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Could we measure Humanitarian Innovation?

With all the discussion and focus over the past few years about humanitarian innovation, I wonder if we could find a way to measure it? Not at the granular, project level but rather at the country or disaster level. I had no real idea on how we could approach this until I came across the 2014 Global Innovation Index (GII). The GII is an annual publication that includes a composite indicator that ranks countries/economies in terms of their enabling environment to innovation and their innovation outputs.  After spending some time looking into the details of their various indicators, sub-indexes and resulting composite index, the obvious question became: “Why can’t we do the same with humanitarian innovation?”.


Reaching out to WIPO, as one of the entities responsible for the GII, I managed to arrange a meeting with Mr. Sacha Wunsch-Vincent and Ms. Daniela Benavente. Over lunch, Daria Kireeva, Craig Williams, Andrew Thow, and I chatted with them about how the GII was created, the challenges they faced, and the solutions they found.

Inspired that a Humanitarian Innovation Index (HII) might be possible, Daria Kireeva spent a couple weeks studying the GII model and looking at how it could be morphed to a nation-level HII. She came up with a rough set of possible indicators to feed the “input / output” framework that the GII used but could be appropriated for an HII. Although many will be relevant, some we realize are more fanciful and could be replaced with more appropriate data sources.  Although not for public distribution, Daria even collected the relevant data for most of the countries where OCHA works in order to see what the index would look like and how countries would rank.

About a month ago, we were contracted by the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) Innovation Theme focal point, Ms. Mahsa Jafari, to discuss the concept. About five weeks ago, I was invited to present the HII framework concept to the WHS innovation working group. My pitch was that we could build off the GII concept and do it soundly by finding, as a group, the right indicators to compile input and output indexes all with the goal of launching the HII at the 2016 WHS summit. Hopefully the WHS or a similar group will be interested to take on the challenge.

Although our work was modeled after GII in that it would compare countries, we recognize that the HII framework could also be applied to organizations if the right indicators were identified. But, given I work for UN-OCHA, I don’t think that it is my job to say that one organization is more innovative than another.

If you are interested in the concept or even taking our early efforts to the next level, please get in touch directly or by leaving a comment below.

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Guidance for Establishing an Affected Persons Information Center

Fresh off my return from responding to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, I reflected on the challenge of getting information to and from the affected population. Collecting information aligns with my day job in such emergencies. However, I see that we keep falling into the same trap of focusing solely on what we need and quickly de-prioritizing the information needs of the affected population.

The importance of information for the affected population has been raised several times over the years. Imogen Wall authored Left in the Dark? in 2008 and Still Left in the Dark? in 2012. Internews studied the Dadaab camp in 2011 [PDF] and released similar findings. And, just last week, Internews shared an inter-agency study on Iraq* [PDF] that pointed to the serious lack of information accessible to the affected population.


Since the 2004 tsunami, I have seen a lot of great work being done by organizations like Internews, networks like the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities network (CDAN), groups like Communicating with Communities (CwC), and volunteer entities like Translators Without Borders. I saw some of the efforts and benefits myself in Guiuan. But, if new reports are being released that still note the lack of information problem, are we open to trying something new?

In May, I was joined by Viktoria Lovrics to look at the possibilities of someone establishing publicly-accessible information centers during a crisis – something I had earlier referred to as a powered, future information center. Could someone provide core information, directions on how to get more help, as well as services like mobile phone charging and Internet access? If so, could we – at the same place and time – collect structured information from these visitors?  Such a structured collection would be a novelty when you consider that a lot of effort is currently going to mining unstructured social media, SMS messages, images, and other large data sources. So, not only would we benefit the affected population, but we could get better data that we could analyze much faster.

As suggested in my previous post, Viktoria and I wanted to create something “open” that could be used by anyone – a large international organization, a small NGO, a government agency, a community leader or simply a group of volunteers.

Today, we are excited to release Guidance of Establishing an Affected Persons Information Center [12 MB]. For 2 page summary, see the APIC Brief. The guidance is broken into three parts:

  1. Understanding Affected Persons Information Centers (APIC),
  2. Identifying and Addressing Limitations, and
  3. Guidance for Construction of and APIC.


Characteristics and features of an APIC could include:

  • provision of a publicly accessible physical space committed to information broadcasting and collection,
  • co-run by representative from affected population as well as from humanitarian responders (with knowledge of local language),
  • visible bulletin boards (including text and visuals) with relevant and updated information,
  • access to electrical power for the purpose of charging devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and laptops (from renewable and simplistic technologies),
  • provision of telephone and Internet services in partnership with local Mobile Network Operators (MNOs),
  • a staffed Humanitarian Concierge that provides, and has access to, emergency services (such as hospitals, psycho-social hotlines, a humanitarian call center),
  • education and guidance on various technologies used to facilitate aid and continue communication such as Freedom Fone and Twitmobile,
  • a social media presence, where such capacity exists, in order to share information and dispel rumours regarding the response,
  • advice to the affected population and responders regarding shifting security concerns or situations, and/or
  • a mobile APIC, where the capacity and need exists, that can access smaller and remote communities.

