SIMS Platforms and Tools Overview
Resources and Standards

SIMS Platforms and Tools Overview

Coordination platforms

As a global network of remote supporters, SIMS takes advantage of a number of platforms to help coordinate our responses, collaborate on products, and promote our work. Below is a list of the most common tools we use to help us work together.

SIMS Portal

  • Users: All members should sign up for an account. SIMS Administrators and Portal Administrator have additional privileges.
  • Timeframe: Site is always available. When SIMS is activated, the emergency page is set up to capture assignments, and closed out when SIMS’ involvement is complete.
  • Licensing requirements: Site is currently hosted by AmRC on an existing Amazon web services account.
  • Alternatives: N/A

The SIMS Portal is a platform that serves as both a way to communicate with external audiences about our work, and to serve as a light data management solution for members to share assets, promote their work, access documentation, and find learning resources.


  • Users: All members should have access to the Slack team.
  • Timeframe: Slack is used to coordinate SIMS responses through dedicated channels, and are archived once the response has been closed out. Non-response related channels are always available.
  • Licensing requirements: Slack account is provided at no cost by American Red Cross through a non-profit offer from the company.
  • Alternatives: In cases where a user has the Slack app blocked on their machine or network, a web-based version is available. If that is also inaccessible, the SIMS Remote Coordinator may propose alternative methods of communicating with those members that are having trouble. Making them a guest on a Microsoft Teams account, or reverting to email, may be simplest.

The SIMS network uses Slack to coordinate on response operations. Slack allows members to centralize their communication about a given emergency and helps with knowledge management by maintaining a fully-searchable history of all conversations. SIMS Coordinators use those emergency-specific channels to post task requests, alert the team to any urgent needs from the field, and to share any useful information about the operation. In order to streamline communication, it is recommended that only people that are willing and able to provide remote support join these channels.

In addition to helping coordinate with the network during a response, the SIMS Slack account also has a variety of channels for specific topics of interest. These can be used to share useful tips or to ask relevant questions. SIMS always strives for openness and transparency, and for that reason, we recommend that all channels remain public unless the members have a clear reason for making them private.

See Using Slack for SIMS guide to learn more about how to make use of the tool.


  • Users: Only members that will be actively providing remote support to an operation, and any deployed IM responders. SIMS Remote Coordinator is responsible for set up and member-access management.
  • Timeframe: A new Trello board is created by the first SIMS Remote Coordinator when SIMS is activated.
  • Licensing requirements: All Trello boards have to be associated with a specific workspace. There is a SIMS workspace where boards are hosted, but due to limitations on the free tier, it is necessary to delete old boards. Given the large number of supporters per operation, it is recommended that we continue using the free tier—paying per user would quickly spiral beyond our means.
  • Alternatives: We have not seen any issues with users accessing Trello, but there are a number of alternatives available. If users are looking for a free and open source alternative, I’ve tested, which works well but has a steep learning curve for the person setting it up.

Trello functions as a Kanban board to visually manage tasks and track progress on them. Each task becomes a card, and users can be assigned to those cards, along with additional metadata like the task’s solicitor in the operation, the deadline for completion, specific directions on completing the request, and more. Cards should be where most of the communication about that specific request happens among SIMS supporters and the SIMS Remote Coordinator.

See Setting Up Trello Boards to learn more about best practices for creating new boards and inviting members to them.


  • Users: Only members that will be actively providing remote support to an operation, and any deployed IM responders. SIMS Remote Coordinator is responsible for set up and member-access management.
  • Timeframe: A new Dropbox folder is created by the first SIMS Remote Coordinator when SIMS is activated.
  • Licensing Requirements: Responses should have their own Dropbox instance, and each one needs to be associated with an account. It is recommended that we maintain a Dropbox Business (or other paid account) among the SIMS network to serve as the repository for all response folders. Dropbox offers free accounts for users looking to store less than 2 GB of data or who just need to access files from the operation’s account.
  • Alternatives: The most direct alternative is Microsoft SharePoint, but we’ve found that this tool introduces too many overlapping and confusing user access issues. Dropbox is more compatible with different operating systems and has simpler sharing tools. If, for whatever reason, operations cannot use Dropbox, it is recommended to use Google Drive, but to still use the same default folder template.

