Recommendations and ideas to strengthen best practices of Crisis Information Management at the United Nations, New York

ICT4Peace Foundation

This is an excerpt from Interim Report: Stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities that can be downloaded in full from here.

The authors strongly feel it is timely for the UN System as a whole to address, at a strategic level, issues of crisis information management and technology best practice and interoperability – to identify current knowledge of best practice, capabilities and challenges, and plot a way forward to improved response.

Respondents in the discussions felt that IM and KM strategies, frameworks and technologies were constantly evolving as well, making it important to create policies in the UN robust enough to handle current needs but flexible enough to accommodate change. Others noted the importance of using appropriate technology – hardware and software solutions – that could leverage existing (embryonic) IM / KM mechanisms and render them more meaningful and effective. This includes the need to develop of mechanisms and tools that work in austere conditions. Crisis information systems need to be developed that work robustly and are “good enough” to work in conditions of chaos, political instability, poor and intermittent network access, lack of physical security, with democratic institutions under siege and very little control over territory by a central government. Developed for these conditions, it is expected that the crisis information management tools can both scale up and be deployed in other conditions less austere, and also at the HQ level at the United Nations in New York.

An emphasis on standards is important. Data mining of intranets and extranets, however sophisticated the process, is but one facet of KM and IM. Without staff buy in at all levels and senior management leadership along with common minimum requirements for knowledge sharing, agencies run the risk of undermining their own KM / IM strategies. Some went as far as to suggest punitive measures for processes and staff inimical to knowledge sharing on a systematic basis. Unless the operations and staff at the field level perceive that systems, processes, tools and mechanisms for crisis management don’t benefit them primarily, there would be little or no buy in from them over the long term. For many agencies to design, adapt, adopt and sustain KM and IM strategies, they need to fully acknowledge first that such support services are designed to strengthen actions and initiatives of the UN in the field, especially during a crisis.

Existing best practices and processes that work need to be comprehensively mapped to ascertain who uses what, why, how, when and for how long in terms of tools, technologies and frameworks for IM and KM. Without this, KM and IM strategies run the risk of developing solutions for problems that don’t really exist whilst ignoring ones that do. Process mapping would include looking at the way in which the standard operating procedures for daily SitReps could be aided by technology, so that the information therein could be tagged, geo-coded and distributed amongst the UN system in a manner that aided the work of all agencies involved in a particular region or country. This would in turn strengthen the UN’s ability to respond to a crisis when it did occur.

Overall, there is inadequate awareness across all agencies of tools and technologies such as Web 2.0 and social networking that can be leveraged and adapted to fit the requirements of agencies at the UN. Using examples of forward thinking best practices, some of which have been noted in this report, the UN must leverage intra-agency expertise and experience in KM / IM design to benefit the larger organisation. The survey questionnaire sent to members of the CEB that will feed into the final report will map some of these technologies and suggest their utility in augmenting some of the KM / IM structures the authors were introduced to.

Linked to this, the UN needs to urgently harmonise the significant variance in agency approaches to and capacities of IM and KM. As some inter-agency KM processes such as the UNDP’s KSP discovered, this variance can severely hold back the potential of KM and IM for the UN and is also a disincentive for organisations well ahead in the field to engage with other agencies that, in their perception, are not. There must be an emphasis on the development of a common minimum standard of KM and IM across the UN that includes technical standards, sustainable best practices, hardware and software solutions as well as appropriate incentives within human resource, procurement, career advancement and other mechanisms to ensure that KM and IM is mainstreamed and strengthened at all levels at the UN. Many underscored the need for significant and sustained financial and human resources support needed to harmonise and equalise this variance in agency capacity.

Some pointed to the possible value in combining comprehensive crisis information frameworks in the Delivering as One initiative piloted in some countries. As was noted at the meeting to discuss the draft report on 8 July 2008, some suggested that it would be useful to link crisis information management pilots / mechanisms with the One UN process, even though others said that the One UN process was as yet too embryonic to locate such a process in. The authors recommend, if the One UN is considered as a vehicle to develop the institution’s crisis information management capabilities, steps to first define a crisis for the sake of a pilot exercise, identifying a couple of scenarios either past or hypothetical and define the major roles UN agencies, departments and programmes played, and as a subset, the roles they played in collecting exchanging storing and disseminating information. (e.g. who collected what and shared what with who, when and how). An agency such as DSS and / or UN OCHA could take the lead and work directly with CITO to define baseline information shared by all parties during crisis, and define a working group to recommend standards for interoperability and crisis procedure. DPKO could then volunteer a mission for a pilot, maybe Liberia, Sudan or Haiti. The Foundation could develop a tool for the management of crisis information, in collaboration with the UN and incorporating technologies that have been enumerated later in this report. Lessons identified and learnt from such an active deployment could feed into a more robust understanding of crisis information management and the manner in which the UN can and should respond to growing demands and challenges in this context.

Create a case study or pilot programme anew to robustly test and deploy crisis information tools and services across UN agencies. A robust scenario involved multiple agencies can be developed to demonstrate by example how following simple processes and using ICTs can aid in crisis information management. The scenario could be based on previous real world crises. A working group overseeing the scenario development and responses to it could validate the tools and mechanisms that are used in crisis response ask seek senior management buy in and support. This approach gives the flexibility to deal with a large spectrum of mechanisms and tools without endangering real relationships or stakeholders involved in crisis response.

While the buy-in from senior management was repeated noted as essential in the ultimate success of any crisis information management framework, a good system will be required to look at the UN system at the macro, meso and micro levels, corresponding to the HQ, Regional HQ and Country Office levels, perhaps even going down to the Field Office level and the individuals in-situ.

The following recommendations apply broadly to the development of a system that meets the challenges and needs of all these levels:

  • The crisis information management solution must be provided for staff at each of the three levels. At each level, the IM tools and architecture must be perceived to have been designed primarily for their requirements.
  • If UN system wide / UN mandated solutions aren’t provided, then staff will find, use and promote their own solutions within peer groups. This is the source of poor-quality intranet sub-sites, ad hoc / point solutions and other undesirable approaches, including the net result of information scatter and little or no interoperability.
  • A clear policy must be developed, adopted and buy-in fostered, outlining when each of the three levels applies, and how information should be managed within each level.
  • Processes must be put in place to ‘bubble up’ or ‘promote’ information from lower levels up to higher levels, and trickle down information vice versa. For example, some team-generated information will be critical for the whole organization and some policies passed in NY critical for the safety and security of UN staff on the ground.
  • As much as possible, a seamless information management environment should be delivered that covers all three levels. This means designing for austere network conditions, mobile devices including mobile phones, able to transverse diverse networks, be browser, platform, device and operating system agnostic to the greatest extent possible
  • Be based on open standards and open source.

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