The Role of the Internship Program in the Sahana Community: An Interview with Mark Prutsalis

To conclude our blog post series about the Sahana Internship Program, we interviewed Mark Prutsalis, CEO of the Sahana Software Foundation, and asked him to share his vision for Sahana’s future and the strategic role of its internship program.

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Estève Giraud: Hello Mark. Thank you for your time! Could you tell us a little bit about your first steps into the disaster management field? What led you there? And to Sahana?

Mark Prutsalis: I first got involved in disaster management over 20 years ago (oh my!).  After graduating from college, I went to work for a small non-profit organization called Refugees International whose mission was to advocate for refugee rights.  I gained field experience in Cambodia, Thailand, Bosnia and Croatia, and Central Africa during the Rwandan genocide and refugee crisis before embarking on the next stage of my career with UN agencies (UNHCR and  UNICEF), as a consultant to the US Department of Defense, and in the private sector.  All told, I’ve responded to over 20 major disasters – both man-made and natural disasters, on every continent but Antarctica.  Throughout this career, I often managed technology projects for humanitarian organizations.

In 2004, I was helping lead a Crisis Response Team responding to the Indian Ocean tsunami.  During our time in Sri Lanka, where I stopped briefly before heading up operations in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, we helped the local IT community with understanding the requirements for an open source disaster management system to assist the response efforts in Sri Lanka.  Our team later helped provide training to students who used this system to collect data on missing persons, shelter locations and supply needs within the country.  This local effort evolved to become the Sahana project, and I stayed involved as an advisor thereafter. I also helped establish the Sahana Software Foundation when Sahana was spun off from the Lanka Software Foundation in 2009.

EG: Sahana’s mission is dedicated to the mission of saving lives by providing information management solutions. Could you explain to us a bit more about Sahana’s humanitarian principles?

MP: “Sahana” means “relief” in Sinhalese – one of the national languages of Sri Lanka, the place that gave birth to Sahana’s software.  The mission of Sahana has always been inextricably linked to saving lives and easing human suffering, not just to develop good technology solutions.  The Sahana community has always worked to conform with humanitarian principles, in particular the Red Cross Code of Conduct, which I consider to be in alignment with the principles of humanitarian free and open source software.  We seek to empower communities to help themselves and not just be dependent on external sources of assistance.  I am particularly proud of our work with Occupy Sandy in New York following Hurricane Sandy, where we saw Sahana Eden software adopted by multiple community-based organizations committed to mutual aid and empowerment.

EG: Why do you think open source software can bring innovative and efficient solutions to this area?

MP: While the scale and scope of natural disasters is projected to increase due to factors such as urban population growth and climate change, there is a limited market for “disaster management” technology – despite the demand.  Most humanitarian organizations and smaller jurisdictions cannot afford the high cost of solutions with a limited global customer base.  Most funding for disasters is spent on response and recovery, with only a tiny percentage spent on mitigation and preparedness.

I believe that humanitarian free and open source software (HFOSS), driven by a compelling mission consistent with both humanitarian principles and with a solid technological foundation, is best positioned to create the innovative solutions needed to save lives.  We’ve seen the dramatic impact of crisis mapping and HFOSS solutions like Open Street Map, FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and Sahana, have had in assisting in the response to major disasters in Haiti, Japan and the United States.  Our development model, a virtuous circle of contributions, whereby we make code freely available to humanitarian organizations and governments, with enhancements from one project benefiting future users has gained traction and we are now seeing huge demand around the world for humanitarian solutions based on Sahana technology.

EG: Along with your Happy Holidays greetings, you said Sahana will be challenged in 2013 by “the need to grow and professionalize rapidly to respond to a diverse set of customers while continuing to build the best open source software for disaster management on the planet”. How is Sahana’s intern team going to help in this regard?

MP: The internship program is a key component to our plans for growth.  The increased demand for Sahana based solutions is challenging in many ways.  We need to support more projects – both on a volunteer basis and a professional one.  Over the past six months, the Sahana Software Foundation has received grants to execute on projects for the public sector and humanitarian organizations in Africa (EUROSHA), for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and for a public-private partnership organization in Los Angeles focused on community resilience.  I see our internship program as a means to train the next generation of Sahana developers who will help lead new projects with new humanitarian organizations.

EG: How many people currently contribute to Sahana? Do you see the Sahana internship program helping to bring in long-term contributors to Sahana? How will the internship program do so? 

