HOT Executive Director Tyler Radford shares reflections on seven years with the organization, how it has evolved, and what he sees in its future.
After seven years with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, I will step down from my role as Executive Director this month. HOT’s Board of Directors and I are working together on a planned transition (see Board announcement).
When I joined HOT in April 2015, we were a five-year-old organization with 15 staff members and a budget of $1m USD per year. That April and the months that followed were an intense period filled with upheaval. The Millennium Development Goals were making way for the Sustainable Development Goals. The Missing Maps project, an ambitious and unconventional arrangement between the American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, and HOT had just launched, signaling a shift in our collective work from response to anticipation in the face of disaster. At the same time, the devastating earthquake in Nepal had taken place days before my start date. My predecessor, Kate Chapman, had just stepped down from the Executive Director role. Amidst this context characterized by dramatic change, HOT convened its first global Summit in Washington, DC.
At that Summit, Mikel Maron, one of HOT’s founders, gave a talk in which he called the years leading up to HOT’s founding Version 0, with HOT Version 1.0 starting at the time of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Five years later in 2015, many at the Summit saw HOT’s unprecedented response in Nepal, HOT’s first-ever change in executive leadership, and evolutions in the humanitarian and development systems including the SDGs as the start of a HOT version 2.0.
The weeks, months, and years that followed serving and leading HOT 2.0 were among the proudest moments of my life working with colleagues in Indonesia, Tanzania and Uganda. We built teams in East Africa made up of recent university graduates who have since gone on to significant research and leadership positions. In Tanzania, Ramani Huria set a new standard for what was possible when students, residents, and disaster survivors came together to map the entirety of one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities. At the same time, HOT’s work in Indonesia grew with support from the Australian government, then under a new partnership with Pacific Disaster Center and USAID, making Indonesia one of the first countries whose national and provincial disaster risk managers began to rely extensively on OpenStreetMap for contingency planning, early warning, and response. In northern Uganda, using OpenStreetMap, we helped shift power and voice into the hands of refugees. Refugees gained sovereignty over their own data, mapping their settlements and informing the aid sector on what needed to happen. What I felt so fortunate about during these years is that I had the opportunity to work with such a variety of truly talented people from all walks of life. In any given week, I often had the opportunity to meet with YouthMappers, recent refugees, government officials, UN agency staff, and donors… and even occasionally bring them together!
By 2019, HOT’s work in a handful of countries led us to ask: How might the world look different if every community, everywhere was able to share insight about their worlds with the world? What if we could enable that sharing on such a massive global scale that lack of timely data would no longer be a cause for lives lost or human suffering? In early 2020, seven forward-thinking donors joined together to invest in our Audacious idea.
The vision: engage one million people across 94 countries in sharing their knowledge of places they live, especially those having higher levels of disaster risk and multidimensional poverty (home to one billion people)!
A HOT 3.0 is Born
Over the past two years, Rebecca Firth and I, along with many other co-conspirators within HOT worked to operationalize this vision into reality. The vision for HOT 3.0 could be found by looking back to HOT’s 2010 roots, starting with an interconnected network of open data advocates in cities and communities across the world that were taking action locally in the face of global challenges. This meant a massive re-think of HOT’s ways of being and ways of working. We needed to shift focus from being the best map makers to being the best catalysts of a global movement. In making this shift, we made mistakes, and upon reflection, there are quite a few things I would have done differently. I’m proud of where we landed, though. The entire HOT team has been working to re-engineer the organization, achieve dramatic scale, and do it while supporting response to a global pandemic as HOT scaled 10x to a $10 million USD per year organization with 100 staff members and 266 voting members.
