Dara Dotz on Applying Maker Skills to Disaster Areas

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Dara Dotz on Applying Maker Skills to Disaster Areas

Dara Dotz is a co-founder of Field Ready, a non-profit organization that applies maker skills in disaster areas and communities of need. This emerging practice is sometimes called “humanitarian making.” Dotz, and Field Ready, have worked in hurricane-ravaged Haiti and earthquake-devastated Nepal. They also support search and rescue efforts in areas of extreme conflict. While Dara was working to create what has now become Field Ready she was also a part of Made in Space, the first team to build a gravity-independent 3D printer and launch it to the International Space Station.

Dara Dotz of Field Ready. Photos courtesy of Field Ready
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Q. What’s your advice to Maker Pros who want to apply their skills to communities in crisis?
A. Do not get on the plane. Not everyone’s made to go into a disaster area, not everyone should go into a disaster area. In fact, people should think long and hard about hopping on that plane. Are you taking the seat of someone else that could be immediately useful such as a doctor or a medic? Are you actually able to cope with the chaos of the environment? We have had to create new ways of interviewing people for deployment with Field Ready because while some people can be excellent makers, they are definitely not made for the field. But they may be an incredibly talented engineer, maker, or designer, and we can use that help.

At Field Ready we work with a great community and this is one way we can plug people in, in a safe and functional way. Someone not onsite can use email and, internet permitting, video conferencing to get insights from the team on the ground. They can then prototype something, send the file to us and we can print it in the field, and then give them real-time feedback. That’s only going to get easier as the world gains more access to the web. Another way to get involved with making for others is to find people locally in your own community that may need help or support.

Ram Chandra tests a new stovetop burner design.

Q. So being a humanitarian maker doesn’t start with boarding a plane to a devastated area?
A. Trying to go out on your own, it can all go terribly wrong. Connecting people is the big thing. You really want to work side by side with the effected populations and with people who are very familiar with the immediate environment. You are trying to solve puzzles for other people and you don’t always see the answer.


Mark Mellors 3D prints a water supply part at Barhabise IDP camp in Sindhupolchowk, Nepal.

Q. How can makers get a sense of what the problems are?
A. Ask people first, never assume. The community will tell you. Humanitarian making is not a solo affair, it’s about figuring out the appropriate solution as a team — identifying needs on the ground, working side by side with the affected population, ensuring that local people have a say and input into your designs and solutions. This not only creates agency, but they will actually use what you make.

3D printed pipe fittings

Q. What are some examples of humanitarian maker projects?
A. We worked with a group of students at the Imperial College of London to develop a simple software app that could help people in the field match up two different diameter water pipes and automatically generate a 3d model to then print. No CAD time! There’s a group from Burning Man, “Burners without Borders,” who can basically build cities out of nothing. They take these skills and apply them to real world problems such as cleaning up and rebuilding post Katrina. Tikkun Olam Makers runs an accessibility project to make assistive technology: they run make-a-thons where they connect makers and people with disabilities to create solutions together. Preparation and research can take up to 3 months so that they really know the person that the device is designed for.

At the Bahrabise Camp in Sindhupalchok, this is how pipe fittings are used as taps when pressure at taps is too low.

Q. What are the important technologies in your tool kit?
A. Currently, we probably use the 3D printer most. When an earthquake hits, say, in Nepal, medical machines may break. They’re antiquated— though not obsolete — and it’s tough or sometimes impossible to get parts. Instead of having the baby incubators in a clinic down for six months waiting for a critical part, we can use the printer to fix it. 3D printers are great for one-offs and low volume solutions. They can sometimes solve supply chain problems.

Dara packing up a field kit. Don’t forget the duct tape!

