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The road ahead for information sharing in emergency response

Mobile phones are increasingly being used as tools for humanitarians Keishamaza Rukikaire/IRIN
Humanitarians do not yet make the most of new technology and virtual teams to expedite emergency response, and deal with “exponential” information flow, says a new report.

“The humanitarian community, though relying on scarce resources in response, is still performing [basic] tasks that computers can handle,” John Crowley, from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and the lead author of Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies, told IRIN.

“The machine which enters data into specific tables can pull it out, aggregate it and put in a composite format,” he added. “This is the vision that Tim Berners-Lee had for the Semantic Web for more than a decade. We are just getting to that... and Haiti was the tipping point.”

The report - commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation - looks at the aftermath of the Haiti quake and makes recommendations on how the humanitarian aid community, can work with volunteer and technical communities to improve response and accountability in future emergencies.

After the quake, it notes, Haitians used mobile phones to send thousands of pleas for rescue. Unfortunately “humanitarian field staff had neither tools nor capacity to listen to the new flow of requests arriving directly from the Haitian citizens.”
“When humanitarian staff arrived in Haiti, a lot of the baseline, paper-based data about schools and hospitals was missing, as much of it remained trapped in the collapsed government and UN buildings,” Adele Waugaman, senior director of Technology Partnership at the UN Foundation, told IRIN. “This meant that the deployed humanitarian staff had to build rescue and relief efforts largely in the absence of information about available resources,” she added.

Humanitarian actors, Waugaman said, faced with a devasted infrastructure and few records, still needed to handle and analyze huge amounts of information. Distributed networks of volunteers and crowd sourcing could support more efficient relief efforts by filling some of those gaps.

[Pakistan] Edhi operators man the phones 24 hours a day.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
The report calls for a physical space where humanitarians and volunteer communities can meet (file photo)
Volunteer communities

During the Haiti emergency, thousands of ordinary people worldwide volunteered to collect, translate and plot rescue and aid pleas on maps, and organize other technical efforts to support disaster response. The result was a new dynamic of volunteer and technical communities which began to aggregate, geolocate and prioritize incoming messages from various media. In the most successful cases, they were able to guide search and rescue teams on the ground.

“The volunteer and technical communities made us think how we should change our work… They have a system where they can open an application programming interface that enables a computer to reach into the system, pull out data, push that data back and enables a faster, more efficient and much more standardized exchange of data,” Crowley said.

“This worked much better than those trying to create spreadsheets, build bullet points to brief policymakers, do video conferences that cost lots of bandwidth, money and staff time,” he added. “We have to start looking at adapting to the fact that the information flow appears to be increasing in an exponential rate.”

The future

The report recommends establishing a humanitarian technology forum, where representatives from the UN, humanitarian, volunteer and technical communities can hold open, honest dialogue to identify challenges in collecting and sharing disaster-related information. It called for a physical space where humanitarians and volunteer communities can meet to advance tools, practices and policies based on the needs identified by the humanitarian technology forum.

It also called for the creation of an organization with a mandate to deploy the best available tools and practices from the volunteer communities to the field; a research and training consortium to train humanitarians and volunteer communities in best practices for information management in a humanitarian context; and a clear operational interface that outlines ways of collaborating before and during emergencies.

But the bigger challenge now, according to Waugaman of the UN Foundation is “how to connect volunteer communities with the humanitarian system so when these needs are mapped, somebody will take responsibility to respond... This does not exist and that is why this dialogue is important,” she added.

Launching the report on 28 March, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said: “The challenge is in exploring how to better coordinate between the structured and hierarchical humanitarian system and the relatively loosely organized and flat volunteer and technical communities… Without a direct relationship with the humanitarian system, volunteer and technical communities run the risk of mapping needs without being able to make sure that these needs can be met.”


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