SIMS remote supporters need access to large datasets, design assets, and product working folders, and Dropbox is the platform we use to facilitate that. The first round SIMS Remote Coordinator is tasked with creating the folder and using the proper default folder structure. They then manage access by selectively inviting people that need access to those files. Given the sensitive data we may sometimes manage in the form of surveys, registrations, and other sources with potentially personally-identifiable information, it is highly recommended that the Coordinator only share access with a select group of people directly involved in the operation, and routinely remove access as people shift away from support.


  • Users: Any members interested in joining the weekly SIMS call or in joining event-specific calls hosted by the SIMS Remote Coordinator.
  • Timeframe: Zoom is used both in blue-sky periods and activations.
  • Licensing requirements: Zoom offers free accounts for anyone to join a call, or to host their own call with a time limit. Paid accounts offer additional features, including cloud recording storage.
  • Alternatives: The most commonly-used alternative is Microsoft Teams. However, it is recommended to use Zoom thanks to simpler calling and sharing features, as well as more straightforward access—Teams requires Microsoft 365, which many volunteers do not have.

Zoom is the default video calling platform used by SIMS. It’s used on a weekly basis for the standard SIMS call, as well as during response activations. The tool offers meeting recording, which is recommended to use in order to share the calls with people that cannot attend.

Product creation tools

The SIMS network utilizes a variety of tools that help us create products and provide support to the field.

Adobe Creative Suite

  • Users: Members tasked with creating infographics or other visual products.
  • Timeframe: Adobe licenses are likely only necessary during response activations rather than for blue-sky activities.
  • Licensing requirements: Adobe licenses can be purchased on a monthly or annual basis. Some national societies may maintain licenses that can be loaned out. The company makes it easy to subscribe to the full suite or to select specific programs , so procuring licenses on an ad hoc, monthly basis may be cheaper than maintaining year-round coverage.
  • Alternatives: The most commonly used program within the suite during SIMS operations is Illustrator, which offers powerful tools for building vector-based graphics. However, there are many free and open-source alternatives that can both create and read files formatted for Illustrator. It is recommended that users with access to Illustrator use it when possible, but if collaboration with other users without access to a license is necessary, then export the file in a more open format like .svg. The most commonly-used free alternative is Inkscape.

SIMS frequently produces materials using tools within the Adobe Creative Suite. The most commonly-used are Illustrator for creating infographics and finishing map layouts, and InDesign for creating pamphlets, reports, and other documents. Members tend to work with these programs because of the power and stability they provide, as well as the flexibility they offer for opening and exporting files to a variety of formats. It is recommended that teams that put people forward to support operations with creative products maintain these licenses on an annual basis.

If cost or computer power is a barrier to utilizing these tools, free alternatives for each of the main Creative Suite offerings are available. Members collaborating on the same product can use different tools so long as a common file format is used. Illustrator has a proprietary format called .ai that is used by default, but other tools can still open those files. Should a compatibility issue arise, the file should be converted to an open format like .svg.


  • Users: Members tasked with geospatial tasks.
  • Timeframe: Used during response operations and during blue-sky periods.
  • Licensing requirements: QGIS is a free tool with no limitations on Windows, macOS, and Linux.
  • Alternatives: Most alternatives to QGIS are paid, enterprise-grade tools like ArcGIS. These tools can be used when necessary, as some paid options have features that are not yet available on QGIS. If users are collaborating on GIS products across multiple programs, they must choose file formats that are compatible with each.

Given the cost and licensing complexity of enterprise GIS tools like ArcGIS, SIMS prefers to use QGIS to save money and lower the barriers to entry for remote supporters. It is common to use QGIS to compose a map, then move it into Illustrator to finish the layout and make the final product more visually appealing.

