Monday, September 12, 2011

Pakistan Floods - Use of Information and Communication Technology

One of the things that I spent a great deal of my time during the first half of this year is being launched today. With great support from Intel and Microsoft we at NetHope are launching a 60 page case study report on the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in the Pakistan floods last year.

In this report we look at how the humanitarian community responded, how ICT played a role in the response and how information management was utilized during the response.

Back in 2006, Paul Currion wrote a report on the use of ICT in the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. In our report we look back at his findings and identify ways in which things have progressed in these five years. Interestingly enough in many cases not much has changed.

One of the key things that has changed in these five years is easier access to connectivity. Whereas in 2005 most organizations relied upon V-SATs as the only available connection, the humanitarian organizations today relied much more upon broadband and mobile connections.

It is our hope that this report provides a great insight into the state of ICT and information management within the humanitarian system and that it generates discussions on how to further improve.

I want to use this opportunity to thank all those who contributed to the report, either by responding to our survey or be willing to participate in our interviews. Last but not least I want to thank everyone who helped review my often rough text and special thanks to our media queen Paige for making the report look so nice.

The report can be downloaded here

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The importance of having good baseline data

Information and communication is the lifeline of any disaster response. It is critical for people on the ground to convey the situation, as well as the urgent need for supplies and relief in specific locations. It helps organizations collaborate to avoid duplicative effort and gaps in assistance.

The crisis response community has long known that the use of information and communications technology (ICT) can quickly coordinate efforts, thereby making their work more targeted and effective. Recent improvements in ICT, such as availability of BGANs, WiMax and WiFi mesh networks, provide an opportunity to improve information sharing, not only within organizations but also between them.

This blog post illustrates the need for a coordinated collection of baseline data in disaster prone countries through a cross-organizational, multi-phased approach.

The humanitarian sector has the opportunity to harness technological advancements to improve information-sharing during a crisis. Technology is not the solution. But it is a significant tool that can enhance intelligent and immediate decision-making.

The State of Crisis Information Management

Numerous challenges in information management arise when responding to a major disaster or conflict, such as:
  • recording the damage to housing, infrastructure, and services
  • tracking displaced populations
  • distributing the massive influx of humanitarian supplies
  • coordinating the work in and between clusters, as well as the work of dozens of agencies outside the cluster approach
A recent survey of organizations that responded to the devastating earthquake in Haiti pointed out that one of the key issues they faced was an overall lack of baseline information about the situation in the country. For many of the UN clusters operating, it took months to get a comprehensive overview of what the situation was like before the earthquake struck, and then to start understanding what effects it had.

In Haiti the situation was particularly devastating because almost all government offices and ministries had been destroyed in the earthquake, and most of their data systems were lost. This is a common issue faced by response organizations around the world.

Baseline and post-disaster information is collected and controlled by many autonomous parties, including national authorities, many of whom may be working together for the first time. Due to the lack of a common repository of baseline data, organizations spend considerable amount of time either recreating the data or searching for it. Therefore, it is important to improve access to, and interoperability of, data collected before, during, and after an emergency. This is essential to building better response capacity.

Humanitarian response to sudden onset disasters requires:
  • rapid assessment of the spatial distribution of affected people and existing resources
  • good geographical information to plan initial response actions
  • shared knowledge of which organizations are working where (who-what-where or “3W data”) so that response can be coordinated to avoid gaps and overlaps in aid
This applies to any humanitarian response. But in a sudden onset disaster, the timeframes of information supply and demand are severely compressed. Pre-assembled information resources for the affected area may not exist. Even in areas where development projects have been present before the crisis occurred, data is often dispersed and unknown by the wider humanitarian community, or cannot be accessed and assimilated quickly enough.

Recurring data problems include:
  • Discoverable data. Data is either not made available to, or is not discoverable by, relevant organizations.
  • Available data. Data may not be immediately accessible, archived, or stored/backed up in a location outside of the devastated area.
  • Released data. Data sets may be subject to legal restrictions. Even if these restrictions are waived for humanitarian use, there may be problems with immediate authorization and redistribution.
  • Formatted data. Data may be unsuitable for direct import into a database or GIS system, and may require substantial processing.
  • Conflicting data.
Emergencies create an ever increasing number of information web portals, which is in itself a good thing. However, it can be problematic when the data is rapidly evolving. The enthusiasm to (re)publish as much information as possible can lead to confusion and inefficiencies, as users search through multiple copies of similar looking data to extract what is new or different.

The above issues are widely recognized by practitioners in humanitarian information management. Still, these problems recur in almost every sudden onset disaster emergency, in both developed and developing countries.

Each emergency brings together a unique collection of local, national and international humanitarian players. Some are experienced emergency responders, and some are not. Some are government-endorsed, whilst others are simply concerned citizens. While there will be some common elements across every emergency (government, UN agencies, major INGOs), the varying roles played by each makes it impossible to predict a ‘humanitarian blueprint’ for each new emergency. This vast range of experience, resources, and mandates, can make sharing response best practices extremely difficult.

Common problems with baseline data can - and must - be resolved for each emergency. For example:
  • During the initial days of an emergency, the main coordinating agencies agree at a national or local level which administration boundaries and P-code datasets should be used for coordination. It is critical that this decision is communicated to everyone involved in the disaster response.
  • Humanitarian assessment templates and base map data should be standardized and made compatible.
  • The supply of baseline data should be driven by the information needs of the humanitarian response. Priorities differ from emergency to emergency, and this presents a constant challenge in using limited resources to meet urgent information needs at each stage of the response.
  • The information needed by the affected community is not necessarily the same as the information demanded by large humanitarian agencies.
A well-coordinated humanitarian response will use multiple datasets, created by different personnel in different agencies, describing a highly dynamic and multi-faceted situation. To make these datasets interoperable and manageable imposes a higher overhead cost. But to create a data model that is planned strategically versus reactively will minimize that cost.

Moving forward

A multi-agency effort is essential to improve the availability and accessibility to baseline and crisis information. This needs to be a collaborative effort of the entire humanitarian response community with support and involvement of the private and academic sectors. The now no longer existing IASC Task Force on Information Management did a good job by defining what the Core and Fundamental Operational Datasets (COD/FOD) are that we need to collect for each country, but the difficult part is to actually ensure they are available for each country and that those that have been collected are actually kept up to date.

We at NetHope are looking at new and innovative ways to address this and are looking for organizations who are interested in working with us on this. If you want to work with us on this, feel free to reach out to me for further information.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Starting from the end

Over the last two years we have had endless discussions about how crowd sourced information is going to change the way we do crisis information management. Some people go as far to say as the regular humanitarian information management is dead and that the time of crowd has come. But one thing that we have yet to show is that all this crowd sourced information actually provides the humanitarian response community with actionable information. We have a few anecdotes of individual reports being helpful, but no overall study of the effectiveness.

I have lately been talking to a number of colleagues from the humanitarian community and one of the best hint at how to solve this came from Lars Peter Nissen from ACAPS. He pointed out that when they are planning needs assessments they start by defining what decisions they want to try to affect by the needs assessment. Then they work their way backwards and design an assessment that helps provide the answers needed to make that decisions.

