Q&A with Jesper Moller, UNICEF monitoring and evaluation specialist, and Laura Bill, emergency specialist, on managing information needs in emergencies
UNICEF has invested significantly in developing a database known as DevInfo to establish universal standards for human development indicators for use by all United Nations agencies and other organizations. DevInfo was initially designed to monitor progress towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals. But as a public resource containing an amazing cross section of data country by country in the Asia and Pacific region as well as providing the capacity to easily create maps and charts that even a dummy could love, it has become a “tool” that can be adapted to a multitude of specific uses. One of the most obvious applications is in emergency situations, an area much in need of better data collection and sharing of crucial information.
Jesper Moller, a monitoring and evaluation specialist, and Laura Bill, an emergency specialist, both in the UNICEF Asia–Pacific Shared Services Centre, talk about the ongoing challenges of information management when a crisis strikes and how the humanitarian response is moving to change how timely and relevant evidence is collected for establishing humanitarian priorities. Pre-crisis initiatives, such as DevInfo, have provided clear benefits to the humanitarian community in the form of available geo-spatial datasets and standard place name codes, a critical pre-condition for effective information management.
Q. There’s a lot of discussion now about information management in emergency situations – why?
A. There’s a lot that can go wrong in the process of our data gathering. In data collection, we sometimes seek the wrong information, fail to identify locations, forget to consider the impact of biases, distortions and often do not invest enough in coordination to reduce duplications.
In previous emergencies, in this region as far as we know, there have been limited efforts to ensure a systematic coordination of data gathering and, of course, there were duplications and gaps. As a result, there is hardly any undisputed assessment of priority needs or evidence to demonstrate whether humanitarian outcomes are improving or deteriorating.
These experiences have led to the recognition that the coordination of roles and responsibilities on information management at the outset of a crisis and having a system in place for compatible data gathering and sharing of that information is actually a life-saving commodity. It is tied into humanitarian reform, which calls for a greater degree of coordination among agencies, especially now that the cluster approach are being implemented universally in humanitarian response is in place for better collaboration among agencies in responding.
Q. Why does it go so wrong? What are the constraints in data gathering in emergency situations?
A. In addition to limited coordination, you are faced with a fast-changing situation. And there is most likely a collapse of the pre-existing information systems. Sometimes, the most basic information is deemed sensitive and highly politicized.
On top of that complexity, individual agencies are scrambling to get their own information to inform their humanitarian response, based on very specific mandates.
When a crisis erupts, there are a significant number of emergency-related assessments and data-collection initiatives applied by various agencies. These keep going as the situation evolves, designed to cover different purposes or moments in the emergency. But much of the data collection is not connected or compatible for sharing. As well, most agencies, even within the UN, historically tend to work in isolation when doing assessments. However, the humanitarian reform is effectively responding to the findings of many evaluations of the response and lessons learned from the 2004 tsunami-affected areas and from Pakistan’s earthquake crisis of 2005, which clearly highlighted these issues as a key constraint in establishing a common decision-making dataset.
Q. What is needed?
A: When an emergency erupts, we only have a little window of opportunity to make assessments but there are bottlenecks. There can be five different ways of codifying country and subnational administrative names; different agencies store data in different formats. These realities make for challenges in exchanging data. In the Pakistan earthquake, for instance, there was not a common set of denominator values of the affected population, the absence of standard GIS code (place name codes) makes data exchange unnecessarily time-consuming when you want to bring different datasets from various clusters together. The application of standards in the area of GIS and statistics would significantly reduce constraints in data exchange among humanitarian actors. In addition, rapid assessment checklists and methodologies benefit from some pre-crisis arrangements that essentially will ensure that all actors can rely on data source for prioritizing.
We need to establish a set of unique geographic codes or ID down to the lowest level or area. Also, many governments still have old-fashioned maps with out-dated information.
And there is a need for evidence-based information for decision-making and dissemination also in emergencies, particularly to the media.
Ultimately, good information management is much about personal relationships between different agencies. There is precious value added in having information management relationships established before a crisis so people know each other and have established trust. Not having good relationships or trust can create a bottleneck in the exchanging of needed information. Of course, there’s a lot of different information management capacities in each agency, so there’s still gaps and challenges.
Q. What is different now and why?
A. For the first time information management has been given more priority. The humanitarian reform and the cluster approach have brought renewed emphasis on information management and its importance for effective emergency response planning. International standards are emerging from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee [IASC], including guidance on assessment tools and methodologies. A guidance note on information management for cluster lead agencies clearly assigns to them the responsibility of establishing an effective information management and exchange function.
There is growing recognition that the deployment of an information management coordinator is as important as a cluster coordinator, we are now putting into place a knowledge coordinator on site. But it is equally important for UN agencies and other partners working in a country pre-crisis to invest time in developing relationships and to put in place tools, standardizations and working relationships that can kick in instantly and work to pool crucial information to better inform the people orchestrating the overall response and the division of labour among agencies.
The cyclone disaster in Myanmar provided the first setting for the beginning of better coordination among all groups responding. There was a larger degree of communication across agencies. We were discussing information gathering at an early stage and agreed on a common approach. That in itself was a big achievement.
There was also a high degree of coordination in the area of mapping and establishing standards for place name codes – issues that are often a huge bottleneck. This was partly because UNICEF and the Resident Coordinator’s office had invested a lot of effort pre-crisis in the development of maps as part of the implementation of DevInfo. So, much of the geographic infrastructure was in place and could immediately be shared with the humanitarian community – it was a good example of how the humanitarian community benefited from preparedness activities.
