Author: Brian O'Donnell

Drones, Twitter, Data, and DJs: The New Face for Disaster Response

Imagine Hilary Clinton receiving her hypothetical “3am phone call” and entering the situation room as a horrific hurricane batters the Gulf Coast. While USAID assesses the damage in the Caribbean, FEMA needs immediate, reliable, and detailed information to identify domestic needs. Luckily, it’s 2016. Computer scientists have developed reliable tools to rapidly collect, interpret and transmit hyperlocal data. Their automated programs scour social media for signs of water and medicine shortages, and pinpoint collapsed buildings from drone footage. Within 24 hours, they turn around this information for rapid deployment of emergency response units. Distraught relatives and empathetic onlookers feel an urgent need to help. As...

Read More

In Defense of Pretty Maps

Cartography is pretty hot these days. Maps tap into our brains’ spatial reasoning abilities to make any public issue more immediate and understandable to wider audiences—and with the advent of open data and free tools, anyone with a computer can produce maps. Clearly, the trend has particular consequences for policymaking, although the burden of proof is on the mapmaker to answer a crucial question: “can your map actually change anything?” In my time with AidData, Innovations for Peace and Development, and most recently USAID’s Africa Bureau, this has been the recurring response to pretty maps explaining aid allocation or...

Read More

Special Interview: Nina Munk on Jeffrey Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project

Stay in policy school long enough and you’ll notice the growing tendency to treat every problem as a four-dimensional Rubik’s cube just waiting for the right solution. Development studies, in particular, can often fall into the trap of trying to solve a macro phenomenon before fully understanding local economic and political conditions. This is a central theme behind Nina Munk’s new book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Ms. Munk, a reporter for Vanity Fair magazine, spent six years following the brilliant economist Jeffrey Sachs as he directed his brain-child, the Millennium Villages Project (MVP),...

Read More