Challenges in humanitarian information management and exchange: evidence from Haiti
There is a growing recognition of the critical role humanitarian information management and exchange (HIME) can play in shaping effective disaster response, coordination and decision-making. Quality information, reaching more humanitarian actors, will result in better coordination and better decision-making, thus improving the response to beneficiaries as well as accountability to donors. In our research published in Disasters* we analysed challenges to information flow in Haiti and the implications for effective humanitarian response using an analytical framework often found in humanitarian emergencies. Based on our analysis we offer three recommendations that hold potential to facilitate more effective information exchange approaches in humanitarian emergency response.
• Don’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good
We know that time is of essence in an effective response. Humanitarian agencies must remain agile and adaptive to changes on the ground in complex emergency settings like Haiti. Coordination must center on the knowledge that the setting is complex and produces interaction effects that should be studied carefully and for which contingency planning is key. Therefore, needs assessment tools should not be implemented if the process and dissemination will take so long that the information value is diluted and considered unreliable by users. In other words, placing a premium on getting information flows “right” may come at the expense of timeliness of dissemination so decisions can begin to be taken and opportunities for coordination can be explored. Some evaluators of the Haiti response have recommended, for example, that data analysis can be sound and information-sharing far more effective by developing an OCHA capacity to conduct multi-sectoral or cross-sectoral analyses that distribute results, even if imperfect, in a far more timely manner than was the case in Haiti.
• HIME must be perceived as value-added or it won’t be utilized
While hindsight may tell us that OCHA’s information in the Haiti response was only as good as the data it received, our findings indicate that humanitarian actors did not accord high value to the data available to them. Moreover, when humanitarian actors go elsewhere to get their information, it is a clear sign that the information OCHA is providing is not perceived as valuable. By following a supply-driven orientation rather than a demand/needs-driven orientation for information-sharing, the Cluster Approach may well be contributing to humanitarian underperformance (thereby inhibiting decision-making), but also may be denigrating its ability to enhance humanitarian coordination among and within clusters.
In addition to being perceived as value-added, information can only enhance humanitarian response effectiveness if it is perceived as reliable. We found that information flow impediments associated with quality and validity can exacerbate ambiguity and equivocality in humanitarian settings and make effective decision-making highly difficult. The attributes of information quality in the humanitarian context must be more fully understood in order to advance and evaluate effective information gathering and processing. There are at least two ways to do this: First, HIME can and should be designed specifically to deal with incompatible and/or unverifiable data. Second, HIME system design also needs to support “how people make sense of their environment” and not simply be devoted to analyzing and processing information for information’s sake. Without capturing the social facet of sense-making, information systems and representations in the electronic world can foster more chaos than order. Sensory information (e.g. context, emotive signals) are necessary for accurate perceptions of one’s environment and are forms of knowledge that cannot be captured by machines and data. In cases where HIME systems avoid integrating these woolly dimensions of data into broader repositories of knowledge, decision-making and coordination will be ineffective.
• HIME should accommodate permeability, ownership, and integrators
Technological advancements in HIME are not a panacea for generating effective humanitarian response. Corollary factors like the professional culture of and regulatory behavior among humanitarian organizations, donor structures, the role of the media, and civil-military interactions are also relevant. These factors all have an impact on information flows in humanitarian response and while they were not the direct focus of our analysis, the evidence we found points up these issues in an indirect, but nonetheless significant manner. Developing an accommodative approach may well help raise the profile of humanitarian information and create positive buy-in to the process on the part of humanitarian actors, thus enhancing overall system effectiveness. It rests on three interrelated features: permeability, information ownership, and information integrators.
Permeability refers to the flow of both people and information across organizational boundaries of the units that constitute a system, and is reflective of their norms, values, and cultures. Humanitarian actors have highly permeable boundaries because there are few barriers to the movement of individuals and information in and out of these organizations. UN agencies, on the other hand, have highly impermeable boundaries, tend to be bureaucratized, and follow elaborate norms and rules, as well as standardized operating procedures concerning HIME, and personnel management. While ideal for operational deployment flexibility and timely response, high permeability can hinder organizational learning and institutional memory in complex systems. This is especially true of data collection and information analysis that are carried out by multiple actors with no common set of guidelines or principles to guide their work.
Related to permeability is the notion of information ownership. The humanitarian response landscape prior to the establishment of the CA was characterized mainly by voluntary, informal, lateral modes of coordination, particularly among field-level actors. This has made establishing effective information flows, decision-making, and coordination extremely difficult. To help resolve this dilemma, OCHA has been assigned the role of “owner” of humanitarian organizational memory. It is a fitting role for the organization, as information owners should be ever present in every disaster and interact with the other units and sub-units, thus contributing to the system’s overall goals. To raise the priority given to HIME and positively induce information sharing in humanitarian settings, however, other corollary roles need to be established and accorded to other humanitarian actors. OCHA could, for example, experiment with officially designating cluster co-lead organizations as information co-owners. To some degree this is already occurring on the ground, particularly where clusters organize their own information-sharing platforms outside the OCHA structure.
Finally, the coordination modes that prevail among the sub-units of a humanitarian response system may occur by default or design, but they are often facilitated by actors within the system known as “integrators.” Cultivating a visible role for integrators could well help humanitarian organizations overcome their unwillingness to engage in HIME. Effective integrators have a wide social network, have a reasonable understanding of the goals and orientations of different groups, should be able to talk the language of different sub-units, are trusted by others, exert influence on the basis of its expertise rather than through formal power, and possess conflict resolution skills.
Complex emergencies like the 2010 Haiti earthquake are likely to characterize the humanitarian response landscape for the foreseeable future. Growing recognition of the importance of HIME in facilitating effective decision-making, coordination, and response is noteworthy, but there is considerable room for improvement in both the design and substance of its constitutive structures and processes.
Nezih Altay is an Associate Professor in the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business of DePaul University and an Associate Editor for the Journal of Humanitarian Logistics & Supply Chain Management.