Complex Political Emergencies and humanitarian aid systems design

Missing entirely in the discussions I was part of at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium and also the draft statement current on the Symposium website for public review is the manner in which complex political emergencies  (CPEs, herein used to also cover violent ethno-political conflict) influence the design and deployment of ICT support architectures and systems for humanitarian aid.

While there is a large existing corpus of literature that examine CPEs and the challenges it poses to humanitarian aid (also looking at the challenge of aid in response to the “natural” disaster in the midst of CPEs) , there is very little to my knowledge written on the manner in which ICT systems also need to respond to and be shaped by the realities of violent conflict on the ground in theatres of humanitarian aid. As I note in Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding:

In cases such as Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh, regions affected by the tsunami were also regions affected by years of violent ethno-political conflict. Without question, any humanitarian system designed to support aid work in such regions needs to be sensitive to the added complexity of ethno-political strife. This added layer of complexity cannot be ignored as it directly influences humanitarian aid decisions and actions.

and go on to note that:

One notes with interest the features in Sahana’s Missing Person’s Registry that are no doubt tremendously useful in aid deployment, but is cognisant that the same features may also be used by less savoury individuals and organisations to track information of people affected by the disaster – say for instance children who have been orphaned as easy fodder for guerilla movements. 

In another article that looks deeply at information security in humanitarian aid support systems, I aver that:

The emphasis on accountability, transparency, trust, right to information legislation, equity and holistic, inclusive frameworks I believe under gird any appreciation of information security in humanitarian aid systems. As I note in a monograph written a few weeks after the tsunami that captured InfoShare’s information architectures for the humanitarian response, the first days & weeks of the relief efforts brought to light the following information needs:

  1. Information on the type of the disaster – what a tsunami was, how it formed, the dangers of further tsunamis during the severe after shocks that continued for many days etc
  2. Information on missing persons, including foreign nationals. This included details of those internally displaced by the tsunami
  3. Information on immediate needs of survivors (shelter, food & medicine)
  4. Information of resources available to deliver aid – from 4WD vehicles, to trucks and helicopters
  5. Information of organisation to give money and donations in kind to – collection centres, bank account details, wire transfer instructions
  6. Information on contact numbers for emergency services, relief agencies, regional offices of large NGOs, country representatives of INGOs and donor agencies, number for key agencies in the UN
  7. Dissemination of requests for help, channelling aid to appropriate locations, mapping resources and taking inventories of aid received
  8. GIS data on Sri Lanka post tsunami and pre tsunami, including accurate and up-to-date maps of affected regions and satellite imagery to pin point where aid was needed in communities which had been isolated after the tsunami.
  9. Coordination of local and international volunteers involved in the relief efforts – what their skills were, where they were needed, what they were doing once assigned to a particular area
  10. News reports on key developments in the affected regions, including the details of money pledged for relief efforts and how to access this money
  11. Database of various NGOs operational after the tsunami across the affected regions who could be mobilised for aid and relief operations
  12. Information on the actual ground situation in the worst affected areas – with dysfunctional mobile communications, the national telecom provider’s PSTN infrastructure badly affected, transport infrastructure washed away, there was an urgent need to ascertain the status of survivors

As the reader will recognise, some of this information is extremely politically sensitive – that which was captured in the relief effort could be used to target communities and ethnic groups in a renewed war effort, and given the Sri Lankan’s state’s pathological inability to engage in a serious peace process, we were faced with the acute problem of having on the one hand the need to collect, store, analyse and disseminate sensitive information and on the other hand the need to maintain control of who and where this information was used.

The closest I came to discussing some of these issues was in a side meeting during the +5 Symposium with representatives from OCHA and the US State Department. In general however, the assumption seems to be that aid support systems, especially using ICT, are applicable irrespective of the timbre of social, cultural, political and religious relations present in the context of the humanitarian intervention.

This is a tremendously dangerous assumption and I hope that in the fullness of time, the larger community of humanitarian ICT systems developers take a page out of InfoShare’s experiences in this regard.

Also read:

Humanitarian information systems: Ethics, information protection and “information DNA”

One of the discussions that cropped up in the working group on Innovation and also at the Plenary at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium was the ethics of information sharing in humanitarian aid systems. I for one find it hard to believe that we are bereft of the information needed for timely and sustainable humanitarian action. The essential challenge is three fold – oftentimes the significant lack of progressive political will, information overload and its corollary, information exchange systems that are extremely poor in their ability to leverage information and transform data to knowledge.

Addressing the first is beyond the scope of this post and looking into the future, I was in particular concerned with challenges to information security posed by the ubiquity of location and presence aware devices, ranging from mobile phones with built with GPS to RFID tags that can now even be implanted inside humans.

As the article on RFID notes, the ethical use of technology such as RFID, particularly for humanitarian aid, is an area that is as yet ill-defined and for which there is little or no interest at present. This is fundamentally because of the growth of so many new technologies that need, in some way, to be tested amongst beneficiaries of aid before they are touted as proven technologies. The +5 Symposium’s Innovation Working Group recognised this and cautioned against the use of new technologies in mission critical scenarios:

We shouldn’t experiment with unproven technologies during the critical phases of the emergency response; and better preparedness of: personnel, systems, infrastructure, and data improves the effectiveness and timeliness of the response while allowing for innovation

Nigel Snoad, one of the best known thought-leaders of humanitarian information systems design currently with the Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group (LinkedIn Profile) and one time head of the UN Joint Logistics Centre in Rome, Italy and I had a fascinating exchange on the topic of ethical information sharing that to me still defines this emergent field of study.

