ISSUE 33 April 2006

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

A little learning is a dangerous thing: five years of information management

by Paul Currion, consultant

In 2001, I wrote an article for Humanitarian Exchange about the first year of the Humanitarian Community Information Centre (HCIC) in Kosovo. The HCIC was the start of a trend, as information management has become increasingly important for the humanitarian community, supported by new developments in information and communications technology (ICT). Five years later, it seems appropriate to revisit some of the themes that article raised to see how much progress has been made.

As the article predicted, the concept of field-based information centres is now mainstream, with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) establishing Humanitarian Information Centres (HICs) in a range of locations. The word ‘community’ has been dropped, but the service-oriented approach that made the HCIC successful has been adopted by others, such as the UN Joint Logistics Center (UNJLC). Led by the mine action sector, and particularly the Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA), geographic information systems (GIS) are now seen in a range of sectors. Improvements in satellite communications have made internet connectivity more widespread, supported by groups such as the NetHope consortium, making possible a range of other services.

Despite these advances, we are still a long way from realising the potential of information management. I recently assessed the role of information and technology in agency responses to the Pakistan earthquake in 2005 for the Interagency Working Group on Emergency Capacity (IWG). There were some worrying findings:

  • Both the HIC and the UNJLC established during the earthquake response were perceived as being of limited use by many fieldworkers, who felt that their information products were either not timely or not relevant.
  • Although connectivity in the field has improved, there are still gaps in remote access to the internet for critical applications such as e-mail, let alone corporate applications that are the backbone of an organisation.
  • Many NGOs are becoming over-reliant on cellphone networks – which are cheaper and more convenient than traditional radio communications – without taking into account the negative implications for security management of such an insecure means of communication.
  • There is little coordination of data collection, leading to operational decision-making based on fragmented information – consequent lack of vision at the strategic level.

In the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, the profile of information management in humanitarian operations has never been higher. Despite this, the many discussions about information management have not yet been matched by delivery of results, and many questions remain about whether the technology is being used effectively.

Progress report

The good news is that many initiatives are seeking to support improved information management, often in partnership with the private or academic sector. NetHope has already been mentioned; Ericsson Response Team, Telecoms sans Frontières and Pactec have also provided emergency telecommunications. A recent initiative (supported by academia, the private sector and UN agencies) is developing a GIS data model for humanitarian action. New actors are also coming from outside traditional channels. In the US, Hurricane Katrina prompted volunteers from the technology sector to create a new standard for exchanging data about missing persons, the People Finder Interchange Format (PFIF). Following the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Sahana project – formed by volunteers from Sri Lanka’s technology sector and a global group of emergency specialists – has developed open-source software for disaster management. This software was deployed by the Pakistani government, supported by IBM, following the 2005 earthquake. In general, and inevitably, new technology is becoming more widely used, and information management has become part of the lexicon of coordination.

Five years ago, I believed that better information management would enable better management overall. Yet it is hard to determine whether all this activity has actually improved the provision of humanitarian assistance, since there are no clear criteria for measuring their impact. In most organisations, ICTs are being used increasingly to support communication between headquarters and the field, but this is not necessarily linked to improvements in the effectiveness of aid delivery. In terms of coordination, there is little sign of improvement, and the sector is far behind the latest developments in web-based services, particularly in the area of collaboration.

A key problem is a lack of clear leadership, demonstrated by the new cluster approach to coordination adopted by the UN. There is an ICT cluster, but its complicated arrangement is based on internal UN negotiations, rather than needs on the ground. OCHA has overall responsibility for emergency ICT; the World Food Programme (WFP) leads on security (i.e. radio) communications; and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) leads on data communications (i.e. satellite connectivity). However it remains unclear how actors outside the UN can participate; while WFP offered frequency allocation and repeater services to NGOs in Pakistan, neither OCHA nor UNICEF could clarify their roles as cluster leads.

More problematically, there is no cluster for coordinating data collection. In Pakistan, I found that NGOs were being asked to fill in six different data collection forms for various shelter cluster meetings. The Pakistan response was plagued by familiar problems: multiple assessments in some areas and no assessments in others; data collected in different formats by different agencies; information not being shared effectively. At a coordination meeting in Mansehra, OCHA asked who was happy with the current reporting situation. No one at the meeting put their hand up – but that was not entirely surprising, since nobody was quite sure what ‘reporting’ was defined as, or what was required of their organisations.

In general, my assessment found that reporting is still an extractive activity, designed to channel information up to headquarters rather than improve staff awareness of the situation on the ground. It also confirmed that the existing system of coordination is disjointed, with little opportunity for communication between different meetings. The result is that nobody can build a coherent and comprehensive picture of a given situation for decision-making. Everybody struggles to make sense of the overall situation, and we are left with decision-making in silos, on a limited sectoral or geographic basis.