Considerations for topics like security, staffing, which information to share, methods of communication, and so forth are all addressed in the guidance.

We hope that you find the guidance beneficial should you decide to set-up such a center in a crisis to better inform the affected population and to enable a better response.


Update: directly after posting my blog, I opened a Communicating-with-Communities newsletter which linked out to material by world vision about setting up Help Desks at distribution points, establishing open Feedback mechanisms, and being Transparent by providing information to the community. 

Note: although I am an employee of UN-OCHA, this guidance is not a product of and does not reflect any ongoing or planned projects of UN-OCHA.

* The inter-agency report was conducted by Internews, UN-OCHA, World Vision, IOM and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) with funding from the World Food Programme.

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5 Cues and Tough Decisions

About a month ago a couple of my colleagues attending the ISCRAM 2014 Conference – an international conference on information systems for crisis response and management – reached out to me during one of the sessions. They informed me that the digital humanitarian attendees were asking for proof that the digital humanitarian responders had direct impact on decision makers during the emergency response in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. I found this request difficult to answer. Here is why:

Over the past 10 years, I have seen OCHA and the humanitarian community create many products. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, humanitarian organizations do not usually have the capacity to follow each product sufficiently to gauge their effect. This is one of the hindrances within the community in measuring a product’s impact. A second hindrance is that there is no identical parallel emergency not using the product for comparison purposes. The set of circumstances in each emergency is different. Thirdly all of the products, systems and organizations work together to produce an emergency response. It is difficult to measure one product in isolation.

In the Philippines, the Digital Humanitarian Network provided OCHA with 40% of the data for our first 3W (Who’s doing What Where) product [PDF]. Fortunately, I was able to put the 3W and other volunteer-developed products directly into the hands of the UN’s most senior humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, and spend a few seconds explaining them before she went into meetings and interviews. This opportunity is extremely rare. Most often, due to nature and circumstances of emergency response, an IMO (Information Management Officer) is not present when such a product is distributed.

I cannot know the exact impact that the 3W product had when it was handed out at donor meetings, distributed in inter-cluster coordination meetings, and shared to over 2,000 people on a mailing list. I can only believe that its use greatly contributed to the humanitarian response. It augmented our other products and arguably helped to paint a more complete picture for a range of decision makers. Providing proof that this was the case was not something we sought to measure. It seemed obvious.

However, in discussing with colleagues how to respond to the digital humanitarians’ request, I recalled something that I had read in Gary Klein’s Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making about pieces of information required to make a decision.  After digging through my notes, I found what I was looking for: the author argues that experts typically use 5 cues to make a decision.

Even though only 5 cues will matter, experts tend to ask for more data than they will use. In an emergency, it is a constant stream of information from which decision makers need to take action. Experience helps responders develop patterns that let them size up situations quickly and accurately, therefore enabling them to judge what to pay attention to and what to ignore. They reserve their attention for the most important cues and aspects of a situation.

At the same time, we know that people can usually only hold 2 or 3 things in their short-term memory, meaning there is only a small chance that a given decision maker will be able to give you post-facto feedback on your product if they choose to ignore it in the stream of other cues. And, in a recently commissioned learning report by ACAPS entitled The Use of Evidence in Humanitarian Decision Making [PDF], the authors noted that “current processes of decision making tend to be undocumented and un-transparent. It is therefore hard to judge whether or how information and evidence have been used to inform them” while also noting that it is “common for experienced staff to base decisions mainly on past experiences, instinct, and assumptions – even in the face of contradicting evidence.” The result is that it is unfeasible to measure the impact of one specific product. There is a lot of information available, different experience has framed it differently for different decision makers, and it is impossible to ever know which combination of cues each decision maker used or ignored.

What is a cue exactly? For me, it is a range: from map products like the 3W, to verbal discussions with colleagues, to visual signs in the environment, to experience in past emergencies, to situation reports from different organizations, to assessments taken across the emergency, to political pressure from various governments. The challenge is how to figure out what cues are important to decision makers during emergencies and then focus our data and information efforts to this end.

Although there has been tons of research into decision making outside the humanitarian sector, the field of study is in no way complete or conclusive. The limited resources of humanitarian organizations to put towards studying decision-making (when compared to private industry), make understanding its intricacies even more difficult.

However, some work has started.

As difficult it is to answer their question, I am glad that the digital humanitarians are asking these hard questions. We need as many catalysts as we can get to help us find ways to understand decision-making and to make decision-making during emergency response more effective. Those affected by disasters depend on it.



