People to People

As geeks, we’ve been using P2P software for years. Starting with Napster in 1999, and the plethora of different filesharing networks that followed, right up to torrents, which we all use and love today, we’ve seen the technology being used for a number of worthwhile causes. Thus, when Sean came to us with his plan to put it to use in the real world, we jumped at the chance.Today, after a lot of thought and hacking, we’re proud to announce the launch of, the web hub of what Sean describes as a U.S.-based, not-for-profit organization working to raise awareness about and deliver support to Sri Lanka. At a time where NGOs and aid organisations are a dime a dozen in Sri Lanka, it was an experience to work with a group of people who were approaching our nation’s problems from a different angle. People have needs, and indeed, people have always had needs, and always will. What makes an aid effort stand out from the rest, however, is how they choose to approach these needs.Focused on enabling sustainable development through training people, and creating jobs, Sean dubs the organisation’s approach P2P, or People to People. In a world where organisations are becoming increasingly bureaucratic, it is good to see one that is choosing to interact at the grassroots level. It is a good reminder to everyone that aid is not just about money.The P2P Rescue Shop, powered by WP e-CommerceThe P2P Rescue Shop, powered by WP e-CommerceFrom a technical point-of-view, the Shop portion of the site is an important one. Using the free plugin WP e-Commerce, we setup a virtual shopping cart via which visitors can choose to purchase the items that Sean’s various P2P projects have created. At the moment, the Tsunami Birdhouses seem to be hot, and rightly so – made entirely from items salvaged during the December 2004 Tsunami, these creations are a real life example of using what you have, one of P2P Rescue’s main dictums.Socially, the Voices section is certainly the website’s most striking feature. Taking the form of a weblog, this section is where the people behind P2P Rescue have their say. From status updates from Sean himself, to stories of how the bird houses were made, this is the face of P2P Rescue, and is certainly what our readers will find most interesting. If you’ve never been to Sri Lanka, and are curious about what it’s like, the Voices section is a great place to wet your interest.All in all, we learnt a lot from P2P Rescue. As a web organisation ourselves, its novel approach to communication in the real world made us challenge many of our own ideas and preconceptions, and helped us realise that no matter where you are, the only constructive way forward is indeed People to People. In any case, that’s enough from our end. Let’s hear what Sean Kelly has to say about the project.Left-to-right: Sean Kelly, Her Highness Alexandra Princess of Denmark, and Michael Parayno.Left-to-right: Sean Kelly, Her Highness Alexandra Princess of Denmark, and Michael Parayno.Vesess: In a region where many countries were affected by the December 2004 Tsunami, why did you choose Sri Lanka in particular as a base of operations?Sean: My thinking on this wasn’t clear in the beginning. I knew I wanted to employ and train people to create items from salvaged tsunami items to help raise money. But such wreckage was, of course, available anywhere and everywhere. I originally considered Banda Aceh because of how severely destroyed it appeared in aerial video/photos. It seemed soon enough, however, that Aceh was already getting incredible attention.Before I was too far in with my planning I heard from a former colleague, Francesca Koe, who was just beginning to work with an international team on a reef-restoration, memorial, and scuba project in Sri Lanka. After a few discussions, I decided I would join her and others in Sri Lanka to see if I could assist with raising awareness around their work. That was mainly the deciding factor.Even before my first trip to Sri Lanka, however, I felt the plans were ideal. I knew very little about the country and figured few others in America did, either. I thought my experience as a writer would be put to good use not just in describing existing funds, but in showing the world the wonderful sides of a country I myself was just coming into contact with.Vesess: What are the advantages of peer-to-peer, or as you put it, People-to-People communication and interaction, when compared with more traditional aid and rescue deployments?Sean: If you are aware of network technology structures, the client/server approach involves (for example) one server passing data between multiple clients. The server has most of the power. This, to me, seems a great deal like how major aid organizations operate with regard to donors. The organization (server) holds most of the power and ultimately decides where the money goes. The donors feed the server their money but have limited decision-making powers.The P2P model doesn’t differentiate between clients and servers. Everything is equal and the true power of a P2P system is how each “peer” works with the next. The idea struck me as a major change of approach in the business of giving aid or adopting “social change.”In my view, the aid organization, volunteers, donors, and even the beneficiaries of aid