ReliefWeb delivers the goods
by Humanitarian Practice Network February 1997

Over the last year, DHA has been developing ReliefWeb, a global information service available through the Internet that is designed to strengthen the international community’s ability to respond to humanitarian emergencies.

The site is easily accessed by those with computer, browser software and a modem, and provides extensive, up-to-date information on issues relating to complex emergencies and natural disasters. The site is well-designed and easy to use, even for the techno-phobic.

At the time of going to press, information was available on 21 ‘emergencies’ – twelve complex emergencies, and nine natural disasters. There is also currently a special page on the Great Lakes crisis, up-dated twice a day. The bulk of information comes in the form of reports from agencies in the field: NGOs, the ICRC, UN agencies and press agencies.

As long as the reports satisfy certain basic criteria (the most general being that they must relate to an official UN emergency and come from a registered organisation), determined by an Information Working Group made up of partner organisations and consortiums, they are posted up.

The information officers at ReliefWeb do not edit the reports or make any judgement as to the quality of the information contained. They feel that the priority is to ensure that the information is widely available, rather than worry about how it is written or presented. Each document posted on ReliefWeb is clearly sourced and dated, the submitting organisation taking full responsibility for its content. Users are then encouraged to compare and contrast information, and decide for themselves which are the most reliable sources of information. For this reason, documents from individuals are not published.

ReliefWeb seeks to publish information from as wide an array of sources as possible, to present a broader picture of the situation, and to reduce the chances of any overall political bias in the reporting.

In the future, the aim is to have reports presented in a more standardised format. It is anticipated that, over time, as users compare each other’s submissions, a consensus on the most suitable format will emerge (ReliefWeb/DHA are, however, working on the standardisation of situation reports within the UN system). It is also hoped that NGOs will start to develop their own web sites, so that ReliefWeb, rather than assemble agency reports itself, will provide direct access to the source of the information.

Information on the website is up-dated at least once a day. However, updates are dependent upon the submission of reports, which can mean that the most recent information on a particular region can be a week old. A bulletin page reports on new and significant developments. ReliefWeb also includes a series of very useful maps on areas affected by emergencies, and contains a financial tracking database.

ReliefWeb is also developing Regional Information Centres (RICs) – systems located in or near long-term emergency regions to encourage the exchange of information between the humanitarian community at a more operational level. The pilot RICs are located in the Great Lakes, Azerbaijan and Sierra Leone (see RRN Newsletter 5 for a discussion of such Geographical Information Systems).

The Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), the RIC for the Great Lakes, was set up before ReliefWeb as a DHA initiative. ReliefWeb is working closely with IRIN to develop a more tailored approach to information collection and dissemination, which involves IRIN staff seeking out information from their contacts.

In contrast, the RIC in Azerbaijan (AzerWeb) is more of a bulletin board type of system where local agencies decide what information they would like to share among themselves. There are about 15-20 NGOs actively participating in this at the moment, although this number is expected to rise considerably in the near future. The RIC in Sierra Leone will be a combination of the other two styles.

ReliefWeb also offers early-warning alerts through the monitoring of key events, and links to other websites, commodities tracking, registers of experts, search and rescue and national emergency relief services.

ReliefWeb offers a truly valuable service to the international relief community, demonstrated by the fact that currently between 4,000 and 7,000 people visit the site everyday. Ultimately, however, its impact will be determined, to a large degree, by the quality and range of reports that it receives. It is important, therefore, that humanitarian agencies support this initiative, by sending in reports, working together to improve the quality of such reports, and contributing to the development of ReliefWeb.

For more information, contact:
Andrew Andrea
Information Manager
ReliefWeb, DHA
Tel:+41 22 917 2232
Email: Andrew.Andrea@dha.unicc.org
or access the webpage directly on http://www.unicc.org/relief [no longer functioning] or http://www.reliefweb.int

The RRN is currently updating its own webpage. Users who have recently visited the site will have found that certain links with other pages no longer work. As reported elsewhere in this Newsletter, the RRN is being restructured, and changes to the webpage have waited until this process was finished. We apologise for any inconvenience! During the year, we will also be re-issuing Network Paper 13: Getting On-Line in Emergencies: A Guide and Directory to the Internet for Agencies involved in Relief and Rehabilitation, to take into account recent developments on the Web.