Small price tag, big impact

Posted on Thursday, December 13, 2012

 Editor’s Note: Three McGill researchers recently received seed grants to develop low-cost technologies to tackle health issues in poor countries. As announced on Nov. 22, David Junker, Kirsten Johnson and Philippe Archambault were among 17 Canadian researchers to be named as recipients of the grant money as part of the Stars in Global Health program and funded by the federal government’s Grand Challenges Canada.

 The idea behind the program is to support innovators to develop unique, breakthrough and affordable ideas that can be transformative in addressing health concerns – innovations that can benefit the developed world as well.

 “Canada has a deep pool of talent dedicated to pursuing bold ideas that can have big impact in the developing world,” said Dr. Peter A. Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada. “Grand Challenges Canada is proud to support these extraordinary innovators from across the country because they will make a difference to so many lives.”

 In the coming days, the Reporter will feature these researchers who are helping develop affordable, accessible, applicable technologies that will have an immediate impact. Today, we look at Kirsten Johnson and her work to Advance humanitarian training through e-learning and mobile technologies.

Part 1 of 3

By Neale McDevitt

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the United Nation’s Inter Agency Standing Committee and the World Health Association Global Health Cluster’s evaluated the response to the crisis. The news was not good.

Evaluators cited a lack of coordination, transparency, accountability and oversight of the deployed humanitarian workers. Providers were found to be inexperienced and young, made up of small NGOs and humanitarian workers who lacked a professional approach and knowledge base of on-the-ground situation and needs.

Unfortunately, it is a story repeated around the world in emergency situations everywhere. It is the Catch-22 of humanitarian aid everywhere – relief workers, those people on the frontlines of some of the world’s most horrific natural and man-made catastrophes, receive almost no professional development because they are too busy saving lives to stop and learn how to better save lives.

“Humanitarian workers are mostly young – under the age of 30,” says Kirsten Johnson, Program Director of the McGill Humanitarian Studies Initiative. “Ninety five per cent of humanitarian workers are in the field – in places like Darfur, Kenya, Somalia and all over the world where ever there is an emergency. They usually don’t have access to classrooms, training or even a laptop computer. And most of them are locals, coming from low-income countries that are affected by war and disaster. As such, they have no access to professional development.

“But the reality is that nobody needs this training more than the low-income organizations and individual humanitarian workers working on the ground in actual emergencies and disasters,” says Johnson.

But if the workers can’t go to the classroom, Johnson wants to bring the classroom to the workers. Thanks in part to the Stars in Global Health program, Johnson is spearheading research that will soon make it possible for humanitarian aid workers to have access to much-needed standardized, professional development through their mobile device.

Working in partnership with the Humanitarian Training Initiative and the World Health Organization, Johnson is developing accessible training that is standardized and competency-based to humanitarian workers around the globe. “Combining globally recognized competency-based humanitarian curriculum with adult e-learning multimedia technology to create modules which can be downloaded to any computer mobile or handheld device,” she says “The e-learning modules will be easily accessible to 95 per cent of the humanitarian workers who are based in austere locations around the world.”

The e-learning programs range in topics from health and nutrition to water, sanitation and logistics. Users can work at their own speed, taking between 60-90 minutes to complete each of the courses that make up a program. Additional learning activities and post-course tests will extend the length of the program to 2-4 days, depending on the learner’s prior knowledge.

“The timeframe for the grant is 18 months to show proof of concept so we hope to be field testing the course on the e-learning platform in the next year and then we hope to have a prototype for the mobile device at the end of 18 months,” says Johnson.

“The result will be better train people enhanced response on the ground and improved humanitarian response overall and it will help the lives of all those people whose lives have been affected by war and disaster,” she says.


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