Pulling Together:
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 basic:

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. USAID
• 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 list:

  1. Seek and analyze best practices.
  2. Attempt to converge on open standards for information sharing solutions.
  3. Test, improve, test, improve, test...
  4. Train, including field exercises (as military units do).
  5. Constantly review organizational and individual preparedness.

Several promising examples of "best practices" emerged from the tsunami and Katrina responses, including rapid installation of wireless and voice-over-IP services, the People Finder 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 info@humaninet.org.