When deciding to do a crowd sourced project for a disaster or crisis response, we must do the same. We must first define what decisions we are trying to affect. Once we know what decisions we want to try to affect, we need to define what information we would use as the basis for making these decisions. Once we know what information we would use as basis, we should look at what is the best way to visualize that information to optimize the decision making. In the age of crowd sourcing we have focused a bit too much on the power of geospatial visualization, but often graphs, trends or tables can help us make a better decision.

Once we know what decisions we want to help facilitate and how we want to visualize them, then we can start thinking of how we can get data from the crowd and through data processing and data analysis turn that data into this information. This may lead us to ask the crowds for more controlled questions or for our media monitoring teams to monitor reports of certain data instead of trying to capture all the available data out there. We can then look at ways of either automatically process the data or use a mechanical turk to utilize a "crowd" to do that processing. Same applies to taking that processed data and analyzing it. This can either be automatic or done via a crowd of people.

So before the next major disaster happens and we activate the digital volunteers lets sit down and define the end product first and then work our way back. This way we can really ensure that all this digital volunteer effort is utilized to the max.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The need for a coordinated awareness campaign to raise funds for Horn of Africa famine response

We are currently experiencing one of the worst famine in the last half a century. Over 10 million of people are in dire need of support and thousands of children are dying. Yet the organizations responding to this crisis are not able to respond because of lack of funding. Only 50% of the required funding has been committed so far.

The press has been showing us terrible images of children dying from malnutrition yet we are more focused on the results of sensational court cases, potential collapses of Hollywood marriages or the temporary hiccups in the economy.

It is time we utilize technology to help raise awareness and help the great organizations working on this terrible tragedy raise funds for their work. But how do we make that awareness and fundraising easier for those that want to help?

1) We create a set of awareness building short messages that can be used by people. Sentences like these:

Refugees in #Dadaab walk for 20+ days to try to save their children - leaving everything behind #HoACrisis
Every day parents in #Dadaab bury their children - who were too far along to be saved from malnutrition #HoACrisis

2) We get permissions to link to images that move people. These can come from organizations working on the response or from media outlets and professional photographers. We create short links to include those in the awareness messages

3) We provide a landing page with a simple short link that contains a collection of organizations working on the crisis - something like this page from MSNBC on how to help with Famine Response

4) We get people and organizations with large number of followers on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ to send out any of the short messages they feel touched by.

5) We get popular website to include these short messages on their websites, catching the "eyeballs" and gearing people towards the landing page.

6) We work together to create a global awareness of the situation, instead of individually trying to create awareness one by one.

So what is needed to get something like this off the ground? A will to collaborate. A will to make a difference. A will to get steps 1-6 done through the best resources out there - YOU!!!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Addressing the lack of humanitarian information standards

It was fourteen years ago that a group of humanitarian NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement came together and created the Sphere Project which defined minimum standards for disaster response. The cornerstone of the Sphere Handbook was the Humanitarian Charter which describes the core principles that govern humanitarian action. On top of this there are minimum standards and indicators defined that currently are utilized as a reference all disaster response.

Some of the Sphere core standard do address information sharing, like the following excerpt show:

Core Standard 1 – People Centered Humanitarian Response

People have a right to accurate and updated information about actions taken on their behalf. Information can reduce anxiety and is an essential foundation of community responsibility and ownership. At a minimum, agencies should provide a description of the agency’s mandate and project(s), the population’s entitlements and rights, and when and where to access assistance (see HAP’s ‘sharing information’ benchmark). Common ways of sharing information include noticeboards, public meetings, schools, newspapers and radio broadcasts. The information should demonstrate considered understanding of people’s situations and be conveyed in local language(s), using a variety of adapted media so that it is accessible to all those concerned. For example, use spoken communications or pictures for children and adults who cannot read, use uncomplicated language (i.e. understandable to local 12-year-olds) and employ a large typeface when printing information for people with visual impairments. Manage meetings so that older people or those with hearing difficulties can hear.

Core Standard 2 – Coordination and Collaboration

  • Be informed of the responsibilities, objectives and coordination role of the  state and other coordination groups where present.
  • Provide coordination groups with information about the agency’s mandate,  objectives and programme.
  • Share assessment information with the relevant coordination groups in a  timely manner and in a format that can be readily used by other humanitarian agencies
  • Use programme information from other humanitarian agencies to inform  analysis, selection of geographical area and response plans.
  • Regularly update coordination groups on progress, reporting any major delays, agency shortages or spare capacity.

Efficient data-sharing will be enhanced if the information is easy to use (clear, relevant, brief) and follows global humanitarian protocols which are technically compatible with other agencies’ data. The exact frequency of data-sharing is agency- and context-specific but should be prompt to remain relevant. Sensitive information should remain confidential

Core Standard 3 – Assessment

Pre-disaster information: A collaborative pooling of existing information is invaluable for initial and rapid assessments. A considerable amount of information is almost always available about the context (e.g. political, social, economic, security, conflict and natural environment) and the people (such as their sex, age, health, culture, spirituality and education). Sources of this information include the relevant state ministries (e.g. health and census data), academic or research institutions, community-based organisations and local and international humanitarian agencies present before the disaster. Disaster preparedness and early warning initiatives, new developments in shared web-based mapping, crowd-sourcing and mobile phone platforms (such as Ushahidi) have also generated databases of relevant information.

Initial assessments, typically carried out in the first hours following a disaster, may be based almost entirely on second-hand information and pre-existing data. They are essential to inform immediate relief needs and should be carried out and shared immediately.

Data disaggregation: Detailed disaggregation is rarely possible initially but is of critical importance to identify the different needs and rights of children and adults of all ages. At the earliest opportunity, further disaggregate by sex and age for children 0–5 male/female, 6–12 male/female and 13–17 male/female, and then in 10-year age brackets, e.g. 50–59, male/female; 60–69, male/female; 70–79, male/female; 80+, male/female.

Sharing assessments: Assessment reports provide invaluable information to other humanitarian agencies, create baseline data and increase the transparency of response decisions. Regardless of variations in individual agency design, assessment reports should be clear and concise, enable users to identify priorities for action and describe their methodology to demonstrate the reliability of data and enable a comparative analysis if required.

One of the key issues that is hindering effective humanitarian coordination is that information is not being shared effectively between the various response organizations. Many of them don’t see value in sharing information and often feel that sharing information with others will hurt their own ability to gather funds and drive their own programs forward.

What we need is a Humanitarian Information Charter that describes the core principles that govern humanitarian information sharing and management. These should define why organizations should share and as organizations endorse this charter they commit to sharing information with each other.

It is however not enough to tell organizations to share. Information needs to be shared in such a manner that it can also be compared to other information and analyzed for trends. However during almost every recent emergency data being shared has not been compatible with data coming from other organizations. Lot of effort has been needed to convert the data into compatible formats and often the analysis is delayed so long that the data becomes irrelevant by the time it becomes available. This in return leads to organizations not seeing any value in sharing information.

