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Grasping Complex Info in the Eye of An Emergency

Benjamin Dix/UNOPS


By Gordon Weiss

It’s an emergency somewhere in the world. Overnight, 20,000 civilians have fled from fighting, scattering through jungle, into mountainous country, and over broad plains in the hope of finding safe refuge, sources of food and water, medical care for their wounded and sick, and assistance from humanitarian agencies. Those people who are responsible for caring for these people – government ministries, local and international aid agencies – must know where these people have gone, how many of them there are, what their condition is, and what must be done to help them.

In the past, gathering vital statistics during and after an emergency has been a cumbersome task which placed huge demands on manpower, vehicles, and work hours, and still left holes in forming an accurate picture of the impact of a disaster on people. But a new system being pioneered by UNICEF in Sri Lanka promises some hope of changing the way the humanitarian business is conducted.

DevInfo is a data gathering system which has been used for years in development work, but which is being used for the first time in emergencies. Just this past Christmas, aid agencies were able to map within days the complete needs of 30,000 people who had scattered to 50 different locations in eastern Sri Lanka because of fighting, right down to the number of women who were breastfeeding, children suffering from head lice, and people without cooking pots.

“Very simply, it’s a system which helps grasp a complex situation quickly and efficiently,” says Dorothee Klaus, UNICEF’s planning officer in Sri Lanka. “A relief operation can begin by gathering the expert humanitarian actors who know the broad implications of a situation into a single room. They use their best guesses to decide the types of questions to be asked of people affected by a disaster, which depends on the nature of the disaster as well as the location. Using DevInfo, we can gather accurate information over a broad geographic area, and using Global Positioning Systems and mobile telephone networks, we can feed information and form a composite picture of the human impact of a disaster within days.”

Benjamin Dix/UNOPS

How does it work? The information is gathered by individuals on location, moving quickly through affected areas with small hand-held computer GPS systems. The questions which need to be asked have already been loaded onto the hand-helds. Answers can be gathered, logged, collated, sent to an information hub via mobile telephone networks, and within 24 hours the composite information is available online for donors, government, and other humanitarian actors. The entire stage of editing, secondary inputting of data, analysis and report production is skipped, because the parameters have already been decided in that room on that first day.

“It’s very much in its experimental stage, but we’re thrilled with the initial tests,” says Klaus. “UNOPS is our professional service provider, out there gathering the information while other humanitarian staff can concentrate on running good programmes instead of onerously gathering information and inputting data, before discovering that we are missing information.”

“This system costs about $1000 per hand-held. We’re using easily verifiable information, our data gatherers supply notes to help us refine our questions, and we can also monitor our response with much greater efficiency. Every agency gets the information they need, and of course, the people affected by the disaster in turn get what they really need to survive and pick up their lives.”



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