Q. What’s in your disaster maker kit?
A. My kit fits in a large suitcase and a carry on: a 3D scanner works well to teach people concepts of 3d modeling to explain 3d printing, a 3D printer, various kinds of filament, sometimes a recycler (if no additional access to filament seems availble) sometimes an injection molder, epoxy to make molds, needle nose pliers, wire cutters, nail polish remover, gloves, alcohol wipes, a back-up computer, an uninterruptable power supply, an inverter, measuring tools, a camera, 3 sketchpads, and tons of pens. Having people draw with you to really understand the challenge is tremendously helpful. I draw something: “Is this what you mean?” And they can draw a response: “No, no, it’s more like this.”

Q. Are there any technologies that really aren’t there yet, in terms of usefulness?
A. 3D printers! They can be so powerful when they work, but in some ways they’re just not ready for the field. Some friends of mine at ONO have made a new 3D printer that can fit in a purse or backpack and work off a cell phone — for $99. That could be completely revolutionary! Talk about access on the fly! I’m excited about testing this sort of technology in the field!

Q. Anything on the horizon that you think will make a difference?
A. The real power is not with us, but how it works when we give it to other people. I’m always looking for new technology and figuring out how to cross it over to the rest of the world. I like to say that I use Moore’s law’s table scraps. Once the price of a tool comes down, I like to take it, test it, see if it works for people in the field, and then hand it over to them. One way we are pursuing to make this easier for people who may not have the knack for making or just need something immediately is by developing a catalog of CAD files of items most needed in disasters, and automated design tools to fill in the gaps. With the internet gaining more and more reach, more and more people can start teaching and sharing ideas more readily. Diversity of people approaching complex problems together, and distributed manufacturing—they will really change the way aid is provided. Supporting people to “make” their own solutions – that’s the key. This isn’t only about toolsets but mindsets.

Dara in Haiti

Q. Laser cutters get a lot of action in makerspaces. Are they valuable in the field?
A. When you’re thinking about different tools, you really want to pay attention to what people need. Sometimes amazing tools aren’t suited for field work or particular deployment. Supply chains for materials must also be considered. Someone might say “CNC machines are so cool, we can use them to build houses in Haiti!” But there are basically no trees left in Haiti, so you can’t get wood. Do you really want to bring a CNC machine there? Millions of people are out of work in Haiti. For less than the cost of a CNC machine, you could hire 100 people and give them work for 3 months.

Terry Jhonson teaches locals how to use a 3D printer in Haiti.

Q. What tools do you use the most in the field?
A. Sometimes the best solutions don’t use technology at all. For me, empathy is the most important tool.

Q. In addition to working in disaster areas, you’ve worked on Made in Space, putting manufacturing projects into space. Do they have anything in common?
A. One common thread is the supply chain challenge. You can imagine how expensive and dangerous it is to deliver things to space. You put all your supplies on a giant explosive device that costs millions of dollars to get to this one point in orbit, and you hope you packed the right things, and it docks without blowing up. Going into a disaster zone can be similar — people are in a dangerous place that’s expensive and extremely time consuming to get supplies to, with many road blocks along the way, both literally, politically, and figuratively. And just like in orbit, there is limited space to transport things, so you need to make sure you pack the right items. Often you only get one shot. Basically it can be a very challenging and dangerous situation. In both cases, space and disaster zones, building in situ (with materials found locally) is a better solution.

A repaired nebuliser, with a red 3D printed fitting.

Field Ready is all about getting people what they need, where they need it, when they need it. With hyper-local manufacturing you can do just that. For example, small clinics in rural villages might have very different needs that you can’t predict ahead of time. I’m personally trying to figure out how to build resiliency in the extremes. When humans are cut off from the rest of humanity, how do we support them, and what are the tools that they need to have agency and push through challenges we could never imagine?

The Field Ready core team

Three ways to connect with communities in the field

Humanitarian Makers

TOM Global

Field Ready

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DC Denison is the co-editor of The Maker Pro Newsletter, which covers the intersection of makers and business. That means hardware startups, new products, and market trends.

DC manages customer stories at Acquia, the digital experience company.

View more articles by DC Denison


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