Our emergency response team needed a portal for emergency response procedures, with a document management system that would enable staff to collaborate and work offline," he says.

The proof of concept IRC intranet implementation used a content management system based on Python/Django for the front end with a little custom code to provide access to the Box online storage cloud.

"Our needs are fairly unique and Box's [people] scratched their heads. They didn’t really understand what we needed. It’s not an iPad app. But they were helpful and supported us with API help," says Goodman.

The intranet proved its value during the Philippines typhoon disaster in 2013. "Everyone had Box and the team benefited. The moral of the story is that vendors don’t serve our needs because we have unique needs. We have a very unique supply chain. We need to leverage the power of software ourselves."

Cloud limits

The intranet International Rescue Corporation developed is not the kind of thing an organisation can buy in the market. For this reason, Goodman has concentrated on building IT integration expertise at IRC. 

"Integration is a core competency of IRC," he says. "No one else understands what we need. I have three software developers and we do the integration stuff ourselves."

IRC is also rolling out WorkDay's cloud HR software, which provides a process-driven approach to HR. 

"There are places where we operate where HR people have never used an HR system, such as in the Central African Republic. We want to use WorkDay like Excel, but it is hard to get people [from WorkDay] to understand this," he says.

In Goodman’s experience, very few people in the cloud business understand the challenges an NGO faces. "It is hard to find a responsive partner. I like the idea of getting rid of infrastructure, but in some places we can’t get to the cloud," he says. For IRC, applications needs to be available both on the cloud and offline. The cloud is a delivery mechanism.

Bandwidth availability and costs determine what can and cannot be achieved in the cloud. "I can’t throw money at the problem. We pay four to five times as much for connectivity in Africa as in the US," he says.

And while IRC is a Box customer, Goodman says some applications, such as Box can take up too much bandwidth, which makes them hard to use in certain parts of the world. "I deploy where it does work, I articulate the solution," he says.

Where possible, Goodman tries to raise the level of connectivity, but his team will also try to lower the bandwidth requirements of the applications. For instance, he says Django is bandwidth light and easier to access when connectivity is poor.

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