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!!!