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.

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Interim Report: Stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities

ICT4Peace Foundation

Sanjana Hattotuwa and Daniel Stauffacher

From October 2007 to February 2008, representatives from the ICT4Peace Foundation met informally with a number of high-level representatives at key agencies based at the United Nations in New York in preparation for a stocktaking exercise on crisis information management capacities and best practices. These meetings with heads of agencies, units and departments, IT administrators and key Knowledge Management (KM), Information Management (IM) professionals and consultants gave vital insights into some of the best practices and key challenges facing crisis information management at the UN including the gaps and needs that had already been identified, the challenges facing KM and IM and ideas for meaningfully addressing some of these challenges.

A draft report was tabled at a meeting held on 8th July 2008 in New York at the United Nations, where respondents and other high level participants were invited to engage with the preliminary findings and observations. Their input and feedback at the meeting and via email is incorporated in this final draft.

Download a copy here.

How much of information is too much information?

When it comes to Google, the size of the web and the size of their index are apparently very different.

What’s interesting to recognise here is that Google cannot afford to index ALL of the web. Coupled with the fact that we are losing, irrevocably, information that defines us a larger humanity or as identity groups and individuals, it just begs the question as to whether all this information has contributed to an equal growth in knowledge. 

I think not.

I’ve raised a number of questions that trouble me very deeply as someone deeply interested in saving the knowledge generated, used, abused and ignored in a peace process. Terabytes of information hugely pertinent to researchers, historians and scholars of a process as multi-faceted and complex as peacebuilding are often to be found in disparate proprietary systems with limited access, proprietary formats with encryption keys residing with those at risk themselves of being killed, badly managed archives, perishable media and aren’t backed up – to name just a few of the problems. 

I was caught by the fact that what people consider the web is actually what Google defines as the web:

But it’s also very expensive to index sites. And the fact that Google indexes many news sites, blogs and other rapidly changing web sites every 15 minutes makes all that indexing even more expensive. So they make value judgment on what to actually index and what not to. And most of the web is left out.

Emphasis mine. 

I find that last bit positively frightening.

ASEAN Ministers call for greater civ-mil coordination and information sharing in disasters but not for interoperability

The Chairman’s statement at the recently concluded 41st ASEAN Ministers Meeting notes quite strongly the need for greater civilian – military cooperation and information sharing in disaster preparedness and response. 

“The Ministers called for in greater civil-military coordination for major, multinational disaster responses through training, information sharing, and multinational exercises. They recognised that military assets and personnel, in full support and not in place of civilian responses, have played an increasingly important role in regional disaster responses.”

This is a timely and vital emphasis and complements processes such as the International Process for Crisis Management by the ICT4Peace Foundation that is facilitating a greater degree of information sharing and interoperability between and within agencies at the United Nations. 

Interestingly however, there is just one mention of “collaboration” in the statement and it’s not in relation to disasters or crisis management. It unsurprising to find the emphasis on coordination – which means that a single actor (most often a State) takes the responsibility for managing and preparing for disasters.

Collaboration involves relinquishing authority and inter alia, access to territory to international actors incl. foreign militaries and humanitarian agencies. Collaboration means access to infrastructure – physical and virtual – that shares information that agencies and States may be (at first) unwilling to disclose openly. Collaboration means grappling with agencies that come in and once embedded in the humanitarian effort, take the opportunity to critique the ability of State machinery to respond to the disaster, which opens up the regime to international scrutiny. Collaboration means that actors recognise that no one actor / agency / stakeholder has the power or ability in complex disasters to address all the needs of affected communities over the short, medium and long term.

Yet this understanding of collaboration versus coordination is fraught with very real political consequences. And ASEAN, being a ministerial level junket, is hugely conservative and Statist. Tellingly in this respect, although points 16 and 17 in the Chairman’s statement deal with Myanmar, there isn’t a word of condemnation for the junta’s monumental botch-up of the Cyclone Nargis relief efforts.

Since many countries in ASEAN are fixated with the exclusive understanding of and approach to territorial integrity, sovereignty and national security, it’s revealing that Point 9 states that:

In undertaking disaster relief cooperation, the Ministers agreed that several basic principles should continue to apply. These included the principle that the affected country has the primary responsibility to respond to the humanitarian needs of its people following natural disasters occurring within its territory in a prompt and effective manner; where needed, the affected country should facilitate humanitarian assistance from other countries and international organizations to achieve the overall objective of coordinated, timely and effective disaster management and relief based on identified needs; and that external assistance should be provided in response to a request from the affected country, and the disaster relief efforts should be under its overall coordination. 

While all this sounds great in principle, what this also means is that Myanmar’s brutal junta can do just as it pleases in response to another disaster, given that the mechanics of coordination lie with the State and that all external assistance is at its behest. 

On the other hand, the the UN’s R2P principles are also fraught with difficulties, as I’ve noted before on this blog in relation to a case like post-Nargis Myanmar.

What could help bridge these differences that are very real, impacts work on the ground and not just semantic?

Interoperability.

A word that does not feature in the statement. Information sharing cannot and will not work without interoperable systems and information sharing architectures.

To read more and just why interoperability is centre and forward in crisis information management as well as disaster prevention, mitigation and response, read the ICT4Peace Foundation report on a roundtable discussion held recently in Mumbai.

Managing the catastrophic loss of information and knowledge

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The amount of information already out there is mind-boggling. Equally so is the amount each of us generate through emails, photos and multimedia content generation. All this means, according to an IDC report (The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe), that in 2007 for the first time, “the amount of information created, captured, or replicated exceeded available storage for the first time in 2007. Not all information created and transmitted gets stored, but by 2011, almost half of the digital universe will not have a permanent home”.

That’s frightening and raises a number of questions.

  • What will biographers, researchers, social scientists and others do in the future when much, if not all of the communications of their subjects may be rendered inaccessible by a single data centre outage, or lost to even the subjects themselves by failing to backup data?
  • With bigger hard drives comes the risk of more information loss. This century may create more information than all others before it, but it will also lose more information. What are the technologies that can be used for cheap, reliable, easy to use local data storage that can create mini data centres for communities of users unable to afford comprehensive backup solutions of their own? Is there a case here for e-gov initiatives that actually promote backup solutions amongst citizens (I know of none to date).
  • What are the data standards that can be used to store information produced today by the machines that will replace PCs and mobiles phones 25 years hence?
  • Social networking sites are information black-holes as well as rich in personal information. If a site goes out of business, so does the information. How can we prevent this?
  • For organisations such as the UN and even large NGOs (as well as corporations) information management in an age where there is more produced than can be stored is a nightmare. The organisations I work with can’t even find what they are producing today, leave aside searching for and accessing information produced a few years ago. How can institutional memory survive in a context of inevitable information loss?
  • How does one harvest knowledge from all this information, much of it useless for the purposes and processes we want to be informed by?
  • Old news is good news. What’s news to me is not just the latest RSS feed from BBC, but also resources that are pertinent to my life and work that may have been produced years ago. Buried in intranets or behind subscription walls or deep in social networks and websites, what are the technologies that will help locate and deliver these in a timely, easily and intuitively configurable and sustained manner across a range of media and devices?

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