Concept: Micro Websites For Response

How HXL and Github can provide reusable, lightweight sites for use in humanitarian response.

I recently got asked to develop a web portal for the Nepal Assessment Working group. A vast number of surveys (200+) have been carried out in the wake of the April and May Earthquakes in the region. The working group needed a way for users to quickly find the assessments relevant to their district and sector and a dashboard was built to deal with the problem.

Nepal Survey of Surveys

What I want to communicate here is not so much the result, but the approach I used in building the website and how that approach could possibly be harnessed to provide a larger service of micro websites.

In humanitarian response there are some use cases for getting a website or an element of a website up quickly, with no budget and little technological knowledge. Micro websites for response aims to fill this niche gap.

Github is a website where people can store their programming code and share it easily. It also has a handy feature attached to it. The ability to host simple client side only websites and the ability to clone (fork in github speak) these instantly. The downside to these pages is that they cannot have server side processes or databases.

I’ve been hosting my projects on this site for a year now and making use of the hosting. This was to quickly circumnavigate the bureaucracy of getting paid hosting within the British Red Cross. At first it felt a very restrictive format, but unexpectedly I’m starting to see the constraint as a boon. It has made the dashboards and sites developed, lightweight and “non-techy” on the backend. It is this which I think could be leveraged. I’ve been playing with the idea that these small instantly clone-able websites could have their backend (databases and processing) passed to other free infrastructure, say google spreadsheets for an easily editable database or dropbox/google drive for a file manager. I’m sure there are more services out there that could be used.

For the Nepal Assessment website I used google spreadsheets as the database behind. This meant that the updating of the data could be passed to anyone who is able to update an Excel document and the user authentication is handled by google. The front end website then just displays the information in the spreadsheet.

The data in the spreadsheet made use of the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL). By HXLating the data it makes the solution more robust and gives the maintainer of the spreadsheet freedom to use different templates, move columns and change headings as needed. It just needs to contain certain HXL tags to work. The maintainer can even add sectors and the dashboard finds these, includes the new sector in the graph and adjusts accordingly (although not gracefully at this time).

HXL Standard Post card

The next step would be to add a configuration file to make the website easily reusable containing information such as the location of the google spreadsheet, the title and description for the page and where to find the geometry file. We then have a instantly clone-able website that can be set up in minutes if a similar project is completed in future disaster response.

The above is only one example of what could be made, a lot of dashboards and small websites could be set up this way. Some ideas for sites could be:

  • to visualise a dropbox folder to quickly have a place on the web to publish files and this would be maintained from a folder on your computer.
  • to show key indicators with graphics for a project or response, similar to the static dashboards the UN uses, maintained from a spreadsheet
  • to help monitor where funding is being directed.
  • While the 3W dashboard sits in HDX, it could have easily been another micro website for anyone to use.

These websites do not have to be stand alone portals, but could be embedded in other websites.

So through Github providing clone-able hosting, Google docs (or other services) providing backend services and HXL providing abstraction of data micro websites can:

  • Use free infrastructure with no startup or maintenance costs avoiding bureaucracy
  • Set up fast with little technological knowledge
  • Used as stand alone website or embedded into others

While these ideas are still concepts if anyone wants one or has any other suggestions for a reusable micro website then please free to get in contact and we will see what can be made.

This wasn’t the first time I had played with the idea of micro websites.

I prototyped a possible Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) micro website. For disasters where the DHN is activated a google spreadsheet is maintained collating information about products, who is doing what in the network, contact details and more. This spreadsheet quickly grows and becomes difficult to navigate and find relevant information. The prototype websites aims to give a ‘Google Search’ for the data sitting behind and give presence on the web to the DHN on a per disaster basis. Each response the website can be cloned for free and a small configuration file could be set up which would have to be changed with information like Title and description and so on. is a micro website running off a sub reddit. This is a website I made in a couple of hours with the aim to post links to relevant current reading within the Humanitarian Information Management sector. When planning this site I quickly realised that for the most part a sub reddit would serve the purpose, but thought that the reddit interface would confuse and put off many new users. This website could be cloned and the sub reddit changed in the configuration to then have the micro website up and running within a few minutes about the new topic of interest.