For the past two years, the Danish Demining Group (DDG), the humanitarian mine action unit within the Danish Refugee Council, has been working on an ambitious, global innovation allowing for two-way communication between people affected by mines and explosive remnants of war+Explosive remnants of war (ERW) comprise unexploded grenades, bombs and shells remaining after an armed conflict. and mine action operators through web- and mobile phone platforms. The project is funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF). Although the project is global and is currently being piloted in central Vietnam and eastern Ukraine, this article focuses on Ukraine. Given the ongoing conflict there, this setting has been by far the most challenging of the two contexts.
The recognition stage
When the idea of strengthening two-way communication in mine action first emerged, the setting and concept was quite different: the setting was Somalia and the intent was to investigate if more contamination information currently held by mine action actors could be shared with those affected by these explosive dangers. However, when testing the concept against field realities,+In particular, miscommunication or misunderstanding of the information shared, as mine action operators never have a full contamination overview, could lead to false impressions of safe areas and thus put the public at risk. the pilot team found that it was necessary to revise the concept. Data is often incomplete, potentially putting affected people at risk. In addition, it was found that the security situation in Somalia would pose too great a challenge. In the revision of the concept the pilot team started to look at other options for using digital means for two-way communication.
About 10% of ordnance fails to detonate as expected. This means that, after armed conflict, numerous items of unexploded ordnance pose a threat to the local population. To give an idea of the scope of the mine action intervention required to address contamination, it is commonly estimated that, for every year of armed conflict, roughly ten years will be required to clear affected areas. The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has now been ongoing for about two years and, despite the ceasefire agreement between the conflicting parties, continued fighting is regularly reported, and it is still hard to see an end to the conflict. As in most conflict contexts, it is also very difficult to systematically liaise with the public to identify and map suspected dangerous areas. This difficulty is related to multiple factors, including insecurity, lack of resources to undertake systematic surveys and the expectation that surveyed areas, if located in an active conflict zone, may experience renewed fighting after which a new survey would be necessary. For these reasons, large-scale survey activities rarely take place in areas where fighting is ongoing or likely to recur. Instead, mine action operators rely on reports from the public on suspected dangerous items, which they can use to do initial mapping and clearance. At the time of writing, in Ukraine no information management tool has been adopted nationwide to support the planning and prioritisation of clearance activities by any of the national mine action authorities.+At the time of writing there was no unified mine action authority in Ukraine. Three main national authorities engage in mine action activities: the State Emergency Services (SES), the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Interior. A national mine action centre is planned and negotiations are ongoing. No international mine action organisations are mandated to do clearance in Ukraine. As a result, they are forced to rely on manual processes and continue to record incoming reports from the public with pen and paper.
In addition to information collection, risk education is a critical component of mine action work during active conflict. The provision of information about safe behaviour is often the only option to protect civilians until capacity is available and areas can be thoroughly accessed for clearance. Communities affected by mines and other explosive remnants of war rely heavily on mine action operators for information about possible dangers and how to keep safe in potentially dangerous areas. However, getting access to people in need of safety information can be a challenge in conflict areas, and Ukraine is no exception. The security situation in conflict areas can change rapidly, and having the means to communicate updated safety information more dynamically to people at risk would be a great advantage.
DDG decided to investigate how this mutual dependency between mine action operators and conflict-affected people could be linked to developments currently taking place in the sector. One of the pilot project partners, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), has developed one of the most widely used databases in humanitarian mine action, the Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA). The GICHD is currently developing an updated version called the IMSMA core, a more flexible and open database that can take in information via crowdsourcing. DDG and GICHD quickly identified relevant synergies between the DDG project and the IMSMA development process: crowdsourcing reports of suspected dangerous items from the public and giving them back safety information about safe behaviour (risk education) and mine action activities in their area through digital platforms. As people in eastern Ukraine rely to a great extent on the internet and their mobile phones to get and share information about the situation in their area, the DDG project would enable mine action operators to provide safety messaging through channels already used by the public, as well as allowing people to send in reports via communication tools they are comfortable with. For the project locations, Vietnam was chosen as representing a residual contamination context, and Ukraine was facing both residual contamination from the Second World War as well as and new contamination from the current conflict.