MP: It’s hard to measure the number of active contributors to Sahana software products, given the global and voluntary nature of our community.  There is a solid core of contributors of several dozen developers responsible for all of our products – tied to projects with government and humanitarian organizations, in addition to numerous casual contributors.  In the past, our only internship opportunities have been through the Google Summer of Code Program.  This program has been highly successful in recruiting long-term contributors to Sahana software – including former director Mifan Careem, current Product Development Committee member Praneeth Bodduluri, and recent graduate Ramindu Deshapriya.  Current intern Ashwyn Sharma has completed two Google Summer of Code internships with Sahana Eden.  I see our internship program as providing a year-round opportunity for students to gain experience coding with Sahana software – which will keep people engaged and interested in being a part of the Sahana community.

EG: What are the core competencies needed to improve the organization? Does it require a more process oriented approach to different tasks? What tasks performed by the interns lead in this direction?

MP: There is an entirely different level of expectation and accountability when someone is paying for a project.  We can’t afford to fail or take more time than is demanded by the project.  We need to train more people to be able to execute on projects independently – whether for the Sahana Software Foundation – or for other ventures.  I hope that our internship program helps provide the experience necessary for those interns to become candidates for paid developer positions with the Sahana Software Foundation.

Our communications interns are also a critical component to our organizational growth.  Our ability to provide effective outreach to existing and new customers and to communicate effectively to our donors and community is critical to our organizational health and growth.  It has been challenging to find qualified volunteers from within the technology community to take on these responsibilities and I hope to expand this into a year-round program.

EG: Could you give us an example of the diversity of Sahana’s customers? Does Sahana software need a lot of customization to be implemented within a specific organization? How can the internship program encourage new people and organizations to adopt Sahana software?

MP: There is great diversity in Sahana’s user base.  There are professional Emergency Management agencies, national and local government agencies, international humanitarian organizations, and local community based organizations.  Some are wholly funding their project development with the Sahana Software Foundation or companies like AidIQ; others rely totally on volunteers or internal resources.  I want the Sahana Software Foundation to support all Sahana users – whether they are paying for our support or not.  The internship program is a great and cost-effective way for us to support these users, as well as enhancing our core capabilities to support multiple projects.  While we are not yet at the point where we can commit an internship resource to an organization, this is an idea I would support in the future.

EG: What makes Sahana’s software the best open source software for disaster management on the planet? Most of the interns have development skills, how can they make some critical improvements? 

MP: Ha ha.  Thanks for calling me on a bit of hyperbole…. but I do believe it.  In addition to always being focused on our core mission – helping the survivors of disasters and saving lives – one of our traditional areas of focus has been to develop solutions where no other solution exists.  That has led to Sahana having a unique set of capabilities for the resource management of staff, volunteers, inventory, assets, requests for information and assistance – all the critical components that humanitarian organizations and communities need to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.

Development of new features and enhancements to Sahana software needs to be driven by real-world customer needs and requirements – not just a developer’s idea for how something could be done better.  That remains a critical component to innovation but such innovation should only be done in partnership with user needs and feedback.  I think we’ve done a great job over the past few years at focusing our development priorities on real-world projects; this should continue to influence the tasks that we ask our interns to work on – whether through our own internship program or through Google Summer of Code or Google Code-In.

EG: In the long run, what is your vision for the future of Sahana and its community?

MP: I’d like to see us offer a hosted system for new users that doesn’t require any developer experience – like Crowdmap does for Ushahidi – for all of our Sahana products.  Having technical expertise is one of the biggest barriers to entry we face.  Based on our recent experience deploying Sahana Eden for new customers in the US and abroad, I think we are approaching the point at which we can offer an out-of-the box best-practices based configuration of Sahana Eden that would be instantly deployable and usable by humanitarian and community-based organizations, complete with a complete set of user documentation and training materials.  The success of our communications internship program will have a lot to do with this potential.

I’d also like to see enough grants and project funding to support the Sahana Software Foundation having a permanent small core team supplemented by a roster of developers and interns.  Putting resources into managing the business side, including marketing and outreach, finance and administration, is often an undervalued yet critical component.  I think we are on the right path towards realizing this within the next year.

An expanded internship program will be a major part of our growth plan and give us the resources and potential to be successful.

EG: Thank you very much Mark for your detailed responses. And many thanks to those who followed this blog series on the Sahana Internship Program. As you might have guessed from the interview, a second round might be coming….

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