It is amazing that we have had organizations like UNGIWG active for over 10 years and we have had the global clusters for over 5 years now and the IASC Task Force on Information Management active for over two years now  and yet none of these have managed to agree upon standards for representing the information required to effectively coordinate disasters.

Those of us sitting in some of these bodies and having representatives in them must take the blame for not putting focus on the right things in our efforts there. If we want information sharing then we must ensure information interoperability. We ensure information interoperability by defining the data standards for how to share each type of information.

We have 20-30 types of spreadsheets and databases for each dataset that we want to capture. Now that we have finally agreed upon what the common and fundamental datasets are, then we must agree upon the format for sharing them. Once we have defined that standard, then we must actually agree to use it and nothing else.

We must then go through each cluster and ensure we define the core standards for each dataset that needs to be captured and shared to ensure effective coordination in the cluster.

Once we have the standards defined, we can actually start sharing templates and databases for collecting this data. Then we can even move forward and start sharing data capture applications and analysis modules. Then we can actually start comparing data from different organizations.

It is important for all of us to stop arguing about politics for a while and start addressing this core issue. We must understand that no data standard will be perfect and we must move towards minimum data standards and not perfect data standards.

I hereby challenge all the global cluster members as well as all the workgroup and task force members to give themselves 6 months to agree upon these standards. What we have at the end of six months will what we will use as the version 1 of the Humanitarian Information Standards. Aim for simplicity and interoperability instead of perfection and silos of data.

I am ready to work on a Humanitarian Information Charter and put together the minimum standards for humanitarian information sharing – are you?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Japan Visit

I recently had the great opportunity to visit Japan for the second time since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11th this year. My first visit was roughly 2 weeks after the disaster and at that time I spent most of my time in Tokyo coordinating ICT support to the NetHope members active in Japan. During my first visit, things were starting to get back into normal in the capital Tokyo, although almost constant aftershocks brought people back to the reality of what had occurred just a few weeks earlier. It was however great to see the tireless efforts of the various non-profit organizations to provide support to those affected. Even in a well prepared country like Japan, there are simply not sufficient government resources and expertise to deal with something of this magnitude.
PWJ Staff using donated laptop
During this visit we handed out a total of 250 laptops to NetHope members and their local implementation partners. NetHope received these laptops as generous in-kind donations from Dell and HP and they were all configured ready to use, thanks to another generous donation, this of one of software from Microsoft Corporation. Getting them shipped over to Japan was also made possible by yet another generous donation, this one of shipping services from DHL.
Local Chapter Meeting
This time I spent half my time in Tokyo and the other half visiting the affected areas in Miyagi and Iwake prefectures. While in Tokyo I followed up on projects we started back in March and also had the great opportunity to attend the inaugural meeting of the NetHope Japan Chapter. This was the 12th local chapter we have established within NetHope. Local NetHope chapters play a very important role when disasters strike, because they enable coordination at the local level between the NetHope member organizations. It has often been said that having established relationships with other humanitarian organization is the key to successful coordination and we have seen this a number of times in countries that have local NetHope chapters when disaster strikes. Just knowing who your colleagues are allows for spontaneous coordination and collaboration to happen. During the inaugural meeting we also had representatives from our partners Cisco and Microsoft Japan (who graciously hosted the meeting). This is important as well, since it builds partnerships between the local NetHope members and the local offices of NetHope partners.
Fields of debris in Iwake
During my first visit, the phase of the disaster changed from the immediate rescue phase to the relief phase. Focus shifted from searching for survivors in the rubble to providing relief services to those that had survived. Most people had moved into evacuation centers and the main focus was to ensure they were receiving food, shelter and other basic services. It was therefore interesting that during my second visit there was also a change in phase. Focus was shifting from the relief services to recovery or reconstruction. Temporary housing has already been set up for a large portion of those affected and the plan is to move everyone out of evacuation centers by the end of the summer.

Sleeping area in evacuation center
Although life in the evacuation center is no luxury, people sharing auditoriums and gyms with hundreds of other people, it also provided a safety net of some sorts for many people. While staying in the evacuation centers they got food, clothing and had access to other basic services, all for free. Moving into the temporary housing, although free, requires people to pay for electricity, food, telephone and other basic needs. This means that they have to find jobs to be able to afford these basic necessities. Many of those affected used to work in the fishing industry and due to the destructive force of the tsunami the boats, factories and harbors along the coast were all destroyed. A number of NetHope member organizations are working with local authorities in the affected communities on creating new livelihood opportunities for these people.
One of the great things about this trip was that I got Paul Chiswell, who is a director at our great partner and supporter Cisco to join me for the trip. Paul and I sit together on a sub-committee of the US State Department that focuses on ICT support during international disasters. During the initial weeks of the Japan earthquake/tsunami response, having relationships with people in the US State Department had helped us at NetHope tremendously in getting ICT equipment shipped over to Japan without it getting blocked in customs for days or weeks like so often happens. The US State Department and the FCC got us in touch with their counterparts within the Japanese government and as a result we were able to pre-warn the customs authorities that this equipment was coming and that since it was being used for relief services then it would not get stopped by customs. For him it was a great opportunity to see not only how generous support, both financial and in-kind in the form of networking equipment from Cisco had helped, but also to see how some of the work we had done in the sub-committee was already being put in practice.