Better information = better management

All emergencies have similar problems of information fragmentation, created by the need to function in rapidly changing environments, with multiple sources of information and many demands made upon staff for information from outside the organisation. The models of situation reporting and coordination meetings mentioned above suggest that current policies might be contributing to this problem, rather than mitigating it. Fragmentation is an inevitable part of our work; the question is, how do we deal with it?

One way is to collate baseline data and assessments to create a shared understanding of the situation. HICs have tried to do this, often through the mechanism of the Rapid Assessment. The success of the Rapid Village Assessment in Kosovo suggested that it might be possible for the humanitarian community to coordinate assessments, both to ensure consistent coverage and to collect data in a common format. Attempts to repeat the exercise in other locations have, however, never been able to create the shared resource that was hoped for. A study of the Iraq rapid assessment process concluded that, while the costs were certain, the benefits were not.

Common services seem to offer an answer, providing a neutral space – the ‘honest broker’ – to collate and disseminate information from all, for the use of all, with no agenda of their own since they are not carrying out programme activities. Although this is an idealised version of how common services work, one real problem with the present model is that, generally, humanitarian agencies are not required to pay for them and, as a result, do not value them. Common services may also need to build in more capacity development for their clients, both governmental and non-governmental; there is little point in a HIC providing a map to an organisation that cannot read it.

This goes both ways; organisations must invest more strategically in using technology more effectively to manage information, improving decision-making processes based on that information, and sharing information with the community. ‘Investment’ does not necessarily mean additional financial resources – it can mean better allocation of existing resources at the right time. GIS is a perfect example of this.

While GIS is very useful for map-making, its true strength is in analysis – yet we rarely see any significant analytical products. (Francesco Pisano noted this in his article for Humanitarian Exchange in December 2005, when he argued that ‘we should see geographic applications as analytical instruments rather than simply orientation tools’). In order to do this, GIS requires investment – agreeing standards for collecting and sharing data, developing models for analysing and presenting it, collecting baseline data for countries at risk in order to save valuable time when disaster strikes.

For this, there needs to be more leadership. If the UN is serious about the cluster approach, a cluster must be created to address the question of data collection and needs assessment. Greater authority needs to be given to common services to take a lead on behalf of the community. The NGO community – led by groups such as the IWG – need to accept their share of responsibility for coordination of information; if a service provider such as the HIC is not delivering what they need, NGOs need to articulate this and work with the HIC to ensure that it does.

Conclusions

There is still enormous potential to effect real changes in the humanitarian sector, changes that could improve the coordination of relief delivery, better engage beneficiary communities, reduce inefficiencies within organisations and build more sustainable resources for recovery and reconstruction. This potential has not been recognised; just as five years ago, information is still perceived as a tool to gain donor funds, win media attention or accrue political influence. The idea that better information gives us a strategic advantage in fundraising – that donors fund us on the basis of the quality of our assessments – is both ridiculous and worrying. Donor funds should not be distributed according to how well needs assessments are carried out, but according to how well the project proposals address the needs those assessments reveal.

We are public organisations, funded by public money, working for the public good. In the interests of accountability, all information that we gather in the course of our work should also be public. The only qualification that should be made to this is if that information might in any way endanger the safety or security of beneficiaries or staff. Without the free flow of information, the process of coordination is crippled, and we all must take responsibility for this.

This is not simply another plea from an aid worker to his colleagues to make his work easier by sharing information. Lack of information kills – the absence of effective early-warning systems in the tsunami, for instance, meant that the death-toll was far higher than it needed to be. We freely acknowledge that the most important actors in any emergency are affected individuals and communities themselves, but a survey carried out by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) found ‘a serious lack of information about reconstruction flowing to affected communities which is having a material impact on their ability to recover from the tsunami’.

In all our discussions about information management, in our investment in better technology, we seldom talk about sharing information with those who need it most – the communities that we claim to be helping. Efforts to bridge the digital divide are being made all over the world, but few of them are in the humanitarian sector, even though this would not necessarily cost a huge amount of money. Our failure to share information with beneficiaries exposes our humanitarian principles as worth much less than we claim. With this in mind, perhaps we should revisit that word ‘community’ in the first Humanitarian Community Information Centre, five years ago.

Paul Currion runs a consultancy specialising in information management for humanitarian operations (http://www.humanitarian.info). He is currently carrying out an assessment for the Interagency Working Group looking at improving the use of ICT to respond to emergencies. This article was written in a private capacity, and does not necessarily represent the views of IWG members.

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