ICT Collaboration and Preparedness
Last Updated: 11/18/2005
By Gregg Swanson
At the October 17 Global ICT Conference in Washington,
D.C., the topic of information sharing in emergencies took
center stage. In Mike Hess' keynote address, in the opening
panel, in nearly all the sessions, and in hallway discussions,
attendees confronted the truth that was evident in every
major crisis in 2005: there are improvements, but coordination
is not nearly good enough.
The question of "what needs to be done?" is far
too massive to address in one Web article. The Communities
of Practice that took shape in Washington will, at a minimum,
attempt to move the dialogue forward, spotlighting best
practices and maintaining a visible "bulletin board" for
practitioners, officials, researchers, and others engaged
in this quest to keep track of progress.
Andrew Natsios, Administrator of USAID, wrote in 2002
that the first-level coordination of effort, "transparency
and information sharing," is the easiest and most
We need to know what each other is doing. We ought to
make a commitment that we will tell each other what we
are doing not only in these emergencies, but also in development
programs where countries are stable and doing pretty well.
More ambitious levels of cooperation and coordination
(Natsios defines five kinds) are more difficult. But practical
and critical information (e.g. which NGOs are responding
and the names of their team leaders, UN OCHA meeting schedules,
security incidents) can be disseminated in many ways other
than tacking a notice on a bulletin board. Clearly, the
everyday tools - email, cell phones, checking Web sites – are
used to greater or lesser advantage in emergencies.
For starters, who is involved? Looking back at the tsunami,
Darfur, Katrina, and the South Asia earthquake, it is useful
to identify the categories of participants:
|• International NGOs
• Developed-country NGOs
• Local NGOs
• United Nations agencies
• Developed-country government agencies, e.g.
• Local or regional governments
|• Military forces of different nations
• Corporate and business sector teams and assets
• Service providers and contractors
• Volunteer teams and individuals
• University teams and individuals
• Faith-based teams and individuals
This list covers most types
of organizations and teams that usually are "on the ground," whether
in Aceh, Louisiana, Niger, or Pakistan. The diversity of
the responding teams is necessary, complex, and amazing.
The information needed by each team differs according to
their mission, the current situation, the needs in the
afflicted zone, the decisions of the host nation government,
and the phase of the response. It is dynamic: informational
needs change by the hour, sometimes by the minute.
In late March, three months after the tsunami, a major
aftershock struck Aceh province in Indonesia. Those who
experienced it immediately needed to know: is another tsunami
imminent? Many of them did the logical thing – they
called or emailed (some used instant messaging) to friends
and colleagues in the U.S. or Europe or Jakarta, asking
for a report. The news of the earthquake was on CNN within
minutes, and status from television and the Web was relayed
back to the relief zone, where evacuations of the coastal
areas were under way.
Without question, relief managers and citizens in Banda
Aceh would not be fussy about the source of the information,
in that moment, as long as it would be current and credible.
It was far more likely that actionable information would
come from a distant place than from the disaster zone,
and from people unknown to the users of the information.
Having a plan, both for acquiring the information and for
acting on it (evacuation, sending help) improves the chance
of success, and saving lives, whether in Sumatra or Mississippi.
Collaboration happens, but often in an unplanned, unrehearsed
way. Yes, relief operations are necessarily messy and ad
hoc. Yes, field teams have more important things to do
than enter data into Web forms and handheld computers.
But the information management capabilities of information
and communications technologies (ICTs) have been demonstrated.
If they are to exploit the available solutions, relief
organizations must take some fundamental planning measures
in advance. These "basics of preparedness" will
be examined in the HumaniNet - N-TEN Communities of Practice
that took shape in October. I propose these, as a starter
- Seek and analyze best practices.
- Attempt to converge
on open standards for information sharing solutions.
improve, test, improve, test...
- Train, including
field exercises (as military units do).
- Constantly review
organizational and individual preparedness.
Several promising examples of "best
from the tsunami and Katrina responses, including rapid
installation of wireless and voice-over-IP services, the
Interchange Format (PFIF) data standard,
and mapping applications. A particularly encouraging trend
is the willingness of tech experts to commit to help in
significant ways. HumaniNet and N-TEN are following several
exciting initiatives, and we would appreciate knowing of
new ICT solutions that are being sustained and made available
to the entire relief community.
Also encouraging is the engagement of the corporate sector
in exploring and supporting better information sharing
in disasters. The challenge for businesses, government
agencies, NGOs, and volunteers is, first, not to let the "lessons
learned" seep slowly through the floorboards, and
second, to keep a high level of commitment and engagement
months after CNN viewers have forgotten the last crisis.
In the coming months, we will highlight the "best
of class" endeavors in several ICT areas of relief
and development, in particular better tools and processes
for sharing information, for both disaster relief and long-term
development projects. Suggestions and reports from our
readers are welcome: write to email@example.com.