Internews Global Health Advisor Ida Jooste recently went to Liberia to serve as a mentor for 16 journalists as they worked with Internews to respond to information needs following the Ebola outbreak. Ida's visit to Liberia provided a great opportunity to learn more about the crucial role of reliable information in health emergencies; more specifically, the rumor-filled environment in Liberia during and after the Ebola crisis provided Internews with an ideal opportunity to employ its Information Ecosystems Tool in a humanitarian crisis. The tool provides a framework for asking structured but open questions to help media and decision-makers demystify information needs, sources, and fears.
With only limited time in Liberia, Ida was on the lookout for ways to use the tool meaningfully. She was spending time in the field with community radio journalist Alpha Senkpeni in Buchanan town, about 70 miles South of Monrovia to get a sense of his world. Alpha told her about the burden of responsibility he feels – to tell the truth and to help his audience sift truth from untruth, knowing whom to trust. “There is a lot of Ebola information – not all of it is trustworthy,” he told her. Alpha said information can make a life or death difference in a health emergency. For Ida this was an Aha! Moment: Alpha could use the Information Ecosystems tool to find out which sources his audience regard to be trustworthy. There was no internet connection, but Ida had preloaded the tool onto her iPad. Alpha scrolled feverishly through the different pillars of the tool as she explained how responses to a series of themed questions would help him understand a community’s information needs. The tool also facilitates enquiry about social trust linked to information, with questions like “What are the most trusted information sources? How does this change during disruption?” “It could help LACSA Radio serve our audience better. Come with me!” Alpha led her to a regular meeting of a think-tank called All People, One People. Without much fanfare, the group readily agreed to make the information flow around Ebola the theme of their day’s discussion and Alpha was keen to put the tool to use.
“Two things amazed me: the skill with which Alpha eased into the role of researcher with the tool as his guide and the generosity of the All People, One People Forum, who reorganized their plans for the day and keenly answered all the questions Alpha put to them”, says Ida. Alpha methodically scrolled through every column of the tool and asked every question listed, creating flow as he moved from one pillar to the next. Ida took note of the responses from the floor. Some themes were clearly of more interest to the group than others; above all, they were concerned with the credibility of information in a crisis, just like Alpha. Some individuals echoed narratives that we've heard before: many people did not believe Ebola existed. The key themes that surfaced from the discussion: consistency of information and messaging, social trust and credibility, and mobile technology's role in dissemination of information.
Using the tool in this way, with an informed and captive audience, produced a range of insights into the flow of information in Buchanan, Monrovia. The series of structured questions provided a tight framework for the discussion, but nevertheless allowed people to forefront what was most pertinent to them. “What Alpha and I did was Info Ecosystems lite”, says Ida. Light, because it was only one group (of men) and their views may not be representative of all of Buchanan. Nevertheless, the process of scanning through the list of themed questions effortlessly brought into focus the points of consensus and points of disagreement for this group. “This tells me that with just a little more time available, the exercise could be repeated a number of times in the same town to gather views from a wider demographic range of people – and in this way produce data with a great deal of validity.” Next, Ida would like to use the tool to hone in on one pillar of enquiry, for instance Production and Movement of information in a certain ecology, and perhaps conduct four focus group discussions, involving men and women representative of urban and rural audiences, as well as interview a dozen key informants, then write up the trends that surface.
The information ecosystems framework continues to offer new insight into how we understand humanitarian crises – before, during, and after their occurrence.