The United Nations Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, OCHA and my “alma matter” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative just launched an important report that seeks to chart the future of disaster response based on critical lessons learned from Haiti. The report, entitled “Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies,” builds on a previous UN/Vodafone Foundation Report co-authored by Diane Coyle and myself just before the Haiti earthquake: “New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflict: The Role of Information and Social Networks.”
The authors of the new study begin with a warning: “this report sounds an alarm bell. If decision makers wish to have access to (near) real-time assessments of complex emergencies, they will need to figure out how to process information flows from many more thousands of individuals than the current system can handle.” In any given crisis, “everyone has a piece of information, everyone has a piece of that picture.” And more want to share their piece of the picture. So part of the new challenge lies in how to collect and combine multiple feeds of information such that the result paints a coherent and clear picture of an evolving crisis situation. What we need is a Signac, not a Picasso.
The former, Paul Signac, is known for using “pointillism,” a technique in which “small, distinct dots of pure color are applied in patterns to form an image.” Think of these dots as data points drawn from diverse pallets but combined to depict an appealing and consistent whole. In contrast, Pablo Picasso’s paintings from his Cubism and Surrealism period often resemble unfinished collages of fragmented objects. A Picasso gives the impression of impossible puzzle pieces in contrast to the single legible harmony of a Signac.
This Picasso effect, or “information fragmentation” as the humanitarian community calls it, was one of the core information management challenges that the humanitarian community faced in Haiti: “the division of data resources and analysis into silos that are difficult to aggregate, fuse, or otherwise reintegrate into composite pictures.” This plagued information management efforts between and within UN clusters, which made absorbing new and alternative sources of information–like crowdsourced SMS reports–even less possible.
These new information sources exist in part thanks to new players in the disaster response field, the so-called Volunteer Technical Communities (VTCs). This shift towards a more multi-polar system of humanitarian response brings both new opportunities and new challenges. One way to overcome “information fragmentation” and create a Signac is for humanitarian organizations and VTCs to work more closely together. Indeed, as “volunteer and technical communities continue to engage with humanitarian crises they will increasingly add to the information overload problem. Unless they can become part of the solution.” This is in large part why we launched the Standby Volunteer Task Force at the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010): to avoid information overload by creating a common canvas and style between volunteer crisis mappers and the humanitarian community.
What is perhaps most striking about this new report is the fact that it went to press the same month that two of the largest crisis mapping operations since Haiti were launched, namely the Libya and Japan Crisis Maps. One could already write an entirely new UN/Vodafone Foundation Report on just the past 3 months of crisis mapping operations. The speed with which learning and adaptation is happening in some VTCs is truly astounding. As I noted in this earlier blog post, “Crisis Mapping Libya: This is no Haiti“, we have come a long way since the Haiti response. Indeed, lessons from last year have been identified, they have been learned and operationally applied by VTCs like the Task Force. The fact that OCHA formally requested activation of the Task Force to provide a live crisis map of Libya just months after the Task Force was launched is a clear indication that we are on the right track. This is no Picasso.
Referring to lessons learned in Haiti will continue to be important, but as my colleague Nigel Snoad has noted, Haiti represents an outlier in terms of disasters. We are already learning new lessons and implementing better practices in response to crises that couldn’t be more different than Haiti, e.g., crisis mapping hostile, non-permissive environments like Egypt, Sudan and Libya. In Japan, we are also learning how a more hierarchical society with a highly developed and media rich environment presents a different set of opportunities and challenges for crisis mapping. This is why VTCs will continue to be at the forefront of Disaster 2.0 and why reports like this one are so key: they clearly show that a Signac is well within our reach if we continue working together.