We have created a new blog series that focuses on the people behind Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Cisco. Each blog in this series will highlight a different Cisco employee who works closely with CSR initiatives across the company.
When a disaster or humanitarian crisis occurs, communications is a form of aid, just like food, water, and medical care. Responders need to communicate to assist where help is most needed, and people need to connect with their loved ones. At times of crisis, the Cisco Tactical Operations (TacOps) team provides technology and expertise. This team is comprised of technical engineers, managers, and solutions architects dedicated to building and maintaining networks in disaster zones. The team is supported by 300 employee volunteers, or the Disaster Incident Response Team (DIRT).
Matthew Altman is one of these TacOps team members on the ground. Here are three things you need to know about him.
Matt Altman has been a TacOps technical engineer for 16 of the 22 years he has been at Cisco.
One of Matt’s primary roles is restoring communications after disasters. When he is not in the United States, he is usually deployed to different parts of the world to help connect people in disaster zones – whether it’s natural disasters or manmade disasters like refugee crises. “My primary role is to look at how we can assist, how we can help people come back up,” says Matt.
The scope of his expertise and experiences varies a great deal. He’s been with TacOps since the team started responding to disasters in 2005. In 2010, after a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed parts of Haiti, Matt worked amongst the rubble to get vital communications functioning. While search and rescue happen quickly, body recovery can take a lot more time – it is common for the team to experience extreme working conditions. TacOps team members are very mindful of who goes into a disaster zone and will provide much needed post-response support after team members return home.
In 2017/2018, when a refugee crisis in northern Uganda reached its tipping point, Matt worked with TacOps and NetHope (a Cisco nonprofit partner), to build networks at NGO (nongovernmental organization) sites, clinics, and offices in the camps, and trained the NGO members to manage these networks. There was one NGO made up of former refugees that he helped train as well.
In 2019, when Venezuelan refugees fled to Colombia, Matt drove for five hours through mountains, along the same treacherous route that refugees were walking, between Cúcuta and Bogata. He set up vital networks at shelters along the route for migrants. “We worked with an NGO that had a splash page set up, so when people logged into the free Wi-Fi, they’d automatically see a map of all the shelters along the way. That’s so important because you see a lot of women and children, a lot of men just walking with backpacks through the cold mountains. People die on this route.”
When he’s not deployed, Matt and the TacOps team maintain their equipment, ensuring it’s up-to-date, and look for ways to innovate and improve technology solutions. The team also provides technical assistance and consulting to nonprofit organizations looking to build their response capabilities and solutions. The TacOps team is providing Cisco product and remote support during the COVID pandemic to help those on the front lines, including COVID call centers, testing centers, and food bank warehouses. A lot of local and regional agencies, as well as municipalities, want to build their own solutions, and Matt works with them too.
Matt is Cisco’s technical engineering liaison for NetHope
TacOps doesn’t enter a disaster zone alone. There is a strong network of NGOs that deploy around the world to provide help where and when it is needed. One of them is NetHope, a consortium of global nonprofit organizations that partners with technology companies, such as Cisco, Google, AWS, and Microsoft, to solve humanitarian and environmental challenges in the most impactful and efficient way.
“I work with NetHope on any of the deployments or architectures or special projects that they have going on. There are some Wi-Fi installation projects in Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, and Rwanda that will support the delivery of digital services, such as education and cash assistance, and the team continue their work in Colombia. TacOps also does training for NetHope’s member NGOs and technology partners to improve disaster response capabilities,” Matt says.
“Partnering with NetHope has a lot of benefits,” Matt explains. “They do disaster response training and work with their members and for the private sector.” When a team is deployed, it can include people from Facebook, Google, or Amazon. “With this training, it’s three days in a classroom and two in the field, and we all have a part to play. For us, it’s standardizing our Meraki deployment.” These trainings improve the technical expertise of NetHope members and familiarize the teams going out in the field to install, set up, and maintain these networks. “Another great thing is we get to do a lot of innovation with non-Cisco products – we have joint labs, and bring in NetHope members, and go through different technologies.”
The work is never done, though. Matt and the TacOps team actively engage with organizations around the world, providing technical support, thought leadership, and capacity-building to these organizations.
Matt is bridging the digital divide
“The services we provide are free. What’s amazing to me is that we have Cisco supporting the kind of work we do, that we’re allowed to do the work we do, and that we’re funded. It’s humbling,” Matt says.
From Haiti to Nepal, there are many memorable moments for Matt, but the recent work he’s done with refugees from Venezuela and Syria have had a profound impact on him.
“Seeing people with their whole lives in a suitcase, walking through mountains; seeing people who didn’t have a lot already, but things became so bad that they had to leave in order to survive – it really puts things into perspective of what’s really important.”
In Greece, Matt helped set up networks in one of the larger refugee camps where Syrians and Afghans lived. The inhabitants were grateful to communicate with their families and learn what was happening in their world. These two groups, who typically do not socialize, came together and prepared a meal for the TacOps team. “It was amazing, genuinely, that they would do that for us,” Matt says. “The food was really good too!”
The intense work conditions have an impact on mental wellbeing. Matt has seen things that haven’t sat well with him. He’s grateful for the support provided by his team and by Cisco. “I don’t really know if there is a right way to cope with the impact of going into and out of these places, but we continue to do what we do. It’s how the people on our team are wired. This is the work that drives us. It gives us meaning. It gives us purpose. And we’ll continue doing it for as long as we can.”
Matt has a refreshing perspective on the work he does. When asked about any lessons learned, he talked about how opportunity can be a driving force for good.
“I was in northern Uganda on an assessment trip with NetHope and UNHCR, talking to one of the UN volunteers. I asked how I was supposed to go back to Cisco to try to explain why these people needed connectivity when they’d never had it before. Their response was, ‘What if they did?’ There’s so much potential – the next lawyer, the next doctor, the next president of one of these countries even, if they just have the same opportunities.”