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Interactive videos make it easier – and cheaper – to train aid workers in the field

Smile Train camp for patients with cleft palate and cleft lip in Hitech Medical College, Rourkela. (Credit: Sadasiv Swain/Flickr)

Before the internet was as globally accessible as it is today, many aid workers in lower-income countries were, in some ways, off the map. Now, more of the world has web access (although the majority still don’t), and aid workers in the field can more easily access critical information that saves time, money and lives.

One way this global connectivity is utilized in the humanitarian sector is to train workers through new and interactive video technologies, making it more cost- and time-effective than ever to train workers who are already in the field.

The Virtual Surgery Simulator (VSS) is one of such technologies, developed by Smile Train, the world’s largest cleft charity, in collaboration with technology company BioDigital Inc. to address the challenge of training cleft surgeons around the world. The VSS is effectively a 3D, web-based, interactive tool that provides instruction and training on cleft anatomy and complex cleft surgical procedures.

The tool was designed to provide additional training for surgeons in developing countries to repair cleft lips and palates, the most common facial deformity, which affects more than 170,000 children every year.

“Textbooks can really only paint a two-dimensional picture for training, but the simulator demonstrates a vivid three-dimensional representation of each step of a given surgical procedure,” said Priya K. Desai, director of strategic partnerships at Smile Train, in an interview with Humanosphere.

The VSS provides a completely manipulable context, allowing the user to zoom in, zoom out, see anatomy labels, listen to voice over instructions and juxtapose the animations with actual surgical footage from the operating room.

“Simulators of this caliber are very costly,” explained Desai. “They’re usually used by residents, fellows, academic medical centers, and they can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars.”

But Smile Train is the first organization to take virtual surgery simulation and make it readily – and, importantly, freely – available to anyone who has access to the internet.

Smile Train’s VSS was released to the public in early 2014. The training is available in English, Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese, and the developers are working on adding additional languages.

U.K.-based project Mission Ready works in a similar vein; the interactive online security training platform, developed by RedR U.K. and Digital Training Solutions, enhances learning for aid workers in the field by using a real-time, “point-of-view” video scenarios.

“This is really a new solution to an age-old problem in the humanitarian sector,” said Aaron Walawalkar, project officer at Mission Ready, in an interview with Humanosphere. “It most benefits aid workers in the field who, through issues of practicality, may not be able to access other forms of security training.”

The video game-type technology is not new, but the way it’s being used – putting aid workers in the kind of situations they are likely to face in the field, often in dangerous, violent regions of the world – is unprecedented. An initial course on field security management was launched in October and has already taken off nationally and around the world.

Mission Ready is releasing its next course on remote security management later this summer.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at