Development and implementation
Two concepts were central to DDG’s project methodology: beneficiary inclusion and agile development.+The essence of agile design and development is that design, development and testing take place in parallel, allowing for maximum user influence on the end product and maximising relevance. End users must be included in the design and development process if the end product is to be relevant. Agile design and development was considered crucial to ensure user feedback along the way. There are two beneficiary groups: the mine action authorities and the general public in conflict-affected areas. In Ukraine, DDG is partnering with a regional unit of the State Emergency Services (SES), the national mine action authority currently responding to reports from the public and conducting clearance activities. To ensure that the project would be relevant and add value, it was critical for DDG to understand how it could support the work of SES. Many of the first conversations with SES were in the capital, Kiev, to gain an overall idea of workflows. Based on this, DDG could start to design the overall project and decide what systems to base it on.
In order to refine the prototype and make it applicable at local level, DDG needed more detail on SES’ day-to-day work, necessitating more iterations of the design and development process at the operational level. This proved less straight-forward than hoped. In the current fragile situation in eastern Ukraine, the top priority of SES is to carry on with its core business of addressing people’s most critical needs and carefully prioritising its limited resources. In addition, because of the conflict, SES had to hastily relocate some of its offices away from non-government-controlled areas, which meant that survey and clearance equipment, laptops and other critical equipment were lost. As a result, it proved very difficult to convince the local-level SES to become fully involved in the design and development process. After renegotiating, re-analysing, redesigning and redeveloping the project with SES, including changing the pilot location, DDG did in the end succeed in getting the local SES on board, albeit with a massive delay. The digital reporting and crowdsourcing part of the project has now gone through a series of iterative tests and adjustments with SES, and the project is now aligned fully to its workflows.
The involvement of the second beneficiary group, conflict-affected people, was less important in the first phases of design and development. However, it was considered critical that this group be involved in how content was developed, as well as getting their input into how such tools should be introduced. As part of this group are vulnerable and are struggling to meet their basic needs, DDG needed to carefully balance keeping consultations with this group to the necessary minimum for ethical reasons, while at the same time getting enough feedback to tailor the tools as much as possible to their needs. The fact that it proved difficult to engage people in affected areas for feedback sessions confirmed DDG’s decision that these kinds of activities must be kept to a minimum.
Key features of conflict or crisis contexts are instability and unpredictability, conditions not usually considered conducive to innovation. It can be very challenging to ‘sell’ an innovation in its early stages, where there is no prior experience of it. It would be reasonable to assume that this would be the case in other similar emergency contexts. In addition, implementing an untested innovation in an ongoing humanitarian crisis, where affected communities are in dire need of basic services and have many concerns, and engaging both the national partner and the affected population in design, development and testing, has been tricky, presenting DDG with ethical dilemmas and raising concerns around expectation management among both beneficiary groups. Can the innovation offer them improved services? If so, for how long can these services be sustained? The answer to both questions remains to be seen: large-scale field testing is needed to provide more evidence+Large-scale field testing was due to start in mid-March, and run for six weeks. of relevance and applicability.
Although the project has not been finalised, there are some key reflections around innovation in an ongoing conflict. The most pertinent question is whether an inherently unstable and unpredictable conflict context is suited to innovation. Is a conflict setting appropriate for testing an innovation in its early stages, both from an ethical point of view and in terms of actually extracting learning? The DDG experience in Ukraine has shown that managing the context can overshadow managing actual design, development and implementation. There is no doubt that it has been a valuable and necessary process. However, at the final stages of innovation (e.g. the late implementation stage or the diffusion stage) more experience would have been acquired in terms of the potential value of the innovation as well as the conditions necessary for successful implementation. Testing of the same innovation in Vietnam will allow for a comparison to inform this reflection.
Karen Kisakeni Sørensen is Global Project Coordinator, Digital Mine Action applications (MApps), Danish Demining Group (DDG), Danish Refugee Council (DRC).