Strengthening Crisis Information Management

How do we respond? How do we know when to respond? Two fundamental questions drive humanitarian relief and aid work, but all responses are to a wider range of emergencies and crises that the United Nations system is geared to prevent, mitigate and help recover from. The underlying principle of all UN operations is to help save lives, prevent unnecessary deaths, and in cases where mass scale atrocities have been committed, to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. As we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, we realize that knowing implies having access to and leveraging information and communications technology (ICT), ranging from the web and the Internet through personal computers to the mobile web through smartphones and Short Message Service (SMS). The human condition is now inextricably entwined with the availability of information online, from basic services to personal shopping, from banking and commerce to education and healthcare. Nations with better ICT infrastructure invariably show better human development indicators and stronger economic prosperity. At the same time, the recent riots in London (fanned by the use of web-based social media and ICT), the growing instances of cybercrime, online hate speeches that contribute to world violence, identity theft, data loss, surveillance by repressive regimes, and propaganda through digital media, are but a few aspects of the flip side of our networked societies.

Recognizing the potential for both good and bad uses of the Internet, ICT4Peace aims to facilitate improved, effective, and sustained communication between peoples, communities, and stakeholders involved in conflict prevention, mediation, and peace building through better understanding and enhanced application of ICT, including media. It also looks at the role of ICT in crisis management, which is defined, for the purposes of this process, as civilian and/or military intervention in a crisis that may be violent or non-violent, with the intention of preventing further escalation of the crisis and facilitating its resolution. This definition, again, covers conflict prevention, peace mediation, peacekeeping and peace building activities, as well as natural disaster management and response and humanitarian operations of the international community. In bridging the fragmentation between peoples and various organizations and activities during different crisis phases, ICT4Peace aims to facilitate a holistic, cohesive, and collaborative mechanism directly in line with Paragraph 36 of the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) Tunis Declaration, which was also adopted as part of the WSIS Tunis Commitment in 2005:

"36. We value the potential of ICTs to promote peace and to prevent conflict which, inter alia, negatively affects achieving development goals. ICT can be used for identifying conflict situations through early-warning systems preventing conflicts, promoting their peaceful resolution, supporting humanitarian action, including protection of civilians in armed conflicts, facilitating peacekeeping missions, and assisting post conflict peace-building and reconstruction."

The ICT4Peace Foundation was subsequently established in the spring of 2006 to raise awareness about the Tunis Commitment and to promote its practical realization in all stages of crisis management. The Foundation understood, very early on, the limitations of the international community to respond to the sudden onset of disasters and violence in long, drawn-out, complex political emergencies. Much has been written on these shortcomings -- ranging from a lack of collaboration and coordination to, increasingly now, the data needed for early warning and response locked in the data centres of private enterprise, with various legal and cost impediments in sharing and use.

In 2007, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) called for better crisis information management at the Global Symposium +5 'Information for Humanitarian Action.' The Symposium's main purpose was to bring together a community of practice on humanitarian information and shared knowledge. The final report noted:1

"With the ever-changing humanitarian landscape, challenges and opportunities continue to characterize the humanitarian community's ability to share, manage and exchange information. While timely, relevant and reliable information remains central to effective humanitarian coordination and response, users increasingly expect information to support evidence-based advocacy, decision making, and resource allocation. Given these expectations, information professionals recognize they must work together to produce information tailored to serve a range of different needs in affected countries based on common standards and sound analytical methods. Today's technology offers many solutions but real progress is still only possible through the willingness of people and their organizations to collaborate in sharing, managing and communicating information as a community."

Participating in and supporting the recommendations of the OCHA Symposium, the ICT4Peace Foundation was invited by the United Nations Chief Information Technology Officer (CITO) to help formulate a coherent, system-wide, adaptive, interoperable set of policies, practices, platforms and standards that strengthen crisis information management. The UN Crisis Information Management Strategy (CiMS) is based on the recognition that Governments, the United Nations, international financial institutions (IFIs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), business and media have significant experience in crisis response. Yet, no single agency, department, or actor has the capacity or sole mandate to address these crises. This makes it vital that everyone involved in disaster prevention and response harmonize the use of tools and systems to produce, disseminate, and archive information in a manner that can be rapidly accessed and used to deal with any type of crisis. The CiMS will help all actors, including United Nations Member States and agencies, to deal with all stages of a crisis lifecycle more efficiently and effectively. As a member of the ICT4Peace Foundation's Board, former President and Nobel Peace Laureate Martti Ahtisaari noted at the first United Nations CIM meeting in 2007:

"A major flaw in the international community's approach to date has been to leave ICT and the issues enumerated above to IT departments without proper guidance on what we want to achieve. It should be the leaders and the victims who decide what data and information we need. IT specialists need to facilitate these information and knowledge flows and not act as gatekeepers. I reiterate that the problem is not in technology per se but in organization, leadership, and resources."

