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.

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