Information Management Offers Humanitarian Agencies Opportunity for Coordination and Exchange

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Managing information is a critical feature of humanitarian work, and agencies working in the field of risk reduction are convinced that the better an organization is able to compile, analyze and disseminate critical information using effective information systems, the more efficient the humanitarian response will be and consequently, the greater the number of lives saved.

With this premise in mind, the Working Group on Risk, Disasters and Emergencies—part of the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) for Latin America and the Caribbean*—targeted information management as a key component of humanitarian response.

Recently, the Regional IASC commissioned a study to identify tools currently used in Latin America and the Caribbean to manage humanitarian information, with an emphasis on emergency and disaster response. Participating in the survey were the regional IASC members as well as 13 other regional and subregional agencies, five national civil defense organizations and participants from eight other countries. The following highlights of the study present a snapshot of the findings in selected countries and agencies.

Defining information management systems

The members of the Regional IASC include the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Pan American Disaster Response Unit (IFRC/PADRU), the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), the Pan American Health Organization/ World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Programme/Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (UNDP/BCPR), and the World Food Programme (WFP).

For the purposes of this study, an information “system” was defined as a set of elements that are organized into a pre-defined and accepted structure so that they relate to one another. Once these elements are organized into a “system,” it can be used to generate knowledge about complex issues including those related to emergencies and disasters, thus providing a platform for decision making and action.

A variety of information management systems already exists in Latin America and the Caribbean and currently are being used to support disaster preparedness, response and risk reduction initiatives, as well as post-disaster recovery and reconstruction processes. However, the organization and structure of these systems vary widely. Several factors such as an institution’s mandate, its disaster policies and available resources and staff experience level all have an effect on how an agency views risk management. In light of these variations, when regional agencies were polled and asked to define an information management system, their answers were complex.

Some agencies tended to associate information management systems with computer-aided or automated tools. Other institutions, however, thought of information management systems as coordination and/or response mechanisms. Although perceptions differed, one common conclusion stood out. Even in organizations that have an information management policy and structure, the end users were not sufficiently familiar with them and consequenly found it difficult to identify the system’s necessary components.
The findings of this study confirm that, when it comes to information management systems, humanitarian and emergency agencies are operating under many different conceptual frameworks. What’s more, the multiple objectives of these systems have not been broadly discussed and debated in an effort to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian operations. Therefore, key steps must be taken, including agreeing on a common definition and objectives, identifying the basic components of a humanitarian information management system and assessing whether or not these actually help save lives in emergency situations.

Taking information exchange a step further

According to the results of the survey, the impact of emergency information management systems in the Americas has never been formally measured. Humanitarian agencies commonly invest a tremendous amount of resources in a disaster response, with each agency organizing activities according to its mandate and using proprietary information systems. There is obvious coordination among most actors in the field, yet the real impact of the invested post-disaster resources has not been evaluated.

This drawback comes at a time when agencies recognize that the exchange of information is critical to determining the effectiveness of response operations. Yet in both crisis situations and times of peace, the type of information exchanged has been, for the most part, operational in nature; that is, related to programming issues or emergency activities, assistance needs, funding, deployment of human resources, etc. The actual management of information is still quite poor, despite advances in technology. In fact, although many institutions have complex information systems and standardized definitions of topics such as damage assessment or epidemiological data collection, they have been unable to go one step further in terms of collecting data, establishing norms, defining indicators or standardizing terminology.

To a large extent, this has occurred because information management systems continue to be centralized, in most cases at a headquarters’ level, without reflecting the regional perspective needed to make them effective. Although in theory most institutions demonstrate a willingness to share information, in practice, their formal and informal information policies have made them take a cautious approach.

Some final observations

It is important to note that a wide variety of information tools exists in Latin America. The quality, credibility and type of information they provide makes them very valuable to both internal and external users. However, many agencies stated that they would prefer a regional system for managing humanitarian information.

Using the tools already in place in the Region is key to developing an information management system that will respond to users’ expectations. No single system can contain all the information required to make decisions, reduce the impact of disasters and save lives. What it can do, however, is build and strengthen ties among humanitarian actors who generate information about the issues and processes involved in disaster and risk management.

This article was prepared by guest author Fiorella Mackliff, an independent consultant who carried out the study on disaster information management systems in Latin America and the Caribbean at the request of OCHA’s Regional Office in Panama. For more information, write to Gerard Gomez, Director of OCHA’s Regional Office at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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