Haiti and the perennial challenge of information lock-in

Erik Hersman from Ushahidi makes the following pertinent observation, amongst others, in a recent blog post on the Ushahidi Situation Room for Haiti.

“Decision-makers on the ground still do not have access to accurate, real-time data. That may be because of firewalls, lack of bandwidth, people are unaware these resources exist, the command structure of an org does not allow people to use open sources, or the decision makers do not want that data.”

My response to Erik was based on the immensely frustrating phenomenon of locking in vital, life-saving information into formats not easily integrated with other system, accessed, downloadable or mashable. I said,

“One example is the hugely valuable master contact list in Haiti published yesterday by OCHA and available on the OneResponse website as a ZIP download containing an Excel 2007 format spreadsheet with multiple tabs. Far more simpler would have been to just upload this information to the web for people to access and search? In fact, what I did was to save each tab in that huge spreadsheet as a separate file, upload it to Google Docs, publish them as webpages and link to them on the ICT4Peace Foundation wiki… Simple, effective, efficient.”

OCHA’s master contact list that I refer to comes as a ZIP file, which contains a single, very large, Excel 2007 format spreadsheet. I make that point because I know a good many people in Sri Lanka who have older versions of Office / Excel, have not installed updates and thus cannot by default open this file. So while the file was great for offline use for those who could open it and among other uses, for emailing around and uploading to various communities of practice, it struck me as rather odd that this information wasn’t more easily accessible online. So with a minimum of fuss, I created the following:

  1. Primary Contacts in Haiti
  2. Cluster Leads
  3. IM Focal Points
  4. OSOCC – MINUSTAH Base / OCHA – UNDAC team list

Erik’s response to my comment is even more pertinent. It’s a small example of many others I have observed during the first two weeks of the crisis information management response to the Haiti earthquake that I’ll write about in more detail in the coming months.

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