Sahana in Haiti: More rigour, less marketing needed

The Sahana Free and Open Source Disaster Management System in Haiti by Chamindra de Silva and Mark Prustalis appears in ICTD Case Study 2: ICT for Disaster Risk Reduction published UN-APCICT/ESCAP. Though more than half of the essay is a generic description of Sahana, Section 6 onwards deals with the deployment of Sahana in Haiti earlier this year and is worth reading.

One of the most enduring memories I have of the virtual relief efforts in the two weeks after the earthquake in Haiti was reading emails on various groups and websites by Mark Prutsalis asking, nay begging at times, for vital information on hospital locations to be made public. Mark’s crowd-sourcing geo-location of this vital infrastructure is in my mind one of the best examples of how a global community can be galvanised to help an urgent humanitarian need. Precisely because of this, I wish the essay dealt more with lessons learnt and identified in Haiti and less with marketing Sahana as a platform. For example, Mark’s message on 23rd January 2010 on this Yahoo! group dealing with the exercise of geo-locating hospitals is well worth reading in full. As Mark notes,

In the past 24 hours, my call for volunteers for this effort was answered in an overwhelming fashion. We started with 100 names of hospitals in Haiti that we knew existed, but did not have coordinates for – latitude and longitude – such that we could plot them on maps. For some, we had street addresses; others, maybe only the municipality in which it was located. With little instruction other than to think creatively, we have now completed this task. At this hour, 3 remain… and I’m confident that someone will be able to track those down as well.

Though the essay deals with Sahana’s success in mainstreaming the Emergency Data Exchange Language – Hospital Availability Exchange (EDXL- HAVE) standard to meet the type of medical reporting that was necessary in Haiti (the operational status of a hospital or health facility, its bed availability and resource inventory etc), it does not go into details on how this information was found, cleaned and geo-referenced, which as Mark himself points out in January, was a significant global volunteer effort. In addition to Sahana’s own platform and a number of other web and mobile based platforms, I posted the resulting data to the ICT4Peace Foundation wiki on Haiti. This was genuinely useful information, and a cogent example of going outside the UN to crowd-source actionable information.

However, Sahana’s commendable efforts notwithstanding, it took just shy of two weeks to get this information online. This is unacceptable. Access to data repositories and data redundancy were significant challenges on the ground, but there was sadly a sense that even vital data was available – especially within the UN and Minustah – it was not always easily or immediately shared.

In a similar vein, Erik Hersman from Ushahidi on 16th January said the lack of a database of organizations on the ground was a huge impediment to relief efforts, calling for Minustah to release this information. Nicolas Chavent from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team on the CrisisMappers Google Group on 22nd January requested a comprehensive Minustah data model and data dictionaries to aid mapping efforts. The ICRC simply did not play nice with any other relief agency within the UN and especially with those outside. Tim Schwartz noted on 21st January, also on the CrisisMappers Google Group, the degree of manual labour involved in getting information out of the ICRC missing persons database and into the PFIF format used by Google and others. He averred,

I implore any of you that have any connection at the Red Cross to try and try again to get us in contact with them. It is disappointing that we have the two largest systems out there not able to talk to one another, but that is just what the ICRC’s site is: lacking communication in both the programming sense and the human relations sense.

Emphasis mine. Erik Hersman had echoed this frustration with ICRC, and also pointed to CNN’s obduracy in this regard a couple of days earlier on Ushahidi’s Haiti Situation Room.

These and a number of other processual and technical problems are flagged in several documents that interrogate the use of ICTs in Haiti. Haiti and Beyond: Getting it Right in Crisis Information Management that I co-authored for the ICT4Peace Foundation was one of the first to eschew the hype over virtual relief efforts and flag serious, enduring concerns over the quality, sustainability, effectiveness and efficient of ICTs. Haiti earthquake: Breaking New Ground in the Information Landscape by the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) of the US State Department is another excellent critical look at the relief efforts using ICTs, and what more needs to be done.

There is immense potential in the emergent coalition of Sahana, InSTEDD and Ushahidi outside of the traditional UN Cluster approach and platforms like UN OCHA’s OneResponse. Every single one of these actors contributed significantly to the underlying technical architecture that allowed standards based information generation, exchange and archival in Haiti. InSTEDD for example has an excellent write up on this here, and Ushahidi’s writing on this score are innumerable, and just a Google search away. With due respect to their work however, as Chamindra’s and Mark’s essay in this compelling tome demonstrates, the marketing of a single platform – necessary perhaps for fund / profile raising – in contradistinction to others negates and risks undermining the value of the collective, which is greater than its constituent members. It also risks glossing over vital and enduring concerns about the use of ICTs in relief work related to, inter alia, challenges faced actual use cases, the hugely instructive nature of project failures that are often hidden or cast away, lessons identified and learnt, issues of local ownership, stakeholder interaction, language, accessibility, gendered concerns, community participation and sustainability.

For example, though the essay goes into some detail about the potential of Sahana’s Shelter Registry (SR) module, it also notes that it is not used at all in Haiti. The authors don’t ascertain why it is not used for what is clearly a vital need on the ground in Haiti with tens of thousands of IDPs, and what, if any alternative ICT platforms are used for this purpose. Is non-use to be interpreted as a rejection of the SR’s functionality, and by extension, Sahana’s usefulness in long-term recovery coordination and collaboration efforts? Is it that actors on the ground don’t know about its potential capabilities? Are there other, better more effective systems out there that Sahana can incorporate features from? These are questions not asked, but should have been.

Sahana’s work is a source of pride as a Sri Lankan, and their technical innovations are no less significant than say those by Ushahidi. Sahana has also matured as a platform, from what it was post-Nargis in 2008 to its implementation and work in Haiti this year. And yet, devoting more than half an essay in a vital publication to the mere marketing of the platform, sans any anchor to real world use cases, suggests Sahana – even after 5 years of existence – is, needlessly may I add, insecure over how it is perceived and used.

I really hope they follow up with a more rigorous essay expanding on Sections 7 and 8 in particular.

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