Me and Paul visited the affected areas in Sendai and Shichigahama in Miyagi and Ofunato, Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma in Iwake prefectures. No words can describe the amount of destruction we witnessed. Close to 400km of coastline had pretty much been wiped out. Everything below 10-20m of altitude along the coast had been either seriously damaged or completely destroyed. What was however surprising was to see how houses built above the line of destruction had actually suffered less damage than I had expected. Reason for this was the fact that building codes in Japan are very strict and houses are built to withstand earthquakes. This is reflected in the fact that estimates are that only a few hundred people at most died in the earthquake itself. It was mainly the tsunami that followed that resulted in the massive loss of life.
Paul playing with a kid in a child friendly space
We had the opportunity to visit one of the evacuation centers to see how Plan Japan (local branch of NetHope member Plan International). In this evacuation center, Plan International has set up a child friendly space where the kids can come and play or do their homework. For those that have not been in an evacuation center it may be difficult to understand the concept of a child friendly space. But when you see how people live very close to each other, separated only by cardboard boxes you realize that the kids get very little possibility to play or talk to each other. The child friendly spaces are therefore a crucial place they can release some of that energy and also talk about some of the experiences they lived through. Plan has been working closely with teachers and psychosocial services in the affected areas, providing them with guidance on how to help the kids out dealing with the psychological effects of the disaster. It was very educational to visit the evacuation center, see how well organized they are and to better understand the conditions that people live in.
Temporary housing complex in Ofunato
The day after we went to visit PeaceWinds Japan (PWJ) a local implementation partner of NetHope member MercyCorps. PWJ is working up in Iwate prefecture and we began by visiting their local office in Ichinoseki. The reason they set up the office in Ichinoseki is that even though there was some minor damage from the earthquake, most basic services such as electricity and telecommunications were available within days of the quake. The staff then drives on a daily basis down to the various smaller cities and villages along the coast where they were doing their job. We visited a new temporary housing facility that has been built in Ofunato. The temporary housing facility was built on a baseball field. The temporary "houses" are built together 6 in a row, similar to trailers, but they certainly would have given the famous FEMA trailers for Katrina a very bad name. All together there were 12 groups of houses like this, so in total there were 72 apartments. Every apartment had a small living room/kitchen and a sleeping room. They were also had electricity, TV and telephone installed in each apartment. We did notice that no internet connectivity was provided. We are however working on a project with Cisco Japan and Toshiba Japan to provide internet connectivity to some of these temporary housing facilities as well as tablet computers.
Volunteers bringing supplies into the temporary housing
The temporary housing is provided with basic appliances such as fridge, washing machine and TV, but it is through support of non-profit organizations like PWJ to provide all the other things needed, such as plates, glasses, cleaning equipment, etc. When space permits there is also a community building next to the groups of houses, allowing for various social support services to be provided. These temporary houses are what many people will be calling their homes for the next two years. At that time, people are expected to move out of the houses into their own permanent housing.
The work in Japan is far from over. The debris and rubble is starting to be removed and people are moving into the temporary housing, but the psychological effects and the recovery efforts will take years. It is especially during this period that it is important to continue supporting the work of the great non-profit organizations that are doing an amazing thing supporting these people who lost everything. The spotlight of the media may be gone, but thankfully the spotlight of the non-profits continues to bring light to the life of the people affected. It is through the use of technology like NetHope partners provided as in-kind support that this work can be made more efficient and easier. At the same time we must also continue to improve preparedness for future emergencies. Scientists believe that the massive earthquake of March 11th has increased the likelihood of an quake in the Tokyo fault line which has the threat of affecting even a bigger population.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The importance of building local capacity

When a large scale disaster strikes the world watches. Twitter gets flooded with reports, pictures and prayers. CNN, BBC, Sky News and Al Jazzera all break their regular programs to show us terrifying images of what is happening. Thankfully only 2-3 large scale disasters strike every year. Depending on the magnitude and location of the disaster, the media and people loose interest within a few days or weeks. At the same time we have many medium scale disasters that happen around the world on almost a daily basis. If they strike US then we hear about them for a while, but if they happen in remote places of the world like Sri Lanka, Indonesia or Ghana then they at usually go un-noticed by most people. This is however usually not the case for the local media and the local population of the country affected. In the last 2 years we have seen efforts being born around utilizing social media, social networks and digital volunteer groups to help deal with the explosion of information that we now get through mobile phones and social media. While these efforts are promising and do provide us with opportunities for gathering, processing, analyzing and disseminating information in ways we have not been able to do so far, then they do fall short in one important part and that is that they are not sustainable for the long-term and repeatable for the large number of disasters that occur every year. In my visits to disaster prone countries, where I have been speaking to them about the importance of preparedness, they all spoke of interest in all of these new technologies and efforts that have been getting so much attention in the press and at conferences around the world. What they complain about is that nobody has reached out directly to them and shown them how they can make use of these tools. The reason is that we in the global humanitarian and technology community have been too focused on trying to figure out how to do things at a global scale that we have largely ignored the local perspective. Some might argue that the jet-setting trips of the leaders of the digital volunteer community to conferences around the world have been focusing on this effort, but I would like to argue that in most cases these have not necessarily resulted in more than short-term awareness building. Often these conferences have also been mainly attended by people who are not active in the disaster response community. One could also say that recent efforts of setting up crowd-maps following disasters in Pakistan, New Zealand and Japan, driven by local actors are samples of how things really work. While I agree that great work has been done by those local actors, then I would also argue that much greater work could have been achieved if we had focused more on preparedness and building local capacity before these disasters struck. Then we could have ensured that the information gathered was actionable and relevant to the response. We could also have ensured that the response community was utilizing this new medium to the fullest. Over the last year we have put a lot of focus into building a global capacity to deal with crisis. We have established the Stand-by Volunteer Task Force, we have established connections with the global response community (UN, NGOs, Red Cross) and we have had great examples of how this effort can really provide information to the response community. A promising change to this was an effort lead by the US State Department that started last week in Indonesia under the name TechCamp Jakarta. There they brought together key people from the new technology community and some of the actors from the local response community. It was a great first step, but more is needed to follow up on this. What we need to do is to put focus on building up local capacity in disaster prone countries, especially those in the developing world. We can then leverage the global capacity we have already built up to help support these local efforts when their capacity is overwhelmed. We can also leverage the technologies, processes and training we have already put together for these global efforts. So what is needed to build up that local capacity? 1) We need to bring together the various actors involved in disaster response in the country. This includes the government, the UN, the NGOs, etc. Often there may be existing forums that can be leveraged, but often these need to be extended to ensure inclusiveness of all the local actors. 2) We also need to bring in the local technology community. They are the ones who can help adapting the global solutions to the local needs. This includes members of the local open-source community, but also people from the private sector technology companies. 3) We also need to bring in the academic community. Students have in the past been the basis for any grass-root effort we have seen around crisis information management. Together these various actors from the different communities make up the local crisis information community. 4) We need to provide standardized & localized, on-line and in-person training to this community on how to utilize these technologies to achieve better information sharing during disasters. 5) We need to drive awareness of the potential of these efforts to the response community. Through that awareness building we can build the relationships needed between the volunteer community and the response community 6) We need to provide standardized yet flexible processes that the local community can utilize to ensure that their efforts are actually resulting in providing actionable and accurate information to the response community. 7) We need to work with the local mobile providers to establish short-codes for citizens to use for direct reporting into the systems. 8) We need to provide the local community with awareness building material (advertisements, banners, etc.) to build a volunteer community and to make citizens aware of short-codes. 9) We need to provide the local community with mentorship from the global community on establishing the community and running this effort. 10) We need to work with local web portals (newspaper, social networks, etc.) to get them to direct people towards the efforts of the local community instead of establishing their own. 11) We need to help the local community run simulation exercises where they can train their volunteers and first responders in utilizing the technologies. 12) We need funding from the donor community to help drive these efforts in 20 of the top disaster prone countries in the world. In my discussions with the response community in Indonesia, then the recent TechCamp event generated an interest that we should leverage to pilot a local capacity building effort for one of the most disaster prone countries in the world. I know the interest within the response community is high and that the BNPB (Indonesia's version of FEMA) would welcome better information sharing amongst the various responders. Big question is if we can leverage that interest to find donors who are willing to fund a crisis information management "revolution" one disaster prone country at a time.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Power of Preparedness - A story from Pakistan

In my trip to Pakistan earlier this year, I learned first hand about the power of preparedness at the community level. I visited a small “displaced” village on the banks of the Indus River. I asked them if there had been any early warning system in place for the floods. What they told me was that they had listened to radios to hear news about the flooding as it made its way down south. They had also received phone calls from relatives and friends up north telling them about the scale of the flooding.

