New technologies, new challenges: information management, coordination and agency independence
by Robin Schofield August 2002

As donors press for more centralised coordination models, field agencies ignore the ramifications of new technologies at their peril.

Humanitarians still see information management as peripheral to relief activities. The ReliefWeb symposium on ‘Best Practice in Humanitarian Information Management and Exchange’, held in Geneva in February 2002, typified this ‘ghettoisation’ of information management within the emergency aid sector. Despite ReliefWeb’s best efforts to encourage wider participation, the four-day meeting was dominated by UN agencies and northern donors, with delegates almost exclusively technical specialists, with very few field workers, and little representation from the media or the military. While delegates debated expert resources, data standards and deployment challenges at length, they did not tackle the wider issues around information technology and management. As symposium coordinator Dennis King put it, ‘I hope for a time when information management will be integrated into everybody’s work, but at the moment it is still considered specialised’.

This marginalisation of information management in the humanitarian sector has important, yet poorly understood, implications. Information is not a neutral commodity, and discussion of its position and use within the humanitarian system should not be limited to purely technical questions to do with databases, the Internet or Geographical Information System (GIS) technologies. As donors become increasingly interested in information systems as a way of fostering inter-agency coordination, the way in which information is managed, exchanged and deployed will have important implications for the shape of the humanitarian system, and for the independence of individual agencies.

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Conflicting models

Discussions at the Symposium and elsewhere suggest that there are increasingly two very differing ‘mental models’ for the future development of humanitarian information systems which are being made possible by advances in UN capabilities.

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The first model is highly structured, in which all agencies cooperate to achieve the common aim of effective humanitarian response. This ‘systems’ model derives from structures borrowed from governments and the military, where information is gathered at the base of a hierarchical pyramid structure, and passed to decision-makers at the top of the pyramid. In the humanitarian world, this equates to field agencies feeding a system with information at the local crisis level, desk officers distilling this information at a national, regional or headquarters level, and donor officials responding with policy decisions and funding at the international level, as in Figure 1. It is important to note that all actors are at least conceptually ‘contained’ within the system, and so have to subscribe or ‘buy in’ to the system rules.

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The second model – the ‘service’ model – is a much more loosely coupled arrangement. Here, individual information services fill particular niches. Each agency or individual within an agency then chooses whether and how to use these services. Service providers are effectively competing to achieve the common aim of effective humanitarian response. This model, which derives from commercial news and market information services such as Reuters and Bloomberg, is closest to humanitarian information services currently operational, such as ReliefWeb and OCHA’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). This model allows the high degree of operational independence favoured by many NGOs and larger UN agencies, which see themselves as reporting to a charter or boards of trustees, rather than national governments or the wider UN system directly. In this model, depicted in Figure 2, the actors are not contained within the system boundary, and do not necessarily have to ‘buy in’ to the system in a specific way.

Coordination and independence

Different groups in the humanitarian system tend to favour one model over the other as right for the further development of improved humanitarian information systems. This may be attributable to differences in organisational culture between those organisations tending towards collective behaviour with a top-down structure, and those organisations with independent charters and a more bottom-up decision-making process. Thus, the military, donors and offices of the UN Secretariat tend towards an integrated systems model, and NGOs towards the service model.

This distinction was evident at the OCHA symposium. Many donor participants saw in maturing technologies an opportunity to develop better humanitarian information systems along governmental or military lines. This enthusiasm among donors, and among information professionals, may work against the interests of operational agencies, which to date have shown little enthusiasm for developments in information management. In particular, any embedding of a centralised model in common information systems risks formalising a hierarchy of relationships between national donors, the UN system and NGOs. Developments in this area could significantly affect the operational approach favoured by NGOs and UN agencies, and potentially lead to a further eroding of the separateness of the humanitarian agenda.

Quality and feasibility

There are also practical concerns with the systems approach. Experience in the commercial world casts doubt on whether greater systems integration across such a fragmented industry as humanitarian assistance is feasible. One experienced OCHA information manager believes that a services model also does not necessarily mean less coordination: ‘In fact, indirect facilitation has proved to be the most productive means by far to get agencies working together’.

The likely quality of the information delivered by a full systems model is another concern. This has already proved a significant problem, even for reasonably self-contained and long-standing information management projects, such as the country-level Humanitarian Information Centres (HICs) OCHA has deployed to Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Initiatives which cause over-stretch will inevitably depend on the lowest common denominator of input, and so risk delivering a ‘junk’ system.

Conclusion

In the context of international humanitarian action, the services approach, with its multiple information sources and ‘market-driven’ character, is more likely than a systems approach to promote improved humanitarian response through providers competing on delivery and quality. For this to happen, however, operational agencies will have to actively engage in forums like the OCHA symposium in order to balance the enthusiasm information professionals and the donor community share for greater systems integration. NGOs in particular will have to commit more resources to their own efforts to develop information systems, in order to avoid dependency on one centrally delivered vision.

Robin Schofield is a manager at the management and technology services organisation Accenture. Previously he has worked on EU, NGO and UN information projects in the Balkans, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the African Great Lakes. Robin can be contacted at robin.schofield@accenture.com.

References and further reading

ReliefWeb: www.reliefweb.int IRINNews: www.irinnews.org

Afghanistan Information Management System (AIMS): www.hic.org.pk Occupied Palestinian Territories HIC: www.reliefweb.int/opt-hic.

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