The impact of increased mobile communication access, internet connectivity and proliferation of social media has resulted in information overload in the 21st century. Making sense of the vast amount and types of information is becoming harder and harder. This is particularly apparent in the aftermath of disasters, where time is of the essence, in making key decisions based on best available information at the same time that the information itself is continually evolving. This can often be a matter of survival for those affected by the crisis.
In 2010, during the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan flood responses, we saw “for the first time, members of the community affected by the disaster issued pleas for help using social media and widely available mobile technologies. Around the world, thousands of ordinary citizens mobilized to aggregate, translate, and plot these pleas on maps and to organise technical efforts to support the disaster response.”  This created a challenge for the humanitarian community – a fire hose of constant information flow, which was extremely overwhelming to handle. In addition, the humanitarian community and the global tech community were not used to working together and their systems and process at times were incompatible. They did not ‘speak’ each other’s language.
While the need for streamlining information flows for better and timely decision-making is recognised, since 2010 not much has changed in terms of a concerted effort to harmonise systems. While the humanitarian community has slowly accepted the global tech community, their systems and processes are still often at odds. Humanitarian professionals more than ever need assistance in filtering through the masses of data to find the relevant information for their role and their location, while also being able to layer that information with the information about the context in which they are working in order to better understand its relevance. Additionally, there is a greater need to not only extract information from communities, but to engage in two-way communications with communities affected by disasters. Communities, as active users of various different media, have a growing expectation for information to be shared with them through multiple channels.
Over the past two years, World Vision (WV), a Member of the CDAC Network, has created the initial prototype of the Speed Evidence Portal. This begins to bring order and usability to the information overload. World Vision worked with Ushahidi, SMAP, and FrontlineSMS to create the Portal, which is fully customisable and available to download for free at www.speedevidence.com.
The Portal captures information shared on social media, RSS feeds, SMS, and digital surveys. It then maps and tags the information making it all filter-able. Additionally, the Portal allows for notifications, a question forum, and other plugins. The information manager can easily engage in two-way communication with anyone who shares information with the Portal, whether they are affected communities, field staff or HQ staff, as s/he has the ability to respond directly to messages received by the portal. This allows for ease of sharing information across multiple channels and for multiple users to receive timely information. This helps in reducing the time it takes for deployed field staff in filtering and answering the plethora of messages, enabling more efficient use of time and information.
The portal was ‘field tested’ by World Vision during the Typhoon Haiyan Response and subsequently in Somalia, and Lebanon. Several lessons emerged during the implementation of the project which concerned the uptake of the platform and point to the need for organisations to adopt certain processes to help optimise the use of the platform.
Some of the key lessons learnt during this project are:
- Organisational reluctance to change was one of the biggest challenges the project faced. Where possible, we recommend that you integrate a new technology product into existing organisational technology systems, but recognise this will bring about its own challenges. Deciding on when to do the integration is an important decision. The Speed Portal was built outside of the WV systems because it was the quickest way (developing a comprehensive information management tool for use in emergency responses was not part of WV’s IT thinking or plans) to prototype and would better enable us to share the Portal with other organisations. This decision did allow us to develop a prototype quickly, but also resulted in many challenging internal conversations to navigate.
- 2. Sometimes it was helpful to focus only on one aspect of the Portal (digital assessments, SMS communication, mapping, etc.) to build familiarity and momentum with the staff. For example, the Speed Project had tested Smartphones for digital assessments in 2011. This created a groundswell of field staff that were keen to use the smartphones for assessments as they saw how technology can be of use, reducing human error, speed of data collection and analysis. This meant that digital assessment uptake grew rapidly within WV, resulting in over 122,500 surveys being downloaded and digital assessments being carried out in over 15 countries, in 2 years since their introduction. The above created the space for frontline staff to see for themselves.
- 3. Information management is rarely thought about thoroughly enough by aid agencies. It is critical for stakeholders to distinguish between what is needed, what is wanted and how the information will be used. This includes: the type of information; frequency for sharing and collecting the information; how it will be collected; what format the information should be in; who will collect it and what means will be used to collect it. Additionally, information is often only available in static databases – full of documents, spreadsheets, and PDFs – rather than interactive datasets and dynamic maps; infographics and downloadable datasets.
- There is an immense opportunity for agencies to better engage their ‘general public’ supporter bases to help reduce information overload. The Speed Project team experimented with this during Typhoon Haiyan by using a small group of volunteers to plot information on the Portal – we learned this is possible, but to do it on a larger scale we need to create better processes. Small-scale experiments with this type of engagement can continue, but for larger rollout, it needs to be part of organisational disaster preparedness. For example, Crisismappers has a large global volunteer network through which they process and map all their information and have developed specific tools like micromappers to assist this process.
- Testing, experimenting and development is never ‘over’ – this is constant, requiring platform development to occur around those people using the product. This means seeing development as an iterative process rather than a finite one.
The minimum viable version of the Portal proved successful. It is built on open-source software, is completely customisable, and at the end of August 2014 World Vision released the Speed code, designs, FAQs, lessons, evaluations, instructions for installing and running the Speed Platform externally on a promotional website (http://www.speedevidence.com). This is to make it available to other humanitarian agencies who can make free use of it, in whole or in part.
About the Authors:
Amos Doornbos, co-led the development of the Speed Portal for World Vision, is Director at Faces of Another World
Madara Hettiarachchi is Associate Director of Humanitarian Accountability at World Vision International.