Connected & Ready

How technology impacts humanitarian efforts, with IRC’s Daniel Coughlin

Episode Summary

Technology is playing a growing role in helping humanitarian organizations support vulnerable populations during crisis events, from delivering services to measuring impact. In this episode of Connected & Ready, host Gemma Milne talks with Daniel Coughlin, Director of Data Insights, Systems, and Architecture at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), about the role of technology in the IRC’s work, how they responded to the disruptions of the COVID-19 health crisis, Syria, and Afghanistan, and how he thinks technology will shape the future of organizations like the IRC. Microsoft Power Apps gives employees of all skill levels the tools they need to build professional apps that run on web, iOS and Android – without needing to write a single line of code. By extending the power of app development beyond the IT department, Power Apps enables anyone from frontline workers to line-of-business employees to innovate and work alongside professional developers, improve business processes, and automate repetitive or manual job functions. Watch a demo today: Thank you for listening to Connected & Ready! Do you have ideas of how we can improve the show? Want to recommend a guest for us to interview? We value your partnership and participation. Please drop us a note at We would love to hear from you.

Episode Notes

Daniel Coughlin, Director of Data Insights, Systems, and Architecture at the International Rescue Committee, talks with host Gemma Milne about how the IRC’s work in Syria and Afghanistan, how specific technologies actually help people in need, ensuring responsible technology use with vulnerable populations, and where he plans to focus his work in the future. 

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About Daniel Coughlin

Daniel Coughlin is a mission-driven leader who believes that technology, data and analytics, and operational excellence can drive organizational impact and positive change at scale. He believes that teams and organizations that reward feedback, growth, and innovation are one of our greatest assets to life and the planet. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a humanitarian aid and resettlement organization that helps refugees regain control over their lives after disaster and conflict through programs focused on health, legal protection, education, and refugee resettlement. 

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Episode Transcription

Gemma [00:00:05] Hello and welcome. You're listening to Connected and Ready, an ongoing conversation about innovation, resilience and our capacity to succeed, brought to you by Microsoft. I'm Gemma Milne. I'm a technology journalist and author, and I'm going to be exploring trends around how companies are adapting to a disrupted world and preparing for tomorrow. We're going to speak to the innovators who are bringing products, operations and people together in new ways. In today's episode, I'm chatting with Daniel Coughlin, director of data systems and architecture at the IRC, a humanitarian organization that provides safety, health care, education, protection and support to refugees. Coughlin discusses the company's purpose, the impact the pandemic paused on day to day operations, and how the IRC leverage technology to both cope with the pandemic and extend its reach, impact and support to the lives of those in need. 

Gemma [00:01:00] Daniel, thank you so much for coming and joining us on the show today. I'm really excited about this conversation. Let's begin and with some introductions, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about yourself, a little bit about your role, your experience and your journey at the IRC.

Daniel [00:01:13] Great. Yeah, thanks for having me, Gemma. So my name is Daniel Coughlin and I am the director of data insights, systems and architecture at the International Rescue Committee. We're a global humanitarian, relief, and refugee resettlement organization. We work in between 35 and 40 different countries at any given time, working through protracted crises that have a refugee or displaced population. And we support that population with a variety of humanitarian services. And then we also support refugees that are being resettled in the United States and Europe. My role is really working across technology and data at the IRC to support new data and new technology initiatives and to make sure that we're really getting the most out of our investments in those areas. My background is in software product development, so I worked for a number of years working in digital media, in big data product development, and also some telecommunications before coming to IRC. 

Gemma [00:02:13] Amazing. And it would be very exciting to hear exactly what happens when it comes to technology and intersecting with the work that's done at the IRC, but before we kind of get into that a little bit more, could you tell us a bit of background and perhaps an overview of how the IRC started and what sort of mission and vision is that it's built on? 

Daniel [00:02:31] So the IRC was started during World War Two at the recommendation of Albert Einstein, basically to support the Jewish population in Europe that was being persecuted and to find ways to connect with that population and provide resettlement opportunities in United States. And then basically, throughout our history, we've been working in different areas throughout the world in different types of crises, whether they're environmental or political, civil war, those types of crises. And yeah, that's basically the overall mission of the IRC is to really support people that are experiencing those types of crises and we say from harm to home, where we're able to basically support people again in a variety of different services that we would provide, whether it's protection, health, education, economic development or empowerment through government and legal opportunities. 

Gemma [00:03:23] So I wonder if we could kind of fast forward a little bit to what's been happening over the past 18 months, almost two years now with the COVID 19 crisis. It's obviously drastically impacted big and small business operations worldwide. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about some of the challenges of some of the changes that the pandemic posed and caused when it comes to humanitarian organizations like the IRC.