But what really caught my interest was the fact that earlier in the year, one of the local NGOs that worked as an implementation for our NetHope member had visited this village to provide disaster risk reduction training to the people. They had explained the basics of disaster preparedness by showing a video on a laptop computer.

The local NGO then told me that they could see a dramatic difference between the villages that had received the training versus the ones that had not. In the ones that had received the training, people had brought their valuables to higher ground before the flood waters started rising. They had also in some cases harvested their crops before they were ruined by the floods.

Just providing this short and simple awareness building at the local level can really make a difference in how people prepare for the floods. And technology can help in this as the story shows. It is much more effective to be able to show a video than to bring leaflets or simply speak to people. Having the ability to bring something like a laptop with a pre-loaded video allows for even remote villages to be visited.

Of course we can say that the early warning system was very limited in Pakistan, but as always people find ways if they are aware of the danger. They reach out to their friends and relatives living up-stream to form their own little advisory network.

Way too many early warning systems are based on the pre-tense that there needs to be large investment by the government and that the government needs to warn everyone.

But as social networks such as Twitter and FaceBook are showing us then it is about the community of people you know and the community you live in. We must find simple and cost-effective ways of helping people connect to those around them through the technologies they have and thereby amplify these people-based networks of early warning.

This week I will be attending the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction and I look forward to meeting people from around the world and from organizations working on preparedness activities. For updates from the conference follow the Twitter tag #gpdrr2011

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Information sharing at the community level

When in Japan earlier this month I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Unni Krishnan who is a Humanitarian Coordinator for Plan International, one of NetHope’s member organizations. Dr. Krishnan who is an experienced disaster expert who has been to most of the major disasters in the past years told me a very interesting story of information sharing practices at the community level in one of the affected areas in Japan.

In one of the evacuation centers that Dr. Krishnan came into he saw that there was a big whiteboard with notes written in Japanese. Around the whiteboard there were teenage kids who were running around. He asked his colleague from Plan Japan what was happening there.

The colleague explained that the whiteboard contained a number of questions and answers. When the teenage kids were asked they explained that they had created this information sharing “platform” for the community there. People kept asking questions about the situation and the response. The kids decided to help facilitate this process, by gathering the questions that everyone had and then work on getting the answers from those in charge.

So when a member of the community had a question like “when is the next clothes distribution going to be?” the kids would run around and ask the people responding until they found an answer. The answer would then be written on the note and hung up on the whiteboard.

I loved this story because it reminds us of a few crucial items to keep in mind at all times.

First of all is the importance of information at the community level. We very seldom inform the affected communities themselves of our plans. We are to busy informing ourselves, our donors or the government, but forget the people who are affected. I wonder if the affected communities even know of the massive time we put into writing situation reports that very few people end up reading.

Secondly it reminds us of involving the affected community in the information sharing process. They are the ones who know what the community wants to know. They are the ones who can communicate that information back in a way that the community understands and appreciates. Lets also not forget the healing power of giving them tasks to help their own people. That takes their mind of the devastation around them even if only for the few moments they work on helping their own people.

Thirdly this story reminds us that technology is not always needed to share information. Yes maybe it can be shared more quickly and broadly through help of technology, but the underlying process and need doesn’t require technology to be present. We should therefore focus on improving our information sharing processes and address the needs of the communities for better information and then figure out ways to utilize technology as a tool for enhancing that process and helping meet the need.

So lets start putting focus on the affected communities and how we share information with them and obtain information from them.

The Value of Preparedness

Six weeks ago the devastating force of mother nature reminded us again how things can change in a matter of a few minutes. For the first time we were able to watch live images of the destructive power of tsunamis as they struck the coast of Japan following a massive 9.0 earthquake. I have spent most of my time since March 11th, working on supporting the NetHope member organizations active in Japan.

It now appears that over 27,000 people died as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami that followed. Over 500,000 people were affected and close to 70,000 families lost their homes. Many towns and villages along the coast were totally wiped out.

But instead of focusing in this blog post on the aftermath of the disaster then I rather want to focus on what didn’t happen because of how Japan has invested in disaster risk reduction activities or what is often called emergency preparedness.

It is my firm believe that if this disaster had struck any other country than Japan then we would have seen the number of deaths multiply by a factor of 5-10. Ever since the big Kobe earthquake in 1995, the Japanese have spent lot of effort on disaster risk reduction activities. This includes systems for monitoring earthquakes and tsunamis. This includes systems for warning about impeding earthquakes and tsunamis. It includes running training and awareness programs for citizens.

Japan has a very extensive network of earthquake detectors. These monitor both the S and P waves (see this Wikipedia article for a great overview of how the difference between those two waves can be used in early warning). When a strong earthquake is detected through these monitors then a public warning is issued. I got to experience this first hand when visiting Japan at the start of April when a series of 6.5-7.1 aftershocks struck within a 48 hour period. In one case I was in a meeting on the 31st floor of a building an through the loudspeakers we were told a strong earthquake had been detected and would arrive in 10-15 seconds. About 7 seconds later we could feel the tremor. This of course works best when the earthquake strikes at a bit of distance, but there are also examples, at least from Taiwan that I know of where this is used to automatically slow down high speed trains and open up elevator doors.

But more importantly on March 11th was the early warning and training on the potential of tsunamis. Japan being a country that “frequently” gets struck by tsunamis has developed a very good system of monitoring ocean movements, but also of warning people. Regular evacuation drills are done in coastal areas and people are educated on the dangers of tsunamis. It was especially this effort that saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives on March 11th.

It has often been said that a dollar spent on preparedness saves at least six dollars in response costs. With the March 11th earthquake being the most costly disaster ever worldwide, with at last $300 billions in material damage according to government estimates, that figure might easily have risen substantially and caused even greater effects on the overall world economy.

It is therefore important for donors and governments around the world to learn a lesson from the people of Japan. Even though it might sometime be difficult to justify spending money on preparedness it is at times like these that we are reminded of its value. Lets make strategic decisions to move in that direction before the images of the devastation in Japan are too easily forgotten.

On May 10th-13th, 2500 representatives of national governments, regional and international organizations, civil society and non-profit organizations come together for the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. It is my challenge to those showing up there, including myself, that we put our money and action where our mouth is and not just talk about preparedness but actually start working full-force on preparedness activities that will pay off multiple times when the next disasters strike.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Using the same hammer to hit two nails at the same time

In my blog post yesterday I discussed how I felt we were working at two different zoom levels when it came to social media information management. After a good discussion on twitter with @Kim26Stephens and @jgarvin we identified one potential reason why we keep working at these two zoom levels

A point @jgarvin made was that we who have emergency management background are always looking at social media as a way to get citizen generated common operational picture (COP), which explains why we want to see trends at the neighborhood/village level.

At the same time those who come from other backgrounds are looking at social media as a method for citizens to help their neighbors. As such this “911” approach works because if I see a message from my neighbor needing assistance I can reach out to him and help him.

And that is where the question about the hammer comes in. Are we developing tools for common operational pictures or are we developing a citizen driven 911 system? Are we trying to develop tools that allow us to do both things? Does that even work? Do we maybe need different tools to handle and disseminate those two things.

