New communication tools get good press but must become part of response systems, argue ICT specialists Jessica Heinzelman and Krista Baptista.
The international community is improving early warning and response systems with technologies such as social media and mobile phones, which offer new communication channels to reach populations at risk helping agencies to track, analyse and respond to disasters.
Text and voice messaging, social media such as Twitter and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) can collect information during large-scale disasters and help direct early response.
But technology is only a small part of an effective disaster response system. Its success depends on smart design, integration with traditional response processes such as cluster planning (in which different humanitarian organisations take the lead to organise specific types of aid), and disciplined monitoring and evaluation (ME) to support continuous improvement.
Without ME, in particular, the potential of new communication tools may not be realised. Or worse, they could actually be a distraction to effective response.
Take the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Tools such as text messaging and Twitter made headlines as crucial for emergency response, but of some 100,000 messages, few contributed to successful action. The lack of monitoring processes also meant that the exact number of messages that catalysed response (or even a rough estimate) has not been determined.
Evaluation by the humanitarian community has now indicated that agencies were unable to use information from messaging tools because disaster response systems were not set up to receive it.
Better by design
Effective ME starts with a smart design process. Because humanitarian organisations and governments need to move quickly in an emergency, what is needed are advance planning and rapid on-the-ground assessment of how ICTs can be integrated with early warning and response systems.
This should address the challenges and opportunities at each stage of preparedness and response, looking at the 'big picture' as well as the parts.
Designing an effective disaster response system starts with threat analysis and follows a logical flow through six stages: threat assessment, data collection, data analysis, response formulation, response implementation, and evaluation and adjustment.
Threat analysis identifies data needs and questions that inform response, the capacities and resources of organisations on hand to support response and potential failure points that must be monitored, such as mobile networks and other critical communications infrastructure. This stage is best done collaboratively with those who will be using information during a disaster.
Different data collection strategies could apply. For instance, in some cases 'crowdsourcing' getting distributed groups to contribute may help get information from unreachable locations, while in other cases more traditional paper-based needs assessments or networks of trusted informants might be enough to understand the situation on the ground.
Avoiding data overload
ME processes must also not overwhelm responders with information that cannot be processed or acted on.
The Uwiano Platform for Peace, set up to prevent violence at the time of the Kenyan constitutional referendum in 2010, is a clear example of data deluge. A consortium of peace organisations, the UN and government commissions launched Uwiano to crowdsource developments about the election.
More than 20,000 unstructured text messages were received in three weeks, and staff of Kenya's largest network of peacebuilding organisations categorised messages before they could be fed into analytic tools.Unable to look at them all, staff began to prioritise important information to focus resources, and just 300 of the most critical reports were processed.
This case underlines that data should be analysed using several metrics, such as the geographic spread of incoming reports, which can help determine if methods and tools for collection are successful or need adjustment.
Tracking information in this way can also help clarify communications.For instance, in Haiti many text messages reporting issues such as medical emergencies and water shortages had unclear or no location information, making response impossible.
An integrated ME system can detect these issues, linking back to public communications to reinforce requests for detail to inform response and relief activities. In Kenya, text messages helped peacekeepers identify hotspots to which more law enforcement was sent.
Information is power
ICTs can also help cooperation among agencies involved in response efforts by improving the speed of communication and providing a framework for organising and directing information provided that the tools are integrated with existing response systems and operate on local infrastructure.
Building analytical elements into the reporting system from the beginning, such as easy to view 'dashboards' that give a real-time view of key metrics, can save time and put information in the hands of responders in the field.
Dashboards work even on slow Internet connections, helping responders to digest information quickly. And they allow people to take ownership of the information and confirm when an action is complete, improving collaboration and delegation of work and feeding back to ME.
Effective disaster communications takes dedicated resources and a commitment to improve these processes as well as tools. The many and rapidly moving activities involved in disaster response can mean that ME takes a back seat.
Instead, integrating ME into ICT applications can give critical insight into early response priorities, improve the overall efficiency of operations and free up resources for the most important response efforts the people providing assistance on the ground.
Jessica Heinzelman is a senior ICT specialist and Krista Baptista senior manager of ICT/geo services at the US office of DAI (Development Alternatives Inc.).