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Creative Data Sharing and Open Humanitarianism

One major challenge during a humanitarian response is simply getting organizations, governments, and private sector to share their data. I have heard an amazing range of excuses from the logical (security), to fear of others trying to find un-constructive or pointless correlations (like Spurious Correlations), to the rather absurd (“HQ has not told me to share”). Even groups who you think have to share often do not. In an interview with NPR recently (MP3), Graeme Wood noted that the different peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic, one of the most severe crisis in the world right now, do not trust each other enough to share information or operational plans amongst themselves.  There seems like an endless list of reasons that people find to not share data.  So, how can we get people to share?  I see it as a three-prong approach: technology, human, and policy.


Of course we can, will, and need to build technical applications to enable people to share. As Jonathon Morgan of Ushahidi noted in the blog post announcing, which aims to be the crisis data firehouse, we are in an era where data is “locked away in forgotten databases, undocumented APIs, or proprietary formats that hide data in pie charts and situation reports.” The Humanitarian Data eXchange team is working on a platform that will define exchange standards, accept data, curate valuable information, provide an analytical interface, and enable a common operating picture for humanitarians. Both are formidable efforts that I am following keenly. I have been around the humanitarian field long enough to realize that a technical solution will unfortunately not magically change everything. We will need to put effort into the human and policy aspects of the data sharing puzzle.

Bringing the human element to technical solutions will help. As Frog points out, any technical solution must listen to and integrate user needs while adding benefit and using data responsibly if we want people to be comfortable with sharing data. And, as Eduardo Jezierski suggested with a health commons concept and Patrick Meier notes in his #noshare concept, we need to treat data about individuals with utmost care. Any technical solution is going to need to incorporate such integrity at its core - it will need superior user permissioning around data access.


But, when reflecting on the above, I recognized that we still need more “human” effort than just building technology to meet user requirements.  OCHA runs information management working groups (IMWG) in every major crisis to which they respond and this does help as it brings a human, in-person interface to a technical structure. Yet, having run several of these IMWGs in major emergencies, I know that it is still not enough.  And, I am regularly asked by OCHA Information Management Officers how to get partners to open their data.  So, I decided to start a list of creative examples of creative data sharing tactics that I have either experienced or read about in the past. While I cannot personally condone the following list, I found these examples to be quite creative. Many have added a social element, which I have advocated for in the past.

  1. Beer-for-Data (Afghanistan): Visitors to a bar were given a free beer if they added their data to a central hard-drive.  Data shared had to be ‘shareable’ with anyone.  Any visitor could then take a copy of the 1 TB of data (photos, imagery, white papers, point data, etc). The concept spawned at least one spin-off in the US.

  1. Facilities key (Pakistan earthquake 2005): Where the international responders set up their forward operations base, there was only one toilet. The key to that toilet was held in the central information center. In order to get the key, responders obviously had to visit the information center and share.

  1. 3W data not shared? No flight (Indonesia tsunami 2004/5).  The most senior UN official in Banda Aceh instituted a policy that humanitarians could not fly on UN-HAS unless their 3W and contact information had been shared with the Humanitarian Information Center.

  1. Contact details not shared? No flight (Sudan, 2005-07). The operators of UN-HAS used an openly available OCHA contact database to decide if someone was eligible to fly on any of their flights  [this was neither agreed nor sanctioned by OCHA].  If the person’s details were not on the database, UN-HAS would not issue them a ticket.

  1. Social center(s)  (Pakistan 2009-11, DPRK 2000+, etc). Coordination agencies have set up social centers that attract responders to come together, meet each other, and (as a result) become more willing to share data.

  1. Press coffee (Africa 2013+). In some of the long running African protracted emergencies, humanitarian press officers stopped holding press conferences. Rather they started something called “press coffee” where the journalists, public information & information management officers, spokesman and authorities hold casual events to talk about the humanitarian situation and share key information in both directions.


However, even if we can find creative ways to entice people to share - both carrot and stick approaches - we have not yet solved the overall policy challenge that stops information from flowing. There are some agreements within closed networks such as the Inter Agency Standing Committee’s Operational Guidance on Responsibilities of Sector/Cluster Leads and OCHA in Information Management [PDF], but these fall short on addressing the full community.

That is why I am working with Leandro Salazar-Liévano to draft the Open Humanitarianism concept. We want to leverage the open movement such that if a humanitarian organization or government (donor or recipient) wants to call itself an Open Humanitarian organization they will need to adhere to certain principles and behaviours, including an honest commitment to opening and sharing their data.  When an organization has labeled itself as Open Humanitarian, I would expect no delays during any humanitarian crisis. And, if such an organization stalled at either the local or global level, then anyone could publicly “press” these organizations as Source recently did with some of the modern data journalism sites, like FiveThirtyEight, who promote open yet struggle to share their work. I want humanitarian organizations to strive towards being open, transparent, participatory, collaborative, and accountable.

I believe that if we can find the right combination of technology, human or social relationships, and overarching policy, we will soon find a more efficient and effective humanitarian system.

If you would like to share your data sharing stories or join Leandro and I in our Open Humanitarianism adventure, please comment below.