From an idea, to making a difference in people's life

This article was written by Agnès Jakab, Administrator at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and member of THE Port Executive Committee, and Matumaini Mumbere Junior, Biomed and Energy Technician. It was first published in 'Tag', the internal journal of Médecins Sans Frontières' Operational Center Geneva.

“We combine creative minds from CERN and nonprofit organisations in interdisciplinary teams to work on humanitarian technology related benefits to society.”

This is the story of Matumaini Mumbere, aka Junior in DRC who had an idea. This is the story of Agnès Jakab and THE Port team always looking for new ideas. Junior and Agnès met each other in an MSF field mission and their first chat over lunch in the mission, step by step led to a project that could make a big difference in Congolese people’s life.

When Agnes reaches DRC as first missionner, her professional experience in HR is her everyday work tool as a field administrator. That HR background also includes an experience with CERN, where Agnes stayed involved in a voluntary project combining creative minds from science and nonprofit organisations, to work on humanitarian technology related projects. In a nutshell, THE Port events join today’s real-life problems from the humanitarian sector, with technological progress and scientific solutions. Agnes has been part of the organising team in the association since 2015 and strongly believes in the power of multidisciplinary teams and skills offered on a voluntary basis. She wouldn’t miss an opportunity to talk about the hackathon when meeting new people who seem to have an innovative spirit.

Junior is an electrician by background and a genuine innovator, full of ideas since very young. Passion about technology, web design and the search for solutions to the problems of his region are both in the focus of his curiosity. His interest in computer development as well as the maintenance of biomedical equipment both fuel many ideas. Junior started his career in computer maintenance and was accompanying students in the cybercafé of the Catholic University of Graben in Butembo. After 8 years in charge of the operations of the micro hydroelectric power plant at the University in Butembo, he came across MSF in June 2018, during the
Ebola response, where he was hired to take care of the electrification of the Ebola Treatment Centre. Since October 2019, he has been working as national staff within MSF in DRC, specialized in biomedical technology.

He is based in the sub-coordination office in Bunia and ensures technical support to the projects, travelling regularly to the field offices. This is how he met Agnes on the Drodro project in early 2021. A few months later, the Nyiragongo volcano made eruption in the city of Goma. Humanitarian actors evacuated their offices including the MSF coordination office, the population fled the city in panic, and many of Junior’s friends found themselves in great difficulty to find reliable and helpful information in such a chaotic context. This event led Agnes and Junior to present a community alerting idea for the next THE Port humanitarian hackathon.

Context and goals

The Goma region is an area of intense volcanic activity with risks such as earthquakes, air and water toxicity. In addition to these risks mentioned above, there is a great danger of a limnic eruption with a brutal degassing of Lake Kivu, as had happened in Cameroon with Lake Nyos in 1986. The Nyiragongo volcano observations are relatively recent, and despite the efforts of the Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG), the civil protection and the surrounding humanitarian ecosystem, the current warning system still has flaws. The city counts more than 1.5
million inhabitants, with a unique context due to the numerous potential risks that may arise without much warning, including geo-risks, but also health risks like Ebola, and risks of conflict.

In times of a sudden disaster, the event of a brutal evacuation following an imminent volcanic or limnic eruption, sharing information between the Goma Volcanology Observatory, the Congolese Government, the large humanitarian community and the population remains complex. Therefore, the volcano project during this last hackathon aimed to design a prototype of communication network with inter-linked channels to help alert the community as efficiently as possible, about the increasing or imminent danger.

The hackathon

THE Port’s innovation sprints take place in October every year, after a few weeks of online preparation. Usually, the teams then gather at CERN Idea Square to work together on project prototypes - in the past 2 years the event took place online though, due to the Covid sanitary context. Teams are organised in ‘piers’, the volcano team aka Pier-39 was composed of 14 individuals from 8 different nationalities, with the most diverse backgrounds from data science through geology, human-centred design, communication, risk management and more. The project was lucky enough to get support from several local specialists from academia, research institutes and NGOs in Goma.

The team

Reaching out to actors of the local eco-system was key, especially in the early stages for understanding the local
context. A contribution from CAFOD (faith based organisation) as well as from the research institute GeoRisK
and exchanges with the Goma OVG were valuable to keep the team’s work grounded in reality. After the intense weekend of hacking in October 2021, the team came up with 2 proposals. The first one uses technology to manage a list of contact points of humanitarian actors in the region, able to opt-in the service and getting fast and clear information from the civil protection, when impending risk is qualified as a real threat in the form of coded messages. The other proposal is a disaster response chatbot, where humanitarian actors and the general
population could ask specific questions during the response period and get instant answers, based on credible information sources in collaboration with the OVG and civil protection.

What happened after the hackathon? The solutions are getting fine-tuned and improved by the team, as well as
being brought to meetings with the local authorities by the local experts, to get to a testing phase with the civil
protection hopefully soon Turning the prototypes into operational tools is a long way but the team is motivated to bring the project further.

This is the story of Junior. This is the story of Agnes. And this is the story of MSF connecting people around innovative ideas to help communities who need it most.