The maps and place name codes were out within one or two days of the cyclone striking Myanmar for others to use. It’s an important standard to use in the early stage because it gives a common platform to exchange information. If all actors are using the same names and codes, there’s less risk of confusion, which is often seen in terms of tabulating and determining the numbers of affected and where they are. If one agency uses one code and another a different code, then you have a problem of immediately recognizing and exchanging the data. That was overcome quite smoothly.
This has a lot to do with the cluster approach [in which agencies or organizations work together, with one designated as the lead. UNICEF, for instance, leads the child protection, nutrition and health, and the water and sanitation clusters].
Cluster leads are now responsible for coordinating information gathering and fill data gaps. There is still a need to endorse common tools for assessment, monitoring and surveillance. But discussion are ongoing among IASC member agencies on establishing a set of key questions that all groups could use in the initial assessments of an emergency and would satisfy the data needs of all parties. We need to refine that process further and we’re doing that to have questionnaires ready to go, especially in disaster-prone countries.
Q. What is the role of DevInfo in emergency situations?
A. It’s still very new and we’re still proving its value in emergency situations. But it is a tool that is giving us a head start on emergency preparedness. It is very important to focus emergency preparedness on developing rapid assessment methodology that uses secondary data. A lot of analysis is based on secondary data, such as where people live. In Pakistan, for example, we couldn’t estimate who is where because areas were inaccessible and we didn’t have a good understanding of who lived where. Now we have that for most countries. In the highly unusual situation of Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis hit, most of us could not get to the affected areas. For the first week we were doing information analysis from Bangkok – with the data we have in DevInfo – which comes from national and UN sources. That was not a natural situation but it gave us immediate access to standardized geographical data and other information that helped us estimate affected populations.
Within the nationally adapted versions of DevInfo, there is a wealth of national and subnational statistical data on populations, livelihoods, poverty, health and nutrition. This provides a common humanitarian baseline. An offspring of that is that the tool offers a mapping component so if there’s need to develop geographical spatial data set, that data set is of great value to humanitarian responders. One of the first things OCHA looks for when they arrive on an emergency scene is maps.
Another application for DevInfo that is still being developed is as a rapid assessment tool. Agency staff can work in the field with PDA (hand held computers) and a set of checklist questions and standardized codes. Data collection is on the spot and can quickly be fed into DevInfo as soon as the field worker gets Internet access. The tools is particular useful for quantitative data sets linked to specific geographical locations, for example, affected populations by sex, age, etc. In other words, the tool is designed and intended to work hand in hand with rapid assessment team members complementing their more qualitative observations when finalizing the analysis. This data can be used for immediate use for situation reports and by high-level government decision-makers.
DevInfo is a tool that was developed by development people for use in analysing development indicators. There are still some challenges in terms of how to use it in an emergency situation.
Q. Where are you at in the development of an emergency tool?
A. The IASC has tested a standard initial rapid assessment tool that provides a set of key questions that then need to be contextualized to a country context. We are looking at application for technologies; we need to see to what extent questions agreed upon can be stored in a question bank that anyone can pull out and use for either a paper- or digital-based assessment. Then that information can easily be linked to structured DevInfo databases linking to national baselines, also powered by DevInfo.
If you imagine having a checklist, you can take information immediately and later transfer it into a database environment that allows you to present, tabulate and process the information. The advantage goes across any data entry: It takes place at the time of collection. It can cut out days of work. We tested this application in Sri Lanka at the end of 2007. However, it was a routine data collection exercise in displaced persons camps with key indicators related to the camps and the people there. Still, they reduced the time of data collection and tabulation from three months to one week – using PDAs.
Some people have less trust in technology for this purpose. But DevInfo supplies a function and a set of tools that support the capture of information that can take place electronically on a PDA or with an Excel sheet on a laptop, with the information easily and quickly transferred.
There is still some scepticism of the PDA in terms of reliability of hardware and software. There are precautionary measures anticipated already, such as providing additional batteries and more storage, car chargers, solar chargers etc. There’s also concern about theft – it’s a valuable piece of hardware. And we’re not sure if it’s been an issue but there is some thought to how people in distress might react to this electronic thing in front of them. Internet access is a concern, but we’re now discussing how to transmit on a satellite phone or other means. In Sri Lanka, enumerators have gone to an Internet café to use a Yahoo account to file their data.
Q. Can an assessment tool be standardized and yet respond to the differences of disasters and country situations?
A. There are things that are good to ask in any circumstance, whether it’s an earthquake, structural floods or water-borne diseases. There are key data needs, so the assessment forms don’t have to be a one-time effort. In the Maldives there has been discussion on classifying questions for initial assessments, followed by more frequent assessments. The Government there wanted a standard assessment tool that included food security, education and protection for the initial assessment.
This can be a part of the preparedness activities. We can develop different tools for different phases of a response, from general to specialized assessments, such as on nutrition, water and sanitation, etc. We can have standardized questions that are quickly adapted with technical guidance from the cluster leadership.
Q. What are UNICEF commitments regarding information management during emergencies?
A. As part of its Core Commitments for Children [CCC] in emergencies, UNICEF has a clearly defined role in information management within the first six to eight weeks and beyond the initial response of an emergency. It starts with a rapid assessment of the situation of children and women in consultation and collaboration with partners in order to determine the response. Then we develop within the first week a simple data-collection plan for the following one month for the continued response to develop and implement a plan to support the management of a medium-term response with key indicators and outputs.
Within UNICEF we’re also looking to improve our humanitarian response. The CCC framework is being revised currently to focus more on evidence-based decision-making and more results-based monitoring. This will increase our need for reliable information.
On performance monitoring: We need to improve in this area. We tend to focus more on supplies and monitoring how we disseminate our supplies. With the revised CCC, we will take a more resource-based approach and look at the impact of say, health kits or other supplies to the beneficiaries and look at what has been the impact on the beneficiaries. It will change the way we do monitoring, with a stronger emphasis on results of our interventions.