How Goal uses technology to help vulnerable communities

7 May 2021

Janet Humphreys. Image: Paul Sherwood

From drones that detect landslides to prepay tech for water pumps, Goal Global’s CTO talks about how tech is deployed to advance humanitarian efforts around the world.

Janet Humphreys is the chief technology officer of international humanitarian response agency Goal Global.

Having started her career in finance and treasury roles in the private sector with Xerox, Humphreys moved to the humanitarian sector in 2008. She has worked in overseas and finance management roles, gaining significant experience in operations, financial management and training.

She became a member of Goal’s leadership team in 2018 and is currently responsible for the company’s technology, risk and compliance, and logistics and procurement functions.

‘The digitalisation of cash is a game changer for the humanitarian and development sector’

Describe your role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy. 

As Goal’s chief technology officer, I lead a dedicated team working hard to ensure that the 2,500 employees in our 14 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America have the technical infrastructure and skills needed to support implementation of our programmes.

We currently have more than 110 programmes being rolled out across health, nutrition, livelihoods and emergency response. The integration of technology is vital in allowing us to be agile, efficient and accountable.

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about? 

We have some exciting technology initiatives which are impacting on our work. In Uganda, Goal is piloting a new pre-payment technology, Susteq, which is being applied to handpumps in rural villages.

This allows community members to pay a small amount proportional to the water they use before they collect it. In this way there is money in the account if the handpump breaks down for quick repairs. Without a fresh water supply, people are in danger of picking up diseases and infections.

In Zimbabwe, we are partnering with UNICEF and mobile marketing company Promobile to provide communities with Wi-Fi access from vans. This enables people to download videos and information on better nutrition and recipes using locally available foods. Messages on Covid-19 preventions are also available to download.

In Honduras, we are using drones to do surveys of landslide-prone areas in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Drone surveys are also used to assess mangrove coverage along the north coast of Honduras to calculate carbon stock.

And in Ethiopia, where more than 11m households depend on livestock for economic and food security, we are using AfriScout, a tool developed by our US partners PCI, to help farmers get intelligence on disease, conflict, forbidden grazing, predators and water issues.

We need to ensure we optimise technology so global teams stay connected and safe. This is not straightforward given the infrastructure and connectivity challenges we face in the remote locations we operate in, and with increased remote working due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We have a comprehensive programme of work underway in these areas, which includes upgrading infrastructure, strengthening cybersecurity resilience, cloud migration and digital skills training for our staff.

How big is your team?

As a charity, we are always conscious of ensuring we are as lean as possible and to focus on expenditure that will impact on beneficiaries. So, we are a relatively small team – but highly effective! We have a core team of nine in our HQ in Dublin, Ireland, working on the service desk, infrastructure, solutions and business analysis.

Globally, each Goal country has an IT helpdesk and staff to support the programmes relative to the size of the operation. We are also very fortunate to work with some fantastic external partners including Dell, Microsoft and Dimagi, our technology advisory board. These connections provide a great opportunity to learn from experts and to share best practice.

As members of NetHope, a consortium of international NGOs, we are also harnessing our global impact, working closely with major technology companies on productive collaboration, innovation and problem-solving to reimagine how technology can improve our world.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how are you addressing it? 

Embracing digital transformation is core to our business and to allowing us to improve our impact and the numbers of people we reach every day. We are integrating digital technology into all areas of our operations and this will fundamentally change how we operate and deliver value to the vulnerable communities we support.

Digital transformation also involves a cultural change, and this requires us continually training and supporting our staff. As an organisation, we are approaching this together. It is not an IT responsibility, but it is the responsibility of all from the top management down. We need to think digital and embed it in our strategy.

What  big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically? 

The digitalisation of cash is a game changer for the humanitarian and development sector. This transformation will not just be from an administrative perspective but will provide more accountability and security.

In north-west Syria, where Goal has its biggest programme supporting more than 1m displaced people every year, we have introduced an electronic voucher system to increase food security. In 2021, 52,000 extremely vulnerable households will be transitioned to this e-voucher system, which has many benefits when compared to paper-based vouchers.

It is more secure, as lost vouchers can be deactivated and replaced. And the e-cards can be topped up remotely. This is a distinct advantage when working in fragile and Covid-19 affected contexts.

In general in the countries we work, 5G networks will be transformational in enabling people to engage with technology – be it at home or work. Trends that might not seem major in Ireland have huge impact in the countries we work. For example, the use of mobile messaging.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data? 

Cybersecurity is a threat no matter where you work in the world. We have a phrase in our organisation that our data is only as secure as the weakest link – so we need to continue to ensure that we secure our networks and keep on talking to staff about the importance of cybersecurity and of taking responsibility in protecting data.

For my team, it is important to keep abreast of new trends on managing emerging risks, and we work with many partners to try and keep ahead of this threat and importantly to learn from the corporate sector.

Learning from others is important for us as an agency committed to continuous improvement. Ultimately, everything we do is about improving our world in meaningful ways and that is something worth driving hard to achieve every day.

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