Cracking the Code to Saving Lives: An Interview with Tony Surma


Tony Surma, CTO of Microsoft Disaster Response, explains how developers, testers, and others are contributing to disaster relief mobile apps that will save lives on a global scale. Learn how you, too, can help by using your powers for this fantastic organization.

Noel: Hello, this is Noel Wurst with TechWell, and I’m sitting here with Tony Surma who is the CTO of Microsoft Disaster Response. He works a lot with Humanitarian Toolbox, and we wanted to introduce Humanitarian Toolbox, talk about what it is, and what they’re hoping to accomplish. Tony, thanks for sitting down with me today.

Tony: Yep, thank you for the opportunity.

Noel: So can you talk about what Humanitarian Toolbox is, and the current state that you’re in and what you’re working towards?

Tony: Yes. Humanitarian Toolbox is an initiative across a number of technology folks as well as non-profit organizations. The goal is to create effectively a virtual software organization so that we can take the needs and the challenges that response organizations see.

So, think anything from American Red Cross to a bunch of non-profits which you’ve probably never heard of who show up at a disaster, understand their challenges and needs, turn them into real requirements, and then have that guide a process across building, maintaining, and making the solutions ready to deploy.

We focus on crowdsourcing and leveraging the generosity of folks who donate their time and technical expertise to build this solution—typically devs, UX, etc., as well as those who can sure we have high quality, so testers, and then those who know the industry, so those are the partners that we have, and make sure that what we built is actually what will be valuable and what will be used at a time of disaster.

Noel: Cool. I really like the science behind requirements gathering. I talked to developers sometimes who talk about helping that customer through these requirements, finding out what they want, and sometimes even just what they think they want, than even being able to offer like, “Well, here’s some other things we can do.” Do you ever find the thing where you meet with customers or potential clients who maybe don’t even know the capabilities that these kinds of tools can have?

Tony: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a combination of when you’re in the middle of a disaster what you need to do is very direct and immediate. Just like personally if you’re in a car accident, you don’t want to be fumbling with the UI or using a tool. So they think about the simplest way to get something done, and that’s actually pretty good because that helps us get requirements that are very clear.

The other thing we’ll do is, we also find that you, you, and you, multiple people might do things differently in a disaster and you can’t build a solution that works for everyone all different ways, so we find that common theme, find the common denominators so we can get the solution out there and get it used by the most people to have the biggest impact.

Noel: Something else I noticed on the website, which is that Humanitarian Toolbox came about from a collaboration with NetHope, CrisisCommons and GeeksWithoutBounds, and I’m sure than just a strengthen number. It’s a recipe. But as a whole, what are those groups able to accomplish that maybe individually would’ve been much more difficult?

Tony: Part of it is NetHope is a consortium of I want to say 39 response organizations worldwide. GeeksWithoutBounds focuses on how do you create something sustainable that actually gets built and deployed. CrisisCommons, much like their name, looks at what happens during a disaster and finds the common ways that people are solving problems. So each of those are a piece, or a part of the puzzle. Then adding in Humanitarian Toolbox, the support from Microsoft, the support from .NetRocks, the other folks that are found there, take that technical generosity, find all of those problems that they represent as connectors to other organizations, and then bring together that commonality. Because what we don’t want to do is design solutions no one needs or we don’t want to guess what it is.

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