ICTs for Risk and Crisis Management: Technical and ethical challenges

Realised that though I had blogged about my interview at the Global Risk Forum held in July 2010 in Davos, Switzerland, I hadn’t uploaded the presentation I delivered at the panel discussion. I do recall that I was the only one in a panel of 5 that kept to time.

Rather than go into a description of ICT platforms such as they exist today, I took a long view and anchored by presentation to two key challenges to aid work in general often exacerbated by the plethora of ICTs in use – the lack of attention, and diminishing empathy.

Based on my work, I looked at how things had changed from 2008 to 2010, looking at the responses to Cyclone Nargis versus the Haitian Earthquake. While the technical challenges I flagged are well-known, there is little emphasis, among many of the new crisis information management actors, of the ethics of engaging with disasters using ICTs, especially over the long-term and when dealing with victims. This is something I’ve written about for years – see Complex Political Emergencies and humanitarian aid systems design for example.

Outlining some recommendations, I note that in fact, the knowledge and experience needed to address the challenges faced today are already in the public domain.

Haiti and Beyond: Getting it Right in Crisis Information Management


The ICT4Peace Foundation released a new briefing today, co-authored by me, critically looking at the response to the devastating Haitian earthquake in early January. We chart in brief the significant progress made in the use of ICTs in humanitarian aid, and also how much more needs to be done in order to sustain and systematise new developments, platforms and trends.

Read it in full here. As the report avers,

Haiti is seen by many as a turning point in the use of ICTs in disaster response, and rightfully so. However, vital lessons for humanitarian aid and first response clearly identified in the Asian Boxing Day tsunami response remain unheeded, along with points regarding aid work and the use of ICTs enumerated in the UN OCHA +5 symposium report, of which the ICT4Peace Foundation was a key partner. Disaster-affected communities remain largely passive recipients of information, having to deal with, amidst significant trauma, competing information on aid delivery and services. Beyond the hype, the majority of those affected by the Haitian earthquake were off the radar of ICTs. Compounding this, as early as April 2010, Haiti is receding from international media and global attention, yet significant long-term humanitarian challenges on the ground persist. It is unclear how the ICTs first deployed in the country will be sustained over the long term, and in particular international crowd-sourced platforms relying on volunteers. Significant problems of coordination, collaboration and aid delivery dogged the disaster response effort. The Head of UN OCHA, Sir John Holmes, in a strongly worded email in February expressed his frustration over the UN’s aid effort in Haiti, noting that “only a few clusters have fully dedicated cluster coordinators, information-management focal points and technical support capacity” and adding that the disjointed effort is casting doubts on the UN’s ability to effectively provide relief. Beyond the UN, significant concerns were raised over the coordination and collaboration between civil and military actors, and the international community as a whole.

Much more can and must be done to strengthen disaster preparedness and crisis information management. There are no longer excuses for ill-preparedness or haphazard aid response. We already know much of what needs to be done and going forward requires requisite funding coupled with political will of the UN system and international community. Some key ideas and suggestions in this regard are,

  • The accelerated development and population of easily accessible datasets with essential information shared across UN and other aid agencies, to help identify, prepare for and mitigate disasters.
  • Developing ICTs that work better in, and are more resilient to austere, traumatic environments.
  • Significantly improving interoperability across all systems between UN agencies and other key platforms outside, including UN OneResponse, Ushahidi, Sahana and InSTEDD’s Emergency Information Service.
  • Using endogenous technologies, help communities develop their own capacities and capabilities for disaster early warning, prevention and resilience, is vital.
  • Greater cooperation between governments and NGOs, based on standard operating procedures governing information sharing to help aid work.
  • Global and local business, as we have seen in Haiti, also has a key role to play in generating and sustaining financial inflows and strengthening aid. They need to be partners in crisis information management.
  • The development of a comprehensive crisis information management preparedness and assessment tool box, including appraisal mechanisms, especially in and for disaster prone regions and countries.

Crisis information wiki on Chile earthquake

Chile earthquake
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Just set up for the ICT4Peace Foundation, like I did before for the Haiti earthquake, a wiki to curate information on the Chilean earthquake.