HOT 3.0 emerged during a time in which the world and the humanitarian sector were grappling with the #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and #decolonizeaid movements. Inside HOT we were working to create a more just organization in an unjust world. We made some serious strides forward during this time toward reconfiguring HOT. We decentralized, shifting most of HOT’s activities, work, and hiring to priority regions across Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia Pacific. We stopped expat-style staff deployments, worked with staff in each of HOT’s country offices to help support their transition to independent entities, and opened regional hubs led entirely by teams from the countries where HOT works. In 2021, regional teams became the ones with the authority to set HOT’s global annual plan based on needs consolidated across countries in each region.
I’m also proud of some of the little-known things we’ve done to redefine workplace culture in the humanitarian and development sectors: we completely eliminated the pay discrepancy between male and female staff with the help of a transparent salary framework that is still rare in any sector. In 2022, we achieved a milestone: more than 50% of HOT’s supervisory level staff are now women and more than 50% are from priority countries where HOT works (72% of staff across all levels hired in 2022 were from priority countries). We’ve also shown that a fully remote workforce can and does produce outstanding results, and earlier this year HOT began piloting a four day work week.
HOT 4.0: Catalyzing Locally Led, Globally Connected Action
The humanitarian challenges the world is facing have not been greater in recent history. Aid is needed now more than ever. But it will not look like it has in the past. The period of Big Aid and Big Development institutions working in a siloed aid sector has already started to come to an end. In HOT’s recent strategy, we envision HOT’s future role as a catalyst: connecting and amplifying the actions of others. I believe the “secret sauce” for HOT moving forward is not specialized geospatial expertise but rather the unique way in which the organization works through a decentralized global network. HOT is one of the few living and breathing models of doing digital development differently: at its core, the global NGO exists to catalyze and support a global network of citizen-led action and solidarity.
In addition to modeling the change we want to see in the humanitarian/development sectors, we need to actively influence that change. This means aligning HOT with where the real change is happening: much of it outside the sector, including embedding HOT increasingly with social movements. It also means figuring out how to scale up what works well with “little aid” – the speed and agility of neighbors helping neighbors, mutual aid and peer-to-peer aid networks – to a global, “big aid” scale. We need to create private sector partnerships that not only keep pace with technological change in the world, but also stay true to our values and help the world imagine what a more decentralized, democratized web might look like. We need a HOT version 4.0, and we need truly unconventional thinking to get us there. I came to the realization earlier this year that as we approach the midpoint, two-and-a-half years of HOT’s five-year Audacious Project, now is the time. While there is never an easy time to make an executive transition, there’s also never been a better time to create the space in which this next evolution can occur.
Moving forward, I believe that a thriving HOT 4.0 will mean increasingly channeling the HOT 1.0 spirit of being digital disruptors, of ruffling some feathers, and of modeling what true citizen participation at scale might look like in unexpected ways. The difference in 2023 is that we have many, many more allies and partners fighting for the same causes, including climate change and displacement. We now also have the privilege of modeling what truly locally led humanitarian and development work might look like from within the system, rather than spending our time trying to get a seat at the table. Thousands of individual changemakers across the humanitarian, development, and data ecosystem are also yearning for this change and actively trying to drive localization and new types of network-based partnerships within their institutions. This is where HOT can help: first, as a model, and second, as a powerful network to collaborate with: not as “the mapping people”, but as changemakers taking action in communities across the world through the power of data. I’m excited to witness this next stage in HOT’s evolution, and how a renewed executive leadership team and further refinement of HOT’s “governance by its members” model might enable that.
On a personal note, I’ll take a few months starting in January 2023 to rest and reset. After that, I’m most excited about being involved in initiatives across the humanitarian, tech, and data spaces that are reimagining how people take action together, build workplaces together and build technology together. I still believe that thoughtfully designed, decentralized online platforms can be a great source of good in our world. I’m always open to talk through ideas. I am thankful to the thousands of people who have supported me and HOT since my journey began. Being part of such a diverse, vibrant and thriving global family has truly been one of my favorite parts about HOT, and I look forward to staying part of that family and invite you to join it as well. I’m looking forward to seeing you when I travel or when you visit New York.