Cyclone Nargis: Lessons and implications for ICTs in Humanitarian Aid

Almost a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, myself and others at the ICT4Peace Foundation were copied to a spate of emails that included voices from inter-governmental, non-governmental, private business and commercial organisations, academia, former field level practitioners and others on how best to respond to the monumental challenges of information and communications technology provision to support the humanitarian operations.

The Foundation wanted to ascertain what was going on and commissioned me to do a rapid assessment of who was doing what and a media monitoring exercise, to determine the cultural and political context that framed aid delivery.

Download the report here. Download the update to the report here.

The original report dealt with the period from 4 – 25 May 2008. Developments in the Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Response (HA/DR) scenario in general and the emergency telecommunications sector in particular are dealt with in the brief update.

Excerpts from update to report:

  • Portals that have been set up remain walled gardens of information and knowledge. It is unclear to outsiders as to how and to whom information in these systems is accessible. One key example in this regard is the World Food Programme ICT Humanitarian Emergency Platform. Accessing information on this site requires a login and when asked the WFP’s response is: “For security reasons, we decided to protect some areas and restrict the access to the agencies operating on the ground.”
  • This raises a number of obvious questions. If a process of vetting is required, the transparency of the actors involved in the vetting must be made more evident. There is no focal point given to approach with requests for access. It is unclear as to how those who have access to the information in the system were chosen (perhaps members of the ETC?). It is not clear what information is present. It is not clear as to whether the information here is the same as the HIC, if not, why not and if so, why there would be a duplication of information.
  • It isn’t clear that the Myanmar HIC, which is supposedly the one place that collects all relevant information regarding the HA / DR process writ large, is actually getting the information in a timely manner. Reasons for this may still be that the HA / DR efforts are embryonic.
  • With private / commercial, UN and NGO comms provisioning now underway it is unclear as to whether the lessons identified and learnt in exercises such as Strong Angel III (noted at length in the draft report) with regard to spectrum management and interference are being heeded. There is also no emphasis on the harmonisation of needs in the available bandwidth (e.g. if one agency’s starts to do video conferencing, will that impede the vital emails sent out by an NGO?)
  • •    It is unclear as to what degree VOIP is being used in the field (services like Skype). A recent NY Times article (Can Anything Replace My Old Reliable Friend?) makes for interesting reading in this regard, since it talks about “single domain” and “cross domain” services that I feel could be interesting to pursue from a technical perspective for HA / DR work.
  • Open Source (e.g. Sahana) vs. proprietary systems (e.g. Groove) vs. walled gardens (e.g. WFP ETC) seems to be a three-way tussle between competing approaches to information storage, dissemination and collaboration. INSTEDD’s deployment of Sahana and its translation into Burmese have been covered in the draft report. It is evident that most of the UN uses one sort of proprietary system or another.
  • There is also the misperception that open source necessarily means that information is more interoperable. That it may increasingly be the case in practice is no guarantee against the lack of standards and established best practices in the use of FOSS for HA / DR in a manner that does not compromise data exchange across platforms and systems. A question that needs to be asked from the Humanitarian FOSS community (and one that the Foundation is uniquely places to take forward the discussion of) is whether Sahana, P2pAid, iCare, the various products and services in NGO-in-a-box and OpenMRS (all catalogued in the Humanitarian-ICT and Humanitarian-FOSS wiki) can exchange information critical to HA / DR easily and in a sustained manner.

3 thoughts on “Cyclone Nargis: Lessons and implications for ICTs in Humanitarian Aid

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