In humanitarian disasters, people affected by the unfolding tragedy need more than physical necessities: they also have an urgent need for information. From earthquakes to armed conflicts, survival can depend on knowing the answers to questions such as: is it safe to go back home? Should I stay with my family or go elsewhere for help? What is the extent of the damage? Where can I get clean water and food? What are the symptoms of cholera? Where is the nearest health facility?
Since the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, Internews has been building partnerships and working closely with humanitarian organizations and government agencies at all stages of emergency response to meet information and communications needs of disaster affected communities while supporting and partnering with local media to build community resilience.
One of the first activities that Internews currently carries on in the aftermath of an emergency is the Humanitarian Information Needs Assessment. This assessment is aimed at understanding the information needs of affected communities and exploring ways to improve the communication flow between refugees/IDPs, aid agencies, and host communities. This is part of Internews’ and others’ global efforts to strengthen the focus on humanitarian communication needs.
Historically, little to no systematic attention has been given to this crucial issue. Inter-Agency Needs Assessments, for example, have not specifically looked into the communication needs of the people the humanitarian community is there to serve, resulting in major gaps in aid effectiveness and downward accountability. Internews, through the infoasaid (http://infoasaid.org/) project, is working now with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Needs Assessment Task Force (NATF) in Geneva to try to ensure that questions on information access are an integral part of needs assessments methodologies.
The information needs assessments, therefore, aim to both support better local humanitarian communications on the ground and build the global body of evidence around the importance of effective and efficient communication with affected populations. Improving the understanding of local information ecosystems is vital for humanitarian agencies to save lives and be more effective in the delivery of aid.
Dadaab: the first pilots using smart phones for Humanitarian Information Needs Assessments
In August 2011, Internews conducted a Humanitarian Information Needs assessment in Dadaab, Kenya, in partnership with Radio Ergo/International Media Support (IMS) and Star FM of Kenya, supported by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The survey design drew from similar exercises conducted by Internews in other humanitarian disasters, including the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, last year’s floods in Pakistan, and the Liberia/Cote d’Ivoire refugee crisis in June.
The assessment piloted the use of smartphones to record respondents’ answers in the field, in combination with paper surveys. This meant answers could be uploaded in real-time, with the promise of instantaneous data and analysis. The uploading and online data-management was done through the platform developed by EpiSurveyor. Overall, the pilot was successful in gathering data live from the field, but it also indicated areas for improvement in post-collection data analysis, hardware support on the ground, training, and survey design methodologies.
Instantaneous data collection and analysis holds great promise, both to provide real-time data for fast response, and as another tool for ongoing monitoring and quality control of field research activities themselves. Internews and the Assessment Team intends to share these tools and techniques, especially as they become more refined, with any humanitarian organization that wishes to use them or test them out further.
The Dadaab assessment also allowed the Research team to identify best practices and refine the methodology and the survey template. Since then, Internews and the Humanitarian Media Project in particular, have been exploring possibilities to create a standard survey toolkit and research methodology for the Humanitarian Needs Assessments.
Since this effort began in August 2011, Internews and a number of prospective partner organizations throughout the world have been experimenting with new tools and technologies that can enhance the information and communication accessible to disaster-affected communities, improve community resilience, and strengthen local media infrastructure.
Testing a humanitarian mobile data gathering kit
Today, we are launching a pilot project to test which humanitarian mobile data gathering kit would best support a research team conducting Humanitarian Information Needs Assessments. More importantly, we would like to test which hardware and software technology could enable a research team - in the midst of a crisis - to easily train local researchers on the ground to collect, aggregate, share and analyze information within the time span of a week.
In 2011, we procured five different types of emergency standby kits (newsroom equipment, production equipment, broadcast equipment, communication equipment and office equipment) that are stored at our London office, packed and ready for immediate deployment to disaster-affected areas (see picture).
Each kit contains the equipment necessary to contribute to fully-fledged humanitarian communications operations and can be taken with Internews staff to different crisis contexts, depending on the particular needs of the response. The “Radio-in-a-Box” can be assembled and ready to broadcast in less than two hours.
Following on this project, we intend to explore the possibility of using FormHub, a mobile data gathering software tool, to create a very similar toolkit that will be paired with the “Radio-in-a-Box” to conduct rapid information needs assessments. We will test the software and its possible customizations, as well as the hardware necessary to deploy a ready-to-go survey system.
In particular, with this pilot project we are interested in looking at:
- an easy to use analysis system that allows for a 48 hour maximum turnaround between data collection and data analysis
- how to minimize mistakes by researchers on the ground when using the smart phones
- how to refine a comprehensive yet brief survey that can be customized and adapted to different type of emergencies or information assessments
- how to edit, share and map data gathered on the ground in real time
- the development of documentation, like training material and training curriculums, to be paired with the toolkit
The toolkit would consist of the following items:
- A ruggedized laptop with a built-in 3G modem, loaded with a local instance of FormHub (this would allow offline survey authoring, data gathering and data analysis)
- An SMS modem with FrontlineSMS or similar software running on it
- A ruggedized solar panel, battery, and inverter for charging the netbook and phones when off-grid
- A powerful wifi router to create a local wifi network
All will be packaged in a ruggedized Pelican case, ready to be deploy in 24 hours.
The Modi Research Group at Columbia University will provide the engineering expertise to design and customize the system, while Internews will provide the logistical support for field testing. A team composed of a FormHub engineer, the Internews Research lead, and the Innovation Advisor for Humanitarian Media will then implement the pilot on the ground in one area chosen by the Internews Humanitarian team. The location will be chosen based on existing technical infrastructure, availability of electricity and internet connection, degree of the humanitarian emergency, security issues related to the use of mobile technology for data gathering, and other variables that could possibly affect the system. The Modi Research Group will prepare technical documentation on use of the system, while Internews will be responsible for the creation of final end-user documentation.
Internews' objectives include exploring the feasibility and impact of having such a toolkit ready to deploy, and we will use this pilot to further refine our Information Needs Assessment methodology from the technical and conceptual point of view. Internews is particularly interested in looking at customizations that can improve the system's ease of use on the ground, while developing a strong, sustainable and robust system that can be used for all Humanitarian Information Needs Assessments in the future.
We will also like to explore the possibility of integrating the toolkit with Captricity, a web-based service for digitizing paper documents that contain human-entered or other unique symbolic data. The integration of this system into the toolkit will allow the researchers on the ground to decide, according to the security situation, whether to use paper forms or mobile phones.
The Humanitarian Data Toolkit will be co-branded by Internews, the Modi Research Group and Captricity. The parts list, reference manuals, training guides will be made freely available under a Creative Commons license.