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.