Titled How much information should we share in peacebuilding and humanitarian operations? I proposed the idea of “information DNA”, akin to the semantic web and RDF:

Future technologies may also look into something akin to information DNA – invisible yet system wide meta-tags that clearly indicate when records were gathered, by whom, for what purpose. These tags can then be tracked, so as to ensure that information gathered for humanitarian relief is never used for active combat operations, however valuable such information may be for offensive / defensive operations.

My post was in response to one of Nigel’s posted on the Strong Angel III website and contains a number of points that will be of vital interest to humanitarian aid workers, humanitarian system architects and information protection experts based on my field experience of designing, deploying and managing complex, mission critical applications for peacebuilding, peace process support and human rights monitoring.

Innovation in humanitarian aid – Herein lies the future

Linked to UN OCHA +5 Symposium – Where was the innovation?, I thought of listing some practices, technologies and their application in the field that interest me because of their potential for augmenting peacebuilding and conflict transformation, that I believe has broad overlap with the imperatives of humanitarian aid.

While none of the examples below are a definitive guide on the use of ICT for humanitarian aid, collectively they point to the indubitable trend of decentralised, collaborative information and knowledge exchange in support of timely, appropriate and sustainable action.

Many of the following point to that which I’ve written on this blog, but the published work of and progressive thinking of those such as Paul Currion, Nigel Snoad from Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group and Eric Rasmussen, now CEO of INSTEDD, prove that a few (powerful) thought-leaders fully immersed in this sector concur with that which is presented below.

The posts below also contain many more links to pertinent information. Further, though some of them may appear to be oriented towards peacebuilding, political activism or media, the essential technology can easily be adapted for humanitarian aid related work.

Humanitarian FOSS and community driven first response

GIS and Data Visualisation

Second Life and virtual worlds

Mobile Phones and mobile devices

Citizen journalism with affected communities / victims

And lastly, the plethora of lessons identified and innovations at Strong Angel III.

UN OCHA +5 Symposium – Where was the innovation?

I was part of the UN OCHA +5 Symposium in the capacity of Special Advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation, but these thoughts are my own and don’t reflect, in any way, the position of the Foundation.I was part of the Working Group 4 – Innovation to Improve Humanitarian Action looking at:

…the potential of emerging technologies and approaches used in the field and globally to strengthen information sharing, coordination and decision-making. Collaborative and networking software, Geographic Information Systems and satellite imagery, and the latest analytical tools will be explored in both current practice and future prospects for field-based information exchange among humanitarian partners. Outcomes of this working group will include recording best practices, innovative tools and products that support humanitarian information sharing and coordination, identifying lessons learned on the application of new technologies and approaches, reviewing key issues surrounding such innovations, and recommendations for establishing information sharing standards among the humanitarian community.

What the group ended up presenting to plenary was this, that included points such as:

  • Best Management principles and practices apply to the humanitarian context-however models need to be adapted to stressful/crisis environments
  • Evaluators need evaluation
  • Use of satellite imagery-derived analysis in support of humanitarian action
  • Tools and services should be usable (design matters) and easily deployable to increase user confidence and reduce reliance on technical dependency
  • Embrace diversity of available technology in context

I’m sorry, but this is innovation?!

There was not a single point that came up during the discussions that I had not covered in this blog, sometimes over a year ago.

As I was the youngest participant in the room and chose to observe and listen to those who at least by their age and the number of years working in this sector I thought would have some interesting, forward-looking ideas.However, it was fascinating to see so many nit-picking over turgid and banal text instead of forging ahead with a compelling vision of the future with technologies and practices that could help address an overwhelmingly myopic, self-referential and ossified humanitarian ethos.

Fundamentally of course, it is only the UN and within it, perhaps only OCHA that can lead international agreement and awareness on best practices in humanitarian aid. This makes it vital for OCHA itself to understand its own serious limitations. Sadly, inextricably entwined in in the essential conservatism and inter-agency bickering of the UN, OCHA is severely hampered in its potential to recognise, leave aside nurture, innovation.

One telling example was when Anuradha Vittachi wowed the plenary with her demonstration of Second Life, which of course for those of us who partook in Strong Angel III last year and moreover who have used it and written about it for a number of years, was nothing new (which is no reflection on Anuradha’s presentation, that was excellent). Posts such as Second Life for Humanitarian Aid and Peacebuilding? and Strong Angel Island videos – From the Strong Angel III sim for Second Life have already looked deeply at the potential of using virtual worlds for disaster preparedness, training and aid simulations. Sadly yet tellingly, few in the room had thought on similar lines.

Another was the story recounted to me of how some involved in the UN involved in the organisation of the Symposium recoiled in horror at the use of Google Groups to disseminate information and share documents amongst presenters attending the Symposium and how it was suggested (nay, ordered) that an archaic proprietary system that, get this, required all those who wished to be part of the group to register with the UN, was used instead.These be dinosaurs in an age of ad-hoc, needs driven information exchange who are the most serious challenge to progress.

My next post will deal with some of the innovations that from the perspective of a ICT4Peace practitioner I believe will have a significant impact on the humanitarian world, whether it likes it, or not.

Read more commentary on the UN OCHA Symposium as well as other critical issues and content on humanitarian aid here.