Daniel [00:03:46] So the pandemic is interesting because IRC is used to working in emergency response. Basically, our organization responds to emergencies. This was the first emergency that was really a global emergency that affected all of our sites simultaneously. So one of the things that we had to do was adapt our programs to being remote or to being partially remote. So in order to do that, we had to assess the current status of the program and determine what, if any, aspects of that program could be delivered remotely. So if this is an immunization or vaccine type program, how are we able to trace compliance? How are we able to communicate with our clients to make sure that they're actually getting the services that they need? So this was really ramping up our remote and communications techniques, but also our communications with clients. So throughout the COVID response, we took on new technologies and new practices around being able to communicate more broadly with a wider cohort of clients through mass messaging. We had a project in Syria that led to what we call now Signpost, which is a broad platform for communicating with refugees and migrants who are on the move. And the idea here is that in any given place where you find a set of displaced people or refugees that are moving from one place to another, how are they getting access to services? How are they being made aware of those services and then how do they get access to them? And so what we found early on in Syria was that as migrants were moving into Greece, many of them had cell phones. Many of them had cell phones that could connect to wireless, or they could connect to the 3 and 4G networks that were available. So immediately that gave us a platform through which we could deliver basically content that was curated for that particular context so that they would be able to find legal services, transportation services, immigration services and the particular area that they were located in. So that particular program has been augmented and is now used in multiple locations and multiple crises across the world. COVID also led us to a broader development of a way of assessing our health clinics globally and really making sure that they were compliant with standards that needed to be in place to control infections, particularly around COVID. So in order to make our health clinics COVID proof, we developed an assessment tool as well as an aggregation system that allowed us to look at all of our clinics across the world and tell us at what level they are in terms of their infection control protocols. And then finally, you know, in order to coordinate all of this information around our offices worldwide, we developed an application in Power Apps that was to basically tell us, what are your operational conditions and what are your programmatic conditions and what is changing currently in your environment? And we were able to then aggregate all of that up into a Power BI dashboard that our leadership was able to use to really see where we are at in our various regions, in various countries in order to make high level decisions about what we needed to do. 

Gemma [00:06:56] Before we kind of dive in a little bit more to some of the technology, just something I was thinking when you were speaking there. I mean, a lot of the themes that we've touched upon in this podcast has been around resilience and preparedness and people sort of shifting the way they think about the future and risk and being able to foresee something like this happening. I'm curious when the pandemic hit, what was it that I guess allowed the IRC to be able to respond and sustain its efforts under the constraints? 

Daniel [00:07:28] Yeah, that's a really great question. I would say that our experience using technology is very strong, and we had a few years long history of building out this capability of doing organization wide data collection and data management. So we were kind of building on a set of capabilities that we had started a few years back. During the pandemic our organization really shifted into an emergency response mode and maybe unlike a lot of organizations that don't have that experience because we do have that experience in our leadership, we were able to really set up a core set of teams related to the response. So an executive team, basically a COVID leadership team that was really able to coordinate across the organization to determine what things needed to happen and who needed to communicate with whom about what. So that happened rather quickly. And that really enabled us to work as an organization through COVID, through the sort of peak beginning parts of it and to coordinate ourselves according to what we needed to accomplish. Between that and our existing technological experience, and then some new things that we created out of COVID. So we set up some additional committees out of COVID that were really set up in order to support our country programs with technology use. As they were basically trying to decide what types of technology change they needed to do for their program adaptation, they're being supported by a team of people at our headquarters that are working together on a bi-weekly basis to really define what we can do for them in the field. 

Gemma [00:09:10] So it really is that sort of emergency response mindset that allows this speedy development, the collaboration across multiple departments, the sort of experimenting that allows you to be able to build and implement and so on and so forth. 

Daniel [00:09:26] Yeah, we really did work quickly on a number of projects. And I think part of the reason we were actually able to be successful to be really frank is we used Power Apps and Power BI on many of these projects, which gave us a leg up not having to do custom development or not having to use a survey system that we would then have to stitch together every week. And that really created a lot of capacity. Then it was actually one of the things that we did first was build this COVID 19 data collection app. And really, it took us about two weeks to get that built. And then another couple of weeks to get it rolled out and used by 100 people across the organization in, like I said, thirty five or thereabouts countries. 

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Gemma [00:10:30] So let's jump in to one more recent crisis, the Syrian crisis. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about how this particular crisis challenged your organization in new ways and how I suppose it, I guess, helped make the organization a bit more prepared for future crises. For example, the pandemic, of course.

