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Sri Lanka

UNICEF Sri Lanka tests pioneering new tool for use in emergencies

© UNOPS/2007/Dix
Aid workers in Sri Lanka use a new hand-held computer GPS device to monitor people in need of assistance.

By Gordon Weiss

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, 14 March 2007 – UNICEF is pioneering a new system in Sri Lanka that promises some hope of improving the efficiency of humanitarian crisis response.

In the past, gathering vital statistics during and after an emergency has been a cumbersome task. Collecting information places huge demands on manpower, vehicles and work hours and still leaves holes in forming an accurate picture of a disaster’s impact on people.

To improve data gathering, DevInfo, a system that has been used for years in development work, is being applied for the first time to 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. Through the numbers gathered from DevInfo, relief workers were able to identify the number of women who were breastfeeding, children suffering from head lice and people without cooking pots, to name just three examples.

‘Human impact of a disaster’

“Very simply, it’s a system which helps grasp a complex situation quickly and efficiently,” said UNICEF Sri Lanka Planning Officer Dorothee Klaus.

“A relief operation can begin by gathering the expert humanitarian actors who know the broad implications of a situation into a single room,” she continued. “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.

© UNOPS/2007/Dix
A hand-held GPS device is revolutionizing the way UNICEF responds to emergencies in Sri Lanka.

“Using DevInfo, we can gather accurate information over a broad geographic area,” Ms. Klaus added. “And using Global Positioning Systems [GPS] and mobile telephone networks, we can feed information and form a composite picture of the human impact of a disaster within days.”

Experimental technology

How does DevInfo work? The information is gathered by individuals on location, moving quickly through affected areas with hand-held computer GPS devices. The questions to be asked have already been loaded into the devices.

Answers can be gathered, logged, collated and sent to an information hub via mobile telephone networks – and within 24 hours the composite information is available online for donors, governments and other humanitarian assistance providers.

“It is very much in its experimental stage, but we’re thrilled with the initial tests,” said Ms. Klaus. “UNOPS [the UN Office for Project Services] 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 $1,000 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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