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.