New Platform and Licensing Review Process

The list above features platforms and tools that are most commonly-used, but the way that SIMS operates, the types of emergency response operations we support, and advances in available technology means we also need a way to make informed decisions around adding new things to our toolbox. This section proposes a framework for evaluating and implementing new tools.

New tools—used either at the level of SIMS as an institution or by remote supporters filling specific technical gaps in an operation—must be accessible. That means that tools are low-cost or free, open-source, available across the globe, have localization features that allow people that speak different languages to make use of them, and limit the risk of sensitive data being exposed.


While it can be tempting to look across the landscape of software offerings and be drawn to the fully-featured enterprise-grade solution, cost remains an important barrier to adoption for SIMS. This is because SIMS as a group lacks the resources to buy or subscribe to expensive software, and because the remote supporters and national societies that we work with can’t be expected to foot the bill for our solutions.

When reviewing options for new tools, always search for low-cost or free tools that reduce the barrier to entry for others in our collaborative work. Remember that there are more costs to consider beyond the advertised price. Costs to be mindful of include, but are not limited to:

  • Data storage and maintenance
  • Upgrade costs as versions and features are deprecated
  • Training of new users or development of training materials
  • Import and export of data from one platform to another

Open source

A common misconception around open source software is that this label equates to free. Open source simply means that the underlying source code is made freely available, but developers can still charge money for using it. That important distinction aside, SIMS still strives to use open source software wherever possible. This is because open source software offers freedom and flexibility that many proprietary tools lack. Open source tools remove barriers to the data that we generate, gather, manipulate, and analyze, making it easier to move it between platforms without being locked into a single provider. It also means more people are able to inspect the fundamentals of the tool and gain greater insight into potential issues.

Widely available

Certain tools and platforms have barriers that prevent people from using them. This can be because some tools are too taxing for less-powerful computers, legal limitations within certain countries, or require high-bandwidth internet connectivity.

When evaluating new tools, be sure to consider the technical requirements. If you’re looking at software that runs locally on a computer, review the minimum hardware requirements—especially the processor, RAM, and storage. If you need advice or technical guidance in reviewing these requirements, feel free to reach out to the hardware and networking channel.

Some tools have limitations either from the developer or the regulatory bodies in the country where we’re working around how and where they can be deployed. For example, some tools may store data in data centers located in countries where national laws in the country where we’re responding prevent us from sending personally-identifiable information about its citizens. Always review privacy policies—some privacy policies can be long and complicated to understand, and sites like TOSDR can help summarize and catch those red flags.

Lastly, always keep bandwidth in mind. Many users take fast connections for granted and forget that many parts of the world still rely on slower internet than you might take for granted. As such, we always prefer to use tools that can be run locally on a computer rather than via bandwidth-hungry web apps. Sites like this can help you get a sense for speeds by country.


SIMS’s greatest strength is our global network, but that also raises the challenge of picking tools that we can also use in our own language. While English is most commonly used during coordination among SIMS members, it’s important to implement tools and platforms that allow users to interact with them in languages other than English. When reviewing tools, always try to prioritize ones that, at the very minimum, support the three other IFRC official languages of Arabic, French, and Spanish.


SIMS routinely deals with datasets that are sensitive, such as beneficiary registration lists, security maps, internal scenario planning documents, and more. While there is no solution that can be 100% secure, we should always strive to mitigate the risk of data being leaked or accessed by unauthorized parties.

When evaluating tools, always ask questions like:

  • Does the vendor prioritize security? The documentation or marketing materials should call out whether they have a team dedicated to security, how they encrypt data (look for both encryption while stored and in transit), what sort of physical and digital security measures are taken to prevent unauthorized access, etc.
  • Does the vendor’s Service Level Agreement (SLA) guarantee a certain amount of uptime, reliability, backup, and security?

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