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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published February 24th 2011 at DisasterExpert