Information Management, Sharing and Standards

Pablo Recalde

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
Room DC1-1056, One United Nations Plaza, New York, NY, USA 10017

1. Background

While we may not be able to precisely define information, we know what it is when we see it. Information by itself is not useful, but must be applied in a variety of ways to generate useful knowledge for an organisation. While improved information management should be an objective in itself for organisations, the real measure of success is how that improvement benefits the delivery of assistance be it humanitarian or developmental.
Over the last 20 years of humanitarian response we have not come much further in placing the use and management of such information to the forefront of humanitarian decision making. The very nature of emergencies mean that, very often, information is not easily available at the point at which a response is required. In theory there is much more information available to us now than would have been say 20 years ago, yet the problems we face in dealing with that information still appear to be the same.
There is a direct association between the effective management of information and the effective delivery of humanitarian and other assistance. Of course there are external factors - political influences, funding availability, security concerns - but these do not remove the central importance of good information management.
Advances in information and communications technologies have made more effective information management possible in ways that could only be dreamt of in the 1970s. While the size and sophistication of the humanitarian response has increased, our use of new technology to support that response has not advanced correspondingly.
Most organisations are now willing to invest in IT personnel because they realise that they will face problems if they do not. However most fail to capitalise on the potential to improve their work that the technology itself offers in areas such as field-headquarter communication, survey and needs assessment, integrated reporting, and information-sharing.
All these claims for IT come with an important qualification. One of the great mistakes that organisations make is to value the technology over the process. This can lead to organisations investing heavily in systems that go beyond their needs and then failing to make use of them effectively. Information technology is not a magic bullet, and on its own will not create better information systems that enable organisations to function more effectively.


2. What is needed ?

Changes in our organisational cultures so that the wider processes of information management become a priority. At present most organisations do not invest enough in this area of activity, yet humanitarian work relies on effective information management. Consider these points:
・ needs assessments and evaluations cannot take place without proper data collection techniques;
・ inadequate processing of that data will lead to weak, late or just inaccurate analysis;
・ poor dissemination of that analysis will prevent key personnel from making decisions based on good information;
・ the inability to change information into knowledge will prevent the organisation from developing its institutional memory, learning from its successes and mistakes.
It is clear that information is a foundation tool that should underlie all other areas of an organisation's work. This is not to claim that humanitarian assistance is solely dependent on making sure that your filing cabinet is in good order - but it is definitely the case that more effective management of information will lead to more effective delivery of aid.
In the humanitarian sector, information is rarely collected on a systematic basis to enable us to share it with others; it does not reach decision-makers in a form that enables them to make informed choices; it is not stored in a way that makes it possible for our organisations to learn from their experiences.
Numerous humanitarian organisations do work with information, collecting the data they need in the form of assessments, surveys, evaluations and other field-based exercises. However data collection tends to focus on areas that are specific to individual organisations, and are not collected in a way that enables that information to be easily shared or at all.
The weaknesses of this approach is clear. The narrow geographical and thematic focus of most organisations' information gathering means that they will find it hard to take into account information from other locations and other sectors. Smaller organisations will not be able to get access to reliable information; bigger organisations will rely too much on their own information.
At the same time, rapid advances in information and communications technology have led to a proliferation in the quantity of information available to humanitarian workers at all levels - but not necessarily any corresponding improvements in their abilities to usefully handle that information.
Many organisations have difficulty sharing information because they feel that by sharing they give up the control over how that information is used. Particularly when it comes to operational security, or raising funds for their work, organisations may feel that sharing information will actually jeopardise their work. These are legitimate concerns that should be addressed. At the moment, however, most humanitarian organisations are content to work without clear guidelines on how they will use their information, leaving field and HQ staff alike to fend for themselves.
The starting point is the development of