Love to get your feedback…

A New Approach to Humanitarian Information Management

Ten years ago, the humanitarian community came up with the concept of Humanitarian Information Centers (HIC) as a common information management service provider during conflict or natural disasters. The concept became widely used, although not always called HICs in the period 2002-2006. Following the Humanitarian Reform (HR) in 2005 the concept lost traction and was replaced by the Operational Guidance Note on Responsibilities of Sector Leads and OCHA in Information Management (OGN). In the OGN instead of a common service model, the opposite decentralized model was emphasized with information management (IM) responsibilities lying within each cluster and having OCHA handle inter-cluster IM.

Both these models had their drawbacks. The HICs often became bottlenecks and tended to focus on inter-cluster information management products, while in the OGN model inter-cluster information was lacking support and the capacity of individual clusters to provide high quality IM services varied greatly from one cluster to the other.

Improvements in connectivity and the rise of volunteer groups such as CrisisMappers (CM), Open Street Maps (OSM) and others provide an opportunity for the humanitarian community to re-think the current approach to crisis information management. It is important in this aspect to look at new models for doing this critical work with an open mind and not to keep things as they are just for formalities sake. We need to look at what has worked and what has not worked and take the best of both approaches and identify ways to avoid the things that haven’t worked in the past. At the same time we must be willing to think outside of the box for solutions we have not used before.

Key Principles

When looking for a new approach to crisis information management it is essential that we ensure that the following key principles are met:

  • Information is a shared commodity that all humanitarian organizations should have access to
  • Duplication of IM efforts should be minimized at all costs (i.e. don’t collect contact information multiple times)
  • Innovative ways collecting, processing, analyzing and visualizing information should be emphasized to improve the effectiveness of the crisis information management.

A Common Service

It is very easy to see that information is something that is of great value to the entire humanitarian community and spans the entire cluster system. Just like emergency telecommunication and logistics are handled as a common service to the entire humanitarian system, so should information management be handled. At the same time we must ensure that the common service is actually providing a clear level of support to the entire humanitarian community and not just focusing on the inter-cluster information management.

Service Contracts

An Information Management Common Service should up-front define the service it will provide to the rest of the community and the service levels it will adhere to. This means that the common service should negotiate with each individual cluster what information it will manage on its behalf. This way the common service can be held accountable for the service it is providing. At the same time clusters and lead organizations should also have to be held accountable towards providing information into the common service. Clearly defined processes and interfaces between the common service and the humanitarian community should therefore be put in place.


Depending on the scale of the disaster the common service can take on different tasks. For smaller emergencies where it becomes difficult for individual clusters to provide information management capacity then the common service could provide these on behalf of the individual clusters. In large scale disasters and in prolonged disasters some clusters may elect to continue having dedicated information management capacity within the cluster. These information managers would then act as the interface between the common service and the cluster and provide additional cluster specific analysis on top of information provided by the common service.


The Common Service should not be a UN specific or UN OCHA specific entity. It should be an entity in which the entire humanitarian community has a stake in, a consortium/partnership of equals. This would ensure buy-in from more stakeholders and also the ability to ensure capacity is in place, because the common service could thereby make use of information management experts from a wide variety of organizations.


By classifying information management as a common service it also becomes easier to identify it as a separate funding line in the consolidated emergency appeals. Right now information management is scattered under various headings in different clusters and within the “coordination” bucket that OCHA requests. Donors are quite aware of the importance of information management but have not had a clear way of providing funding to it directly.

Distributed Model

One of the main drawbacks in the old HIC model was that it was entirely field based. An attempt was made to perform all the data processing and analysis in the field. With improved communication it becomes easier to off-load those tasks to people with better connectivity and better processing power than those in the field. These people could be trained information managers from the different humanitarian organizations or they could be volunteer communities that have been trained in performing particular predefined tasks.


It is important for the humanitarian community to start leveraging the rise of volunteer groups, built up around social networks and communities. These people want to lend a helping hand during disasters and are willing to often perform very mundane tasks such as data cleaning and processing because through the sheer scale of number of people involved they can make these mundane tasks become easily overcome.

By applying the common services model it becomes easier for those volunteer groups to interface with the humanitarian community because they then only need to deal with one entity instead of multiple organizations.

Needs Assessments

The common service would work closely with the different clusters and individual organizations performing needs assessments on the ground to ensure limited duplication. By collecting data from these assessments jointly into a common service repository, the information becomes more widely available within the humanitarian community and thereby allowing for better decisions to be made.

A Common Information Management Roster

As a common service of the entire humanitarian community it becomes possible to put in place a common roster of information management professionals from UN Agencies, NGOs and other organizations that could be called upon to provide information management services as part of the common service. The funding provided through the CAP for the common information management service can then be funneled back to the organizations providing information management personnel for the particular disaster through the roster.

This also allows for common information management training to be created which would ensure that the different information management experts are all trained in the same methodology.


Through a common service approach it also becomes easier to put in place partnerships with other NGOs and volunteer groups since they don’t have to deal with a large number of humanitarian actors, but can focus on providing their service to the entire humanitarian community through the common service.


By having a common service it also becomes possible to jointly work on innovative ways of improving information management activities instead of individual organizations trying to do things by themselves and thereby not achieving the economies of scale required to make innovation profitable. Attracting funding for innovation becomes much easier when the donors see that it will benefit not only one organization but multiple organizations.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Working at the wrong zoom level?

In my previous blog post I described the three different uses of social media during disasters. One of them was utilizing social media for crisis information management purposes. In crisis information management we commonly split it up into three different phases, data collection, data processing and data analysis. While I see tremendous opportunities in outsourcing data processing and data analysis to crowds through social media, then I disagree with the focus we have had on data collection through social media during disasters.

Part of the problem we face is that this is being approached from two different sides that don’t understand each other well enough. As I mentioned in my earlier blog post then we must find the common middle ground between what the technology groups think can be done and what the humanitarian groups need to have done.

I had the great opportunity to take part in a research study commissioned to figure out exactly how to get over this gap between those two communities. Although the study will not get released until end of March, there were some interesting things I learned while doing interviews with a number of response organizations.

One of the key point I heard from both the humanitarian and military side was that reports coming in through social media turned out to be quite inaccurate at the street level. In other words, trying to use social media as a replacement for a 911 system does not work. It however did provide good situational overview at the neighborhood level.

Again one thing to realize for those that push for detailed collection of reports is that during a large scale disaster you cannot process timely every single request that comes in. Those that have worked in a 911 center during a large scale disaster can confirm this. You try to prioritize the reports and a great deal of reports end up in a queue that gets serviced a long time later, at which time citizens may have handled the issue themselves.

This may cause the fact that up to 90% of these reports may not be accurate when a first responder finally gets to the area. Given that high of a rate of inaccuracy shouldn’t we just ignore this social media reporting stuff all together?

First of all lets exclude the high priority reports from the discussion. These are reports like “person stuck under a rubble”, “ambulance needed for injured person”, etc. I do feel these warrant a different channel than other reports. I would like to see those reports handled quickly and then prioritized by a team of experienced responders which are NOT located in the field. They then forward the prioritized requests to the appropriate response organization on the ground. For the case of people trapped following an earthquake, the process is already being looked at and established.