Daniel [00:11:00] One thing that's been happening over the course of the last 10 to 15 years is that there has been an increased use of technology in the sector. So in the humanitarian sector, in the nonprofit sector, in general, throughout the history of the Syrian crisis, there has been more and more interest and the ability of organizations like the IRC to use information technology to support our response and to support our staff in delivering services for those responses. I think a couple of areas where you can kind of see where we've used technology and how that technology is developed over time is through the use of collaboration technologies. You know, I mean, everything from email to messaging platforms like Skype or WhatsApp, all the way to new ways of communicating with our clients through web or through text messaging. So we basically have seen our populations as they have become more adept at using technology, as well as our staff becoming more adept at using technology. There's been a greater demand for collaboration technology, but also other types of technology that we can use to reach our populations and to deliver services. So I mentioned collaboration technology around WhatsApp, for instance, or mass communications through text, through radio, but also through things like education technology. So remote education services through websites, for example. 

Gemma [00:12:23] And tell us a little bit then specifically about - because it'd be great to get, I suppose, a bit more of a concrete example with respect to the crisis in Syria as one example, I suppose, where perhaps that shift started happening. 

Daniel [00:12:36] Yeah. So one critical challenge in a lot of the places that we work, but particularly in Syria, was our ability to actually be on the ground. So we had to work across borders through what we would call remote management in order to deliver services. So one of the ways that we can do that again is through communication technologies like WhatsApp, for example, or Skype, which is what we did in the early part of the Syrian response. But then also to use things like education technology for remote management. So in order to deliver trainings, for example, to our staff, we would have to use remote enabled technologies such as like a Moodle type technology or remote delivery of education - so videos, other types of content that we would be managing across a border. So that's one example. Another example would be how we would track logistics, so we may be able to be able to personally escort a set of goods up to the border, but then once it crosses the border, we have to maintain some sort of connection to where that is as it gets delivered to its end site. And in order to do that, we used a combination of basically QR codes and GPS coordinates, as well as photography to basically track and geo locate supplies as they're being delivered inside of Syria. 

Gemma [00:13:53] It's amazing to hear about the breadth and different kinds of examples of technology, but also the different types of crises that you work in. And another recent crisis that the IRC has been supporting many people in has been the crisis in Afghanistan. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how the IRC supported what's going on in Afghanistan as the situation shifts. 

Daniel [00:14:14] Yeah. So IRC has been in Afghanistan since the mid 90s and we have been in the most recent periods supporting both the changes that have been happening in Afghanistan and also the resettlement response that's happened in the US. So a couple of things that we're working on really are the processing of visas. So this is a very big project where we're processing visas of Afghanistan refugees who are moving from Afghanistan to the United States. And then we are also working at the bases themselves where the initial refugees have landed and started to set up their lives. So we're working at the military bases to really, everything from basically understanding the basic health care needs to kind of, you know, set up on the next leg in their journey of resettlement at the United States. And that actually requires quite a bit of data collection and data management, as well as coordination with our other refugee agencies in the United States. So IRC is just one of those agencies, and we work with our partners to do this refugee resettlement. 

Gemma [00:15:16] Let's talk a little bit about technology more broadly - what it is that you see that technology's doing in terms of playing this active role and reaching an impact in the lives of those in need. Is it just about connection? Is it about being able to provide information? You know, what would you say is the sort of core thing that technology is allowing you to do? Or perhaps it's a suite of things, but you know, more generally when you think about all the different projects? 

Daniel [00:15:39] Yeah. It's definitely a suite of things. Enterprise technology or corporate technology is really, you know, making our organizations more efficient, giving us some kind of some new opportunities around understanding our people or our clients. So there's all of that kind of core enterprise technology, which IRC is really working toward improving our use of. So this is really about adopting a modern ERP system. It's about a data strategy that includes a broader base data architecture and data governance strategy. You know, it's the use of digital technology on a wide variety of business applications, and that's been going on for about 10 years. And I would say that's kind of like the core of our digital transformation. As we are able to use technology more in our program delivery, we're finding that we can use data collection and data analysis to support our social service program delivery. So when we talk about, let's say, a health care type program, you know, we could be doing immunizations, we could be doing reproductive health, we could be doing primary health, but being able to evaluate those programs and monitoring the effectiveness of those programs. That's an example where we can use technology and data to support. So really thinking about how we are being effective in our program delivery. Secondly, I think above and beyond just our effectiveness, there is actually the delivery of those programs more effectively. So this is more of a digitization that's very similar to our enterprise categories where we're talking about business applications, but they're business applications for specific sectors. Some which are very well developed, such as health, and others which don't have any kind of development around them, such as a protection database. But then others where there do exist some technologies like education - so things like classroom management, things like attendance, those types of databases also exist and we're using those for our education programs. And then finally, for economic recovery, development, empowerment, we also use different types of databases there for really assessing our clients economic coping. So how we understand a population and their needs. But then also how we do things like cash distribution, how in an economic program, you can use a cash distribution, you can also use a voucher distribution, and each of these things can also be digitally enabled. 

