Below is a short list of critical components we have compiled over the past years of working in and with crisis information systems.
1. Compliance is only one part of the puzzle, not the whole thing
When discussing and mapping information management requirements with organisations, without fail people map out what information they need to meet the requirements of the donor and internal reporting requirements. This compliance focus has become rampant in the last decade having a detrimental impact on how organisations think about information. It also creates a greater internal and donor focus with little attention being paid to communicating with the disaster affected communities.
While information for compliance is important, neglecting information for project management and context monitoring is poor practice. Field staff continually ask me for basic solutions allowing them to know if their project portfolio is being implemented on time and on budget. Staff are also seeking means to monitor their context through making sense of social media and other online sources.
Thankfully the CDAC network and PM4NGOs are trying to make a dent in this area, but any information system should consider these three streams – compliance, project management, and context – and how to communicate with these three key audiences – internal, external (donors & partners), external (communities).
2. A Shiny Toy is rarely the answer
Creating a nice shiny new technology system capable of doing great things, is the easy part. Getting people to use it is infinitely harder. People resist change for lots of different reasons and introducing technology into your organisation involves a change of some sort. Don’t underestimate the time this will take – it is almost always the least funded part of the process and often a cited reason for failure.
In many conversations with organisations, the challenges to information management have at least part of their roots in the lack of consistency of data collection, which at times is linked to people not doing their job. Introducing technology won’t magically solve your information problems, in some instances it may make things worse as it highlights inconsistencies and gaps.
3. Interoperability and forgetting the reason your agency exists
While on a recent course, the teacher said that the functionality enabling you to input any data into a website is always a form. No matter what it looks like – how pretty or ugly, it is a form. Therefore, needs assessments, feedback forms, surveys, attendance lists, and even reports are all variations on forms. Fields are the parts of the form in which the user inputs the data; these fields can be tagged and if designed well, the data can be shared for multiple use.
Every aid agency does some registering of its recipients (aka beneficiaries); most use paper, some have digitalised the process, and others a hybrid model. More frequently we are seeing the results include a barcode on the card or paper the beneficiary needs to carry around to receive aid. However, it is unknown if the barcodes can be read by different systems or are only useful for one agency. Why this would even be the case, no one can provide a sensible answer, just excuses. Aid agencies exist to help those affected by disasters, so it’s just basic common sense for cards we demand beneficiaries to carry with them, be readable by more than just our own little agency.
4. Children are not the only ones that like pictures
Data is often overwhelming and frankly incomprehensible. Many people like pictures and stories, few like big datasets, therefore tell a story with your data, create an infographic, AND include the dataset. It is crucial to think how people will use the data, which may require you to present the same data in multiple different ways. Move away from only providing big excel files or static pdf maps; make it dynamic allowing people to interact with the information the way they want.
Every humanitarian director should have access to a fairly basic online world map where they can easily see what countries their organisation is responding in and with a simple click on the country, relevant basic country information pops up (see example below).
5. Keep exploring, prototyping, and dreaming
Unfortunately, with information you never arrive at the destination, there are only pit stops along the way. You must continually engage with the users of your information system, learning how they use it, what frustrates them and what they dream about, so that your system remains relevant. Thinking you’ve arrived is the quickest way to irrelevance.
For example, moving assessments from paper to digital or moving from using paper currency to e-payments in cash transfers could be seen as the end goal, however they are just part of the journey. If Meedan’s checkdesk can triangulate social media stories providing accuracy ratings of whether or not the story is true or not, why do aid agencies insist on only believing assessment data collected by their own staff. Why not send a series of SMS messages to community members asking them to say what they need. And what aid agency is researching and experimenting with digital currencies like Stellar for use in emergencies where the local currency is volatile, or in countries where banks are not safe. Perhaps far-fetched ideas now, but Downton Abbey reminds us that the radio was once thought to be just as far-fetching.