Since 2007, under the leadership of the United Nations CITO, the key output included strategic input into how the UN system could interface with the burgeoning crisis mapping community to integrate, with appropriate and timely validation routines, crowdsourced information into its decision and policymaking processes, especially on how to respond to the rapid onset crises.

Haiti was a turning point in this regard. A United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations-led mission to Haiti, just weeks before the devastating earthquake in 2010, to which the UN CITO's office and the ICT4Peace Foundation were also invited, resulted in valuable field-level perspectives on how much CiMS was needed. However, events on the ground overtook planned responses to the mission. In many ways, the technology used in the aftermath of the disaster to help the affected population on the ground was unprecedented and a turning point in the use of ICTs for relief and aid work. Much of this work is now well documented and known. However, two months after the earthquake,2 the Foundation noted:

"Much more can and must be done to strengthen disaster preparedness and crisis information management. There are no longer excuses for ill-preparedness or haphazard aid response. We already know much of what needs to be done and going forward requires requisite funding coupled with political will of the UN system and international community. Some key ideas and suggestions in this regard are:

The accelerated development and population of easily accessible datasets with essential information shared across UN and other aid agencies, to help identify, prepare for and mitigate disasters.

Developing ICTs that work better in, and are more resilient to austere, traumatic environments.

Significantly improving interoperability across all systems between UN agencies and other key platforms outside, including UN OneResponse, Ushahidi, Sahana and InSTEDD's Emergency Information Service.

Using endogenous technologies, help communities develop their own capacities and capabilities for disaster early warning, prevention and resilience is vital.

Greater cooperation between governments and NGOs, based on standard operating procedures governing information sharing to help aid work.

Global and local business, as we have seen in Haiti, also has a key role to play in generating and sustaining financial inflows and strengthening aid. They need to be partners in crisis information management.

The development of a comprehensive crisis information management preparedness and assessment tool box, including appraisal mechanisms, especially in and for disaster prone regions and countries.

Haiti brought to the fore the need for the UN system to interface more robustly with the crisis mapping community and crowdsourced information. Two key documents were produced by the Foundation in this regard, UN Common Operational Datasets plus crowdsourced information map and Crisismapping and the United Nations.3

In 2011, the field has evolved even further. It is now a given that ICTs are front and centre in relief and aid work, irrespective of the nature of the disaster and where it occurs. Several significant challenges remain. Issues of sustainability, clear relationships with the United Nations, Governments, the role of crisis mapping in complex political emergencies, ownership and use of data, data architecture, and stakeholder management are some of these. The variance in the response -- some disasters are seemingly more telegenic than others -- is another challenge. Currently, for example, the Horn of Africa famine and the associated crises gravely affecting millions of people has not animated the crisis-mapping community and its online platforms to the extent of post-Haiti or, more recently, following the 2011 earthquake in Japan. Unfortunately, there are still "silent disasters" for which ICT can be used, but are often not to the extent possible or desirable.

Today, the CiMs process is well recognized within the UN system, and has moved from championing the use of ICT in relief work to championing a more robust framework for their adoption and use. Senior leadership in many agencies are embracing social networking and web-based tools, but this is still haphazard, with little or no organizational vision. Interoperability is still an issue -- data created in some platforms, no matter how good they are, are still difficult to export and use in other systems. Financial and knowledge resources to train information management workers, especially at the field level, remain scarce. The Foundation's engagement with UN agencies over the years on CIM suggests, enduring challenges over data sharing between the crisis mapping community, which is itself fractured, and United Nations agencies.

With ICT constantly evolving, the UN system needs to remain agile and aware of how these technologies can help prevent, mitigate, and respond to crises. The UN system is the international community's "long-tail" -- present in disaster areas long after global media attention and the swarm of NGOs have moved on. It is vital, therefore, to support the CiMS process as a means through which, in the future, the UN system can respond more efficiently and effectively to the plethora of challenges that beset us.

Notes

1 http://reliefweb.int/node/23872

2 http://inventory.ict4peace.org/f/Haiti+and+beyond-+Getting+it+right+in+C...

3 http://ict4peace.org/whatwedo/the-crisis-information-management-strategy