When you ask those responding to a crisis what one of the key challenges they faced over 80% of them will mention information overflow as the main issue they faced. With improved connectivity this problem has just become more difficult to handle. In an email to OCHA staff one month after the earthquake, John Holmes, which at that time was the Emergency Response Coordinator of the UN pointed out that one of the key issues they faced was the lack of information about the situation.
This may sound like a paradox, that at the same time there is an overflow of information there is also a lack of information. But when you consider the issues the overflow causes it may become obvious why it is hard to generate any actionable information out of that tsunami of information.
The real issue we face is lack of trained information management experts in the field. Although the IASC issued a guidance about 2 years ago on information management within the cluster system, the truth of the matter is that very few of the clusters or response organizations have dedicated, well trained information management specialists. And those that have trained IM specialists may not be able to send them quickly to the location of the most recent disaster.
One of the questions we must therefore ask ourselves is whether we are trying to do too much in the field. Do the improvements in connectivity allow us to move some of the tasks from the field and into other locations that have better connectivity and more resources?
I want to give you a simple example of outsourcing this crisis information management that we in the ICE-SAR team used during our mission to Haiti last January. Late in the evening of day 4 of our mission we found out that early the next morning we would be travelling to the city of Leogane which at that time had not received any assistance. Instead of spending the next few hours, sitting in a tent at the airport in Port-au-Prince with limited connectivity, we contacted the ICE-SAR home support team in Iceland, that was staffed 24/7 with experienced search managers. We asked them to create maps for us and collect all the information they could about Leogane.
When we woke up at 4:30 am the following morning after a couple of hours of precious sleep, we had a PDF document waiting for us in our email inbox. The document contained detailed maps of Leogane, lists of all the major buildings (along with coordinates), contact information about the city council, police, etc. The home support team, sitting in the offices of ICE-SAR back in Iceland had been able to scour the Internet for information, study Google Earth imagery and create this “guide to Leogane” for us. Something that would not only have taken us much longer, but would also have been very expensive for us (remember that 1 Mb of data on a BGAN connection is $6 USD).
We need to take a serious look at the information gather, processing and dissemination efforts we are currently doing in the field and figure out ways to outsource them, either to people in our own organizations sitting in head-quarters or regional offices or “crowdsource/outsource” it to volunteer technology groups that we help train specifically to handle these kind of tasks.