Gemma [00:18:06] So you've obviously been implementing more and more technology for quite a while now. And I wonder, considering you know, your sort of recent practices and perhaps not so recent practices, your ways of doing things, I wonder if there's any you wouldn't return to based on this, this kind of evolution of technology implementation that you've been going through. 

Daniel [00:18:26] So one of the things as part of IRC's digital transformation and one of the greatest changes that I've seen is the connection between technology and the business. So I really think that what I've found over the last five years is that technology data, the business processes, they're completely inseparable. In the past, what I've seen is a real siloed way of thinking between IT and the business working together, but not as close as they could be. So I think I see us moving to greater and greater collaboration and really avoiding siloed ways of thinking or siloed ways of working. To achieve the goals that we have and to achieve the ambitions we have, we have to really stress intense collaboration and really close ways of working between technology and the business. 

Gemma [00:19:27] I wonder if you could perhaps give us an example or two of how the IRC has applied data to then actually make some kind of change that's impacted those in need. 

Daniel [00:19:28] The best approach that I can discuss is really thinking about this from the lens of a continuous improvement lens. So we want to improve our operations across the board. And so we think of operations as really our key staff support services. So whether it's IT, human resources, safety and security, supply chain or finance, those are our kind of key operational sectors. So what we do is we have a set of metrics around those functions that describe processes in them. So for instance, we might have a metric that describes the time it takes from delivery to the payment of a vendor. So this would be like a key supply chain metric. What we want is we want that to be the shortest duration possible so that we maintain good relationships with our vendors. So we're able to look across our organization and we're able to say where there are outliers or where those averages may be higher than we would want them to be. Then we provide tools and techniques to analyze that situation to determine whether or not there are actions that can be taken to close that timeframe. So that's kind of a key example of how we would apply analytics across the organization. And that's, you know, operationally, but then as well, programmatically. So I mentioned before our infection control protocols. And that's another example where we can assess a health clinic against a set of standards, and if they are below those standards, then we can apply resources to make sure that they are at those standards that they need to be at. So that's another example. And all of these come down to really defining a standard, being able to measure against that standard and then being able to create actions and accountabilities around correcting the environment to meet the standard. 

Gemma [00:21:21] I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how measurement has perhaps been easier or more effective with the use of technology? 

Daniel [00:21:29] Yeah. So it's definitely easier and more effective with the use of technology because we're able to record observations and save those observations in a database and then review them over time. So in the past, we would have used paper or we would have used excel to track our progress across different domains. And really, that's just not a sustainable or robust means for doing that. So when it comes to operational metrics, you know, we use a number of systems, whether they're our IT systems, whether they're, you know, whatever systems they are, finance, IT, HR systems, we take data from those systems and then create metrics that we manage ourselves to. And through basically a quarterly review of our metrics and targets that we set organizationally, we develop plans to really improve those metrics. So it's really about understanding our gaps and then creating action plans to solve them and then using the data to confirm whether or not our actions had the intended effect. With social program monitoring and evaluation, you're really trying to reduce negative economic coping techniques so you survey a population and then you provide an intervention for that population, whether it's direct cash assistance or economic livelihood training. So in order to basically improve that population's, you know, economic viability, then you take a survey again to determine whether or not you had the intended outcome. And each of our programs have a very similar modality to that. So, you know, education is also very similar, right? You can really measure it via test scores. You can say, how are my classes testing [at] the beginning of the year? How are they testing [in] the middle of the year? How are they testing at the end of the year, and then gauge the effectiveness of your education intervention based on those test scores? And if you're not seeing the outcomes that you want to see, then you can evaluate the program and change it accordingly. And it absolutely is easier with technology. It's harder at first because a big part of it is change management. A big part of it is really getting our staff used to using technology in ways that they haven't before and really building out that capability and skill set. So once we have the intention and attention about the technology and the training in place, then it makes it much easier to manage and understand our impacts. 