Secondly there are all the situational reports, reports of needs (water, sanitation, etc.). For this kind of information we need to understand two important things:

1) Humans have a drive for helping themselves. This means they will try to find the things they need. This can mean that when the help finally arrives, the person reporting the need may have already met that need.

2) Humans have two legs. They will move between areas. A person that reports a need from a particular location will most likely not be there one hour later. As such we may not find the person reporting the need.

Due to these (and other) reasons it is important for us not to track those requests for needs on an individual basis, but rather to look at them at the neighborhood or area level and identify trends. Are we seeing a large number of requests come from a particular area? Are we seeing changes in the what is being requested? Is there an increase or decrease in particular areas? These are all important questions that crowd sourced data can answer us, but my feeling is we have tried to look at both the high priority reports and the situational reports at too deep a zoom level so to speak.

The tools we develop must therefore in my mind have two ways of tracking information. One is for the high priority reports and for those it is important to be able to prioritize them and then mark when they have been taken care of. The second one is taking all the other situational reports and aggregating them into logical administrative boundaries (neighborhoods, villages, etc.) and tracking them through time. We need to be able to identify these based on sectors/clusters so we can see where the need is for each sector. At the same time we must be able to “slide” a timeline to see the trends in the reports for each area.

We must also think seriously whether putting all of this together on a map like we do today in Ushahidi is the right approach. There are certainly other visualizations that would make more sense for some of this data.

It is my hope that this blog entry causes some good discussion amongst the two communities and we figure out ways to really make social media an effective tool in large scale disasters.

Use of social media in disasters

When it comes to the use of social media in disasters then this can be split up into  3 purposes:

  • Advocacy and Fundraising – utilizing social media to interact more closely with people donating and influencing public opinion
  • Information Sharing with affected communities – reaching out during disasters to the affected community with information about services, threats, etc.
  • Information Management – utilizing the social media platforms to collect, process, analyze and disseminate information required for organizations to do their work

Advocacy and Fundraising

We all know the importance of being able to tell a story that moves people. Twenty years ago we hardly heard about disasters striking on the news and we needed concerts which showed us images of starving children to reach for our wallets in masses. With the proliferation of traditional media we now get disasters shown live in our living rooms. As an NGO working in the affected area, it takes a lot of effort to build and maintain a relationship with key media people to ensure they visit you in the field and show your good work.

Social media is breaking down this model. Instead of having to rely on traditional media, NGOs can now tell the story directly, not only to their mailing lists, but also to the internet community at wide. Many NGOs are now equipping their field workers with small digital video cameras (Flip) and push them towards taking videos of the work being done. Few years back if you mentioned blogs or YouTube to directors of international programs for major NGOs like the Red Cross then they would be terrified at the thought of their people writing about the work online. Now they encourage it. This change in behavior has been just in the last 18 months or so. Field workers are now taught how to use social media to generate awareness of the work they are doing. Through social network like FaceBook and Twitter the NGO community can now expand their donor base by encouraging their followers to spread information about the good work they are doing.

In the aftermath of Haiti, American Red Cross used this coupled with text messages as a fundraising vehicle. Never in the history of fundraising has so much money been generated so fast. They got $5million in the first 48 hours and within 2 weeks they had $32 million and their final figure was $40 million dollars just through this channel.

Information Sharing with Affected Communities

This is where Craig Fugate, director of FEMA is seeing as a big opportunity. As more and more citizens live inside social networks such as FaceBook and Twitter, emergency management organizations are being encouraged to utilize these to share information about the threat approaching (hurricane, flood, etc.), where to evacuate to and then as a mechanism for communicating with the affected citizens on where to go for services, etc. There have been some some great write ups by Kim Stephens on the iDisaster 2.0 blog about the recent floods in Australia. Here are two links:

We have also seen a rise of digital volunteer groups like HumanityRoad that do an excellent job of utilizing social media to reach out to those affected via social media and providing them accurate information from the response community.

Information Management

This is an area I have been most deeply involved in. The idea behind this scenario is that we utilize social media as a tool for collecting, processing and analyzing information about the disaster.

I fully support the idea of utilizing social media to leverage the power of the crowd (the internet community) to help you perform very complex or mundane data processing and analysis tasks. I have previously written a blog post about this use. The examples of leveraging the Haitian Diaspora to translate and geo-reference information was in my mind ground-breaking use in this space.

But where I tend to disagree with many of my colleagues is around the area of data collection through social media. Many of them have seen this as an holy grail to finally getting good situational overview of what is happening during a disaster. But more on that in the next blog post.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sharing Crisis Information Web 2.0 Style

In my previous posts I have discussed the importance of having access to key baseline information and a place to share it (the Crisis Information Repository). While having access to baseline data is crucial, it is also very important to have information about who is participating in the response, what they are doing, what they are observing, where they are working and how they are serving the beneficiaries.

Withi UN OCHA, part of this has been addressed using what they call 3W (Who What Where), which attempts to track who is involved in the response operation, what they are doing and where they are operating. The big problem with the approach they have taken is that it becomes OCHA’s task to collect and maintain this list. It is therefore very often not up-to-date nor too accurate. With the growing number of organizations involved in humanitarian response (there are 4000 registered foreign NGOs working in Haiti for example) it is time to rethink this whole approach.

Six years ago the humanitarian community was introduced to the concept of Clusters. Today there are 11 clusters (education, early recovery, shelter, WASH, camp coordination and management, protection, emergency telecommunication, logistics, agriculture, nutrition and health). The concept behind clusters is nothing new – you group together those organizations that are working on a particular subject area (like education) and get them to coordinate amongst themselves what they are doing.

The cluster system took off slowly, but now it is used in every emergency and we are starting to see progress in its use. One area though that is still lacking in the clusters is their ability to share information effectively between each other. Three years I ago, while still working for Microsoft, we embarked on a project with UN OCHA on designing a platform for information sharing between the clusters.

The project, which became known as OneResponse was based on the concept that you would have a single platform where clusters would upload documents related to the operations within that cluster. UN OCHA would then be responsible for uploading information related to the overall inter-cluster coordination. Although somewhat successful, the project had its ups and downs. It did show that information sharing between clusters was a key enabler and that having a platform simplified this. What however failed greatly was that it was made too difficult to share information, especially for those operating in limited connectivity environments.

Pushing everyone to use the same platform has its benefits and its drawbacks. Many clusters already have their own sites, while others mainly utilize email for information sharing. At the same time, many NGOs feel they can not easily share information about their work through this kind of platform because of the complex processes involved in uploading the information. Given this and new approaches to sharing information in other fields, I think it is time to rethink this whole information sharing approach.

What we need to do is to learn from the Web 2.0 environment and create a simple, yet effective way of sharing information about who is working where, what they are doing and the more detailed information about the needs of the beneficiaries and the response given.

