A workshop with Kenya Red Cross

Hi. It’s been a bit, so just in case – I’m Willow Brugh, and one of the hats I wear is as a research affiliate at Center for Civic Media. I also wear “digital responder,” “fellow at Berkman,” “stick figure draw-er,” and “faciliatator” hats. I care about how people help people, more directly, across cultures, as equals. This means I often work at the overlap of technology and disaster/humanitarian response through participatory events. I also advise organizations and distributed social groups in how to engage with each other. My month working with KRCS and Climate Centre culminated on Nov 11th in a codesign workshop to explore the work I had done, comment on the current understanding, ensure it was appropriate and accurate, to then decide on next steps together. This was an exercise in not waiting until the last minute to ask people to sign off – it was asking people what they thought during the process, asking for their participation. You can read more about (my personal take on) the set-up over here.

3 points were important to impart during this workshop, to the purpose of improving conditions in Dadaab, which was my purpose of work. 1) making information tangible makes it easier to iterate on that knowledge, 2) there are many ways to make information fun to make and enjoyable to take in, and 3) there are TONs of tools out there that can assist both of these, as well as opening up new paths to engagement with a wider community (either through code or through content creation). As anyone, the attendees were busy with meaningful projects, and so making the most of their time was vital. While I hadn’t had a chance to interview all the important parties for the workshop, having Dr. James Kisia’s support meant some still came, so we had a diverse set of individuals at the workshop. I set out with the following objectives:

Long-term objective for this working session: A better curated knowledge base for improving conditions in / responding to needs in refugee camps and informal settlements, especially as extendable to climate change issues. Audience: Refugee response groups, climate change organizations, active citizens.
Mid-term objective from this working session: A thriving platform for the sharing and improvement of information on Dadaab within KRCS. This platform might be technical, process-based, or both. Audience: KRCS Dadaab-focused staff and volunteers.
Short-term objective from this working session: A list of knowledge sets to curate and give to others for streamlined working conditions. Audience: Incoming Dadaab Refugee Operations personnel.

Introductions Matter.

It is easy, in workshops, to lead with titles and roles. But “ice breakers,” or interesting introductory questions, can give us a chance to learn more about the people in the room than we would otherwise. These can also “warm up” the participants to think differently than their day-to-day. For this workshop, we used the most intense one I know: “In one to two sentences, say why you do what you do.” This also helps focus the conversation on actualities and purpose, rather than on semantics and process. It is important to consciously invest in this step, as it affects the rest of the workshop.


The workshop was a demonstration of how information creation and sharing can work, including live documentation. We went over the rough agenda (as placed on a hackpad, a collaborative document editing tool), the expectations of results, and that it was ok to refocus the conversation if we got too far off track. Because everyone (except me) in the room was familiar with KRCS practices and language, we already had a head start on many workshops I facilitate. When this isn’t the case, it’s important to encourage people to use inclusive language for everyone in the room. Here’s how we framed the day:

Today, we’re going to focus on what needs to happen while we’re all in one room, as an exercise in what one platform and method of knowledge transfer and iteration looks like. There will be plenty of room for improvement and refinement, but we’re here to put mechanisms in place for these feedback loops, NOT to get bogged down in it during this precious time. The purpose of modeling this is to model it, not to talk about how it might be modeled.
For any given question, you’re going to answer for you specifically. Be constructively selfish. The methods will mean you can do similar expansion of knowledge in your own groups. We’re going to do a LOT in 4 hours (your brevity will allow it to be less), so strap yourselves in and let’s get rolling (this is a US analogy for getting ready to ride a roller coaster, not sure if it translates well).

But before we could structure our knowledge, to take action… we had to figure out what knowledge we even had. What I had found was spread through reports, implicit in charts and too-short summaries of initiatives.

Knowledge is Important to Detail.

We took a few minutes to make some sticky notes about what information is important for people to know around us as individuals. This is where the encouragement to focus on Dadaab, as well as to be “constructively selfish” part came in handy – it helped people stay on topic, even though we were still broad at parts. Each sticky note had three areas to it: one set of information they wanted the people around them to have; where that information lived; how others found out about that information.

We then reflected. Someone was surprised at how little information had clearly known housing. Another commented on lack of general knowledge around Dadaab. We talked a little bit about accepting “failure” as an important part of improving and learning. We also talked about the amount of time that goes into learning and sharing new things.

New Options

With this understanding of current status, and a more concrete idea of what needs are, we dove into new options for expressing and sharing information. KRCS is admittedly embedded in the 200 page report accompanied by a 30 page executive summary method of disseminating information. We admitted that these are not necessarily the best way of communicating information — which is tragic, given the time, energy, and expertise which goes into creating such reports. We looked at some of the animations I make, as a way of story telling.

We also talked about RSS and APIs, automatic updates to other websites and databases based on changes on KRCS’s own database or website. While the technical ability to automatically populate to other places, like the UNHCR website, opened up smiles and possibility, the overhead of permissions and new technical infrastructure was also daunting. We sidebarred the conversation for the sake of agenda, and moved on to hearing from 3 groups I invited about their codesign-based, open source tools which would be applicable to integrating residents of Dadaab more into response processes.

  • Ushahidi: A local incident-report mapping platform, Ushahidi has been invested in the local entrepreneurial scene for over 5 years. This tool is in wide use throughout Kenya and other parts of the world.
  • Thicket: An up-and-coming “fuzzy cognitive” processing tool, Thicket is to be used alongside other data inputs/outputs. It visualizes and models the interconnected nature of the system at hand. For our purpose, they produced a visualization of what gender-based violence impacts, and is impacted by.
  • Sahana: a decade-long open source project specific to disaster and humanitarian response. The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink platform is already nominally in use by some parts of KRCS for missing persons.


In the frame of these new paths to expression as well as the accompanying digital channels, we talked about what all this might mean for KRCS. At this point, we had completed the parts of the workshop I could provide structural support for — at the 2 hour mark! The bulk of participants stuck around for another 2 hours, applying what we had heard about to their own work, discussing what it meant for the larger organization, and to the efforts on which they embark. 3 main takeaways came out of this.

The Take Aways.

We see the path to a self-improving KRCS as being reliant upon knowledge being made apparent, and that knowledge being ingested and subsequently iterated on. To this end, we are taking a three-pronged approach – knowledge creation (summaries of work / stories to tell), knowledge storage and propagation (technical options), and embracing a self-examining culture (cultural shifts).

A Celebration of Documentation

We took the notes from the meeting and made them public (thus how you’re reading this)! Taariq turned around a word cloud from the raw notes with startling rapidity.

We took pictures! KRCS already has a head start on the desire to share and engage, given the popularity and engagement of their Twitter and Facebook pages. This is merely an extension of this.

Dedication to a Cause

We each agreed to make an ingestible-in-5-minutes summary of our work. We each also agreed to review these summaries and provide feedback. Even more than that, we agreed to document the workshop itself in public. This is that. Thanks for reading!


Funding support for this work on Dadaab was provided by the Norwegian was provided by the Norwegian Research Council, through the project “Courting Catastrophe” Humanitarian Policy and Practice in a Changing Climate.