are all equal and impact the system. In this view, the organization is extremely receptive to outside action. It is dependent upon it too. If this “network of equals” fails to act, the system collapses entirely.This has proven to me an innovative way to view aid–at times it was Sri Lanka that contributed most to the system by way of hard work and creativity. At other times, people in Sri Lanka flagged and suddenly people in America re-focused. The P2P model allows for waves of inspiration as they come naturally in the process.Vesess: As a technology company, it was interesting for us to see p2p being used in the offline sphere. How and why did it work in real life?Sean: It is still a work in progress, of course. I think there is tremendous potential to the idea as a model for empowering people. But it is an ideology that is threatened by two major influences: the situation of the world as a whole and the willingness of all involved to strive for equality.With regard to the latter I have discovered that major aid agencies often don’t adequately seek input from the people they are helping or their donors. They often give as an authority. A power over donors or beneficiaries. Donors, too, don’t seem all that interested in equality. They donate based on a level of guilt that is satisfied purely on handing over some money and then forgetting about what happens to it, rather than following it to its end. And the receivers of aid are often just that. They receive without being motivated to put something back into the system, to create their own equality.And of course, the overall state of world health is a hugely mitigating factor. Striving for equality and social change requires effort and concentration, and the world is enduring am incredible level of suffering at this time in history. Just think of Hurricane Katrina, Darfur, Zimbabwe, the price of food, a looming worldwide recession, various sad and unfortunate wars and human rights abuses.For the P2P model of social change to work, it needs all communities in all areas to strive for some semblance of equality.Vesess: In your opinion, is it possible for a social system, online, or offline, to sustain itself without a distinct hierarchy of control? In other words, is p2p communication sustainable as a political system? I think if you follow the ideology far enough down the line it is conceivable. I believe it works, bit by bit, on a small scale. But for it to be effective on a global scale would require a major change to human nature. Do we, as humans, really want to strive or equality? The increasingly large gap between haves and have-nots, the billionaires and those living off a small bag of rice, suggests we don’t. I should add that by equality I am not suggesting socialism or communism or some other political model. I’m not suggesting fascism either. Socially and politically people need guidance. There will always be gaps separating people by strengths and weaknesses. But in the world of social change, I think striving for greater equality and being open to learning both from those people who have more AND less than you has tremendous value.In that sense, I consider myself directly in the middle. I am learning from myself and other people who, like me, are just trying to do their best. Yet I am open to learning, and have learned, incredible lessons from the donor who would hand me his/her hard earned money and the impoverished Sri Lankan who shared his King Coconut.Vesess: What advice would you have for anyone looking to setup a similar initiative?Sean: You said your readers are pretty tech savvy, so let’s stick with the technology world for a moment. There are thousands of small aid organizations, each often repeating the work of the next. That’s like thousands of P2P networks. There’s one clear answer to how they can be more efficient–through APIs. Developing standard ways of connecting them all together would certainly go a long way toward creating greater efficiencies between organizations. Connecting P2P Rescue to, say, a pertinent segment of Unicef efforts, a small team in Sri Lanka, a network working on parallel efforts in the Philippines, and so on, could see enormous rewards on all fronts. Shared assets and contacts. Faster mobilization. Those are some obvious examples.The reality, however, is in my experience attempting to work with major aid organizations in and out of Sri Lanka, I continued to bump into closed (proprietary?) systems. Yes, I HAD located and met with and assessed sites needing a total of 309 homes along the southwest coast. I offered my full support and resources to cooperate in rebuilding programs. But I was turned away for a variety of reasons–political, religious, bureaucratic.Perhaps some of the reasons were legitimate. But tell that to the family of six living under a corrugated tin roof with no bathroom facilities. The very idea behind P2P Rescue is essentially, if you have resources to spare to a place where resources are needed, you are part of the network. You don’t need to be Christian, for example. You just need to be willing to get your hands dirty for the benefit of another.Thank you Sean, and P2P Rescue, for everything you taught us during this project. We’re sure you guys are going to do great things in Sri Lanka, and South Asia. Good luck!