As noted on the OpenStreetMap wiki, the 2010 Chile earthquake occurred off the coast of the Maule Region of Chile, on February 27, 2010, at 03:34 local time (06:34 UTC), rating a magnitude of 8.8 on the moment magnitude scale and lasting about three minutes. On 9 March 2010 the ICRC reported that according to the latest government figures, more than 528 people have died, most of them after a tsunami, caused by the tremor, struck a coastal strip of 500 kilometres. More than 500 people have been injured, two million affected and at least 500,000 houses have been damaged.

The wiki features a comprehensive collection of links to vital satellite imagery sources from Google and elsewhere, on the ground local information sources in Spanish, a collection of videos showing the devastation and links to a number of other vital news & information aggregation portals.

  • The entire wiki itself can be read in Spanish via Google Translate.
  • All websites / sources in Spanish included in the wiki have a link to English translations, again using Google Translate.
  • The wiki features a comprehensive PDF (around 18Mb) from UN ReliefWeb with all the key information from the UN and other agencies released since the day of the earthquake.
  • There are over 100 data sources currently catalogued including links to GIS data.

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.

IRIN podcast on use of technology in January 2010 Haiti earthquake aid effort


UN OCHA’s IRIN news service has a podcast up that features some of my observations on the use of technology / ICTs in Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake aid efforts.

As I was speaking, I kept thinking how much had changed from the response to Cyclone Nargis just two years ago (albeit dealing with a very different political regime), and yet how much more needed to be done to fully address key points I made way back in 2006 on the use of technology / ICTs in humanitarian aid.

The direct link to the MP3 is here.

The podcast also features the extremely insightful observations of Paul Currion, really one of the best in this field. Related to what he says is this recent blog post of his.

Ushahidi’s Goma release incorporates features from ICT4Peace Foundation’s crisis information management prototype

Ushahidi’s launched a major new update to their platform called Goma. I’m looking forward to downloading their new thin client mobile apps. Their J2ME app does not yet support the Blackberry Bold, so I’m going to download the Windows Mobile version of it on a Samsung i780 later today.

I was very pleased to see key features in Ushahidi’s Goma release that had evolved directly from ICT4Peace Foundation’s Crisis Information Management prototype, including in particular a new feature to track veracity and trust of users by the admin and email and SMS proximity-based alerting functionality.

David Kobia speaks about the new release:

What I am interested in, and the ICT4Peace Foundation as well, is the development of concepts like Ushahidi’s own Swift River, plus the Foundation’s own information visualisation and crowd-sourcing qualification routines that help decision makers improve the signal to noise ratio during a crisis. Whereas Ushahidi’s emphasis is on the public display of information, the Foundation’s emphasis is on a platform with similar characteristics that facilitates greater information sharing within networks of UN agencies and their partners. We want to see the back-end of the system providing a database based matrix for the qualification of information entered that can then be manipulated to give decision makers the knowledge they need to respond appropriately from the myriad of information feeds flowing out of a crisis, and into their screens and systems.

I’m looking forward to the evolution of Ushahidi in this regard as a tool that helps in the analysis and response to a crisis.

Microsoft Vine: An inebriated approach to emergencies


Microsoft Vine is a programme and service I first saw demonstrated at Microsoft HQ in Redmond two weeks ago. Since then it’s gone to a public beta for testers around Seattle and there are some reports that Facebook integration is present and Twitter integration planned. However, all throughout the presentation in Redmond and now looking at the Vine website, I’m wondering, what makes this special over existing technologies like Facebook, Twitter, Mesh4X, Evolve, FrontlineSMS or Ushahidi?

Vine’s website notes,

Get involved to create great communities. Use alerts, reports and your personal dashboard to stay in touch, informed and involved.

Almost perfectly describes Facebook doesn’t it? In typical Microsoft fashion, this is bloatware that only runs on, you guessed it, Windows. This is not even a mobile application – you need a PC to use it (even though there is a way through which mobiles can text or email updates to it). And Microsoft claims that this is an emergency response tool?!

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