Gemma [00:23:56] One question I have for you, you know, considering that the IRC works with refugees and, you know, is pairing technology with that mission, you said from harm to home, which is really lovely, but also, I guess you'll be very aware of sometimes the negative impacts that technology can have, particularly on minorities or populations that are not necessarily, shall we say, politically integrated all world over and refugees can be a touchy subject for some people. So how does your approach to adopting new technologies and using technology to try and provide help, how do you make sure that kind of integrates with the justified worry that a lot of people have around the negative impacts of technology on certain populations? 

Daniel [00:24:32] Yeah, that's a great question. So there's a framework that we use around responsible data and really looking at what the type of data that we collect is and how that data can be accessed and who has access to it. So generally speaking, we try to avoid collecting as much personally identifiable data as we can. So if we don't need it, we don't collect it. And then if we do need it for very specific reasons, then we apply protections to that data and really look at isolating it from other systems or isolating it from other uses. So, you know, when we're talking about our global aggregation of data, for example, we don't include any personal data in our global aggregates. The key to this is awareness for our staff that are managing this data. So they understand because they're usually tasked with collecting information and then also managing that information. So it's really part of our overall information security and awareness program of saying what data do we need to have available? How should that data be stored and then how should it be disposed of after we don't need it anymore? And that's part of our overall program techniques. 

Gemma [00:25:52] From your perspective, what does a technology fueled future look like for the IRC? 

Daniel [00:25:56] I think of the outcomes that we want to achieve in the particular domains that I work in. I think about efficiency of time and resources. So some key things are really making our staff much more efficient. You know, if we're spending 25 percent of our time trying to find data or really struggling with using technology, then we're really doing ourselves a disservice. So one area that I see is making ourselves much more efficient by connecting our systems more effectively, but also training our staff to use those systems more effectively. So I think of this as kind of like the people-process-technology triangle and really working on the people side of it and the process side of it, just as much as we work on the technology side. And what I mean by that is really ensuring that our processes are really well defined and optimized. But that also that our people are trained and encouraged by their leadership and through our organizational culture to make good use of the technology and data that we have available. The future that I see, the direction that we're going in is really, I'll call it an organizational data model that goes from income to outcomes. So really looking at our organization holistically and really being able to build data and technology that approaches the organization holistically. So from a data perspective, that is really being able to integrate data from multiple systems in order to create insights about how we work, where we work, who we work for, and being able to actually make those actionable. You know, on the technology side, I see more use of things like machine learning to establish a better understanding of our donor environment, but also see more and more use of this in our program delivery and our monitoring and evaluation. So we're building out a capability now where we're digitizing, we're working to digitize about, I want to say, 80 percent of our program interventions, which should result in some pretty substantial efficiencies, but also a lot more data about what we're doing. And then through that, being able to really refine some new insights about our work. 

Gemma [00:28:03] Amazing. I've got one final question for you, Daniel. When I think about humanitarian organizations, I guess when you're thinking long term, the goal is for the humanitarian organization to not need to exist anymore, right? When you're talking about things like refugee crises, I just wonder if thinking long term, what role do you think technology has, I suppose, in the bid for the IRC to not need to exist anymore? 

Daniel [00:28:29] Yeah, that's a great question also. I see more of our work happening at the nexus of development and humanitarian work. And so if you think of a number of refugee crises as being very protracted and being somewhere between an emergency context and a development context, then you can also see as those contexts become more stable and develop more, that they will also be using technology more and more. So just as consumers would use technology as consumers use phones, so our clients also begin to use phones, begin to use computers and then as our organization leaves the environment, then those programs and those technologies can be taken up either by the people themselves, by the state actors, or at the very least, the skills that are obtained can be applied in other areas. 

Gemma [00:29:19] Amazing. Daniel, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing with us some of the great work that you've been doing at the IRC, but also some of your, I guess, more broad ideas around the role that technology plays in crisis organizations and resilience of organizations, and then, of course, specifically with humanitarian responses in the development of the world. So Daniel, thank you so much for coming and joining us on the show. 

Daniel [00:29:32] Thank you, Gemma. 

Gemma [00:29:56] That's it for this week, thank you so much for tuning in. You can find out more about Daniel's work and indeed some of the broader themes we discussed today in the show notes. If you enjoyed the episode, please do take a few moments to rate to review the podcast, it really helps other people discover the show. And don't forget to subscribe, and tune in next time to continue our conversation about innovation, resilience and our capacity to succeed. 

AD [00:30:12] Learn how Microsoft Power Apps gives employees of all skill levels the tools they need to build professional apps that run on web, iOS and Android – without needing to write a single line of code. Watch a demo by following the link in the episode description.