When you respond to an emergency you should bring with you a profile of who you are and what organization you work for. This profile should also contain information like your email address, phone numbers, etc. When you deploy you should have the ability to check in to that particular emergency. By checking in, you are letting everyone know that you are responding and that if they want to contacts you then you have thereby shared your contact information with them. Once you check in you should be able to see who of your colleagues and friends are also responding to that emergency. It in namely very important to know which people in your “social network” (here I am not referring to any technological solution, but the real life friends and colleagues you have) are responding, because so much is done through those relationships (more on that in a later blog post).

Similarly you should check yourself (or your organization) into the particular clusters that you operate within and into the areas/districts/villages you are doing work in. When you check yourself into an area you should also provide information what work you are doing in that particular area.

This check-in mechanism should be as simple as possible and it should work via SMS, web, email and smart phone clients. That way it becomes easy for people to update their information. And instead of having to pass around a contact list fill-in sheet during every cluster meeting, it becomes enough to say “remember to check in to the cluster by sending the text ‘WASH’ to the number 3242. Just imagine the number of hours saved in entering and editing contact information!

Once you have checked into an emergency, any information you share either through a specific website or client or through Twitter, Digg, Tumblr and similar services becomes flagged as being related to that emergency (one could also tell you which hashtag you should use if one wants to have this very flexible). This means that if you want to share the results of your assessment in the field, then you can simply post that document anywhere on the web (including your organization’s website) and by sharing the link to that document then it gets picked up as being related to this  emergency.

One could envision a central site which would provide the user with the ability to see all documents that have been shared in this way. However to make the site more effective, it would make sense to allow users to filter what documents they are interested in. In this way each user would be able to quickly customize the look and feel of the site to only shows things he/she is interested in. Since research shows that in the field few users have the time or even the skills to do customizations, then one could envision a set of templates, for example the ability to say you are only interested in education cluster related documents in the emergency you are checked into.

But that leaves one tricky part out, which is how do we get from a user or organization posting a document and publishing the link into the system to the ability to filter the documents based on various criteria. The key here is to use an effective tagging mechanism. By having the ability to associate with each information link a set of meta data tags, you can then provide users with the ability to filter, group and sort based on these tags.

When documents are first published then they only have those tags associated with them that can be automatically deferred from the posting itself (for example by looking at hashtags in twitter posts). Any user should then be able to add tags (including geo-tags) to any document, because it is through the collective wisdom of the crowd that we can scale this effort up.

At the same time, volunteer technology communities (see previous post on those) can be leveraged to go through documents that have come in, read through them and associate appropriate tags. It is also important to remember that ReliefWeb already does this to a large number of documents that are published by NGOs, governments, media and donor agencies.Their editorial team and content gathering should serve as the backbone of this service. Given their new platform and architecture that is coming out, they could also serve as this central site that everyone would utilize.

The key here is to make this as painless and easy for the organizations on the ground to share information with each other. That information could be in the form of documents, but also in the form of updates on where they are operating and how they are serving the beneficiaries in those locations. If the information is then geo-tagged along the way, it can be surfaced in map based format for easier visualization.

It would also be important to have an occasionally connected client that would be able to surface this information on a computer or mobile device that is not constantly connected to the Internet. Data should be downloaded based on preferences when connectivity is available and it should be easy to share new information even when not connected. Information that then gets uploaded next time you are in reach of a network connection.

Once you have data being tagged and collected in this manner, you can again leverage volunteer technology groups or expert communities outside of the disaster zone to start combing the information from multiple sources into the Crisis Information Repository. There are even tools out there today that allow you to do this, if the data sources for the various information follow a similar format.

Then of course to ensure that the contact information is always up-to-date then you would check out of an emergency when your mission comes to an end. This is just as important as to know you are there.

But how do we go about creating this kind of a 2.0 environment to use. I believe most of the infrastructure already exists in cloud based services that are available today. We should leverage standard protocols such as RSS and Twitter streams instead of trying to create our own. We should aim for simplicity and usage models that are proven. We should make the user experience as simple and as much like the experience they are already used to in social media platforms today.

Want to play a role in making this a reality? Share your comments and enthusiasm and maybe we can have something like this up and running quicker than we expected…

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Disaster Manifesto

As the world remembers one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent times I thought it would be fitting to look forward and dream of what disaster preparedness and response world would look like in the future. As with many dreams the sequence is in no particular order.

I have a dream that one day all citizens are well aware of the natural disaster risks in their community and can therefore make educated decisions about how they can prepare for those risks.

I have a dream that one day the information about the risks in communities is openly shared in an easy to use and understandable manner.

I have a dream that one day there are trained local responders in all disaster prone countries that can help rescue those affected by natural disasters in their own country.

I have a dream that one day the various response organizations in a country have already established relationships with each other before the next disaster strikes.

I have a dream that one day each country will have an effective coordination mechanism that not only can properly share information with their citizens, but also make effective use of the local responders.

I have a dream that one day countries will quickly understand if their local capacity has been overwhelmed and ask for assistance from the international community in a timely manner.

I have a dream that one day local coordination and international coordination mechanisms can easily co-exist and co-operate with each other in a partnership.

I have a dream that one day when a disaster strikes information flows freely between all organizations involved, both local and international, both governmental, non-profit and IGOs.

I have a dream that one day we can leverage social media as a way to provide information to the affected population, receive information from the affected population and share information about what we are doing with the world community.

I have a dream that one day we can leverage volunteer technology groups to help us process the vast amount of information that is flowing during a disaster, so that it is easier to analyze it and act upon it.

I have a dream that one day we can leverage the social network that exists between those responding to quickly reach out to everyone involved and break down the organizational barriers that currently hamper effective response.

I have a dream that one day we no longer have to repeatedly write our contact details on pieces of paper, but rather utilize our mobile phones to “check in” to a disaster and provide information about the activities we are involved with.

I have a dream that one day a formal International Response Framework (IRF) is established and agreed upon by the international community. This IRF should be based upon international disaster response law (IDRL) and formally establish processes and mechanisms to make international response more effective.

I have a dream that one day a unified permanent International Humanitarian Coordination Center (IHCC) is established in a strategic location and is staffed by both IGO and NGO representatives. This humanitarian coordination center focuses on coordinating the efforts through on-site coordination centers. This way we don’t have to do all the coordination on the ground.

I have a dream that one day the cluster system evolves to better scale out during large disasters, by for example splitting the efforts up into geographical divisions.

I have a dream that one day all the lead cluster agencies have the capacity to respond properly in the initial days/weeks of a disaster.

I have a dream that one day all the clusters have efficient capacity to share information between cluster members and with other clusters.

I have a dream that one day we have fewer clusters, but more shared services that are properly funded.

I have a dream that one day connectivity no longer is an issue when arriving in a disaster zone.

I have a dream that one day the private sector actively drives their social programs towards playing a leading role in helping solve some of the key issues we currently face today in humanitarian response operations.

I have a dream that one day all humanitarian organizations collaborate instead of compete.

I have a dream that one day we all reach out to help our fellow humans in need, regardless of race, religion and geographical location.

I have a dream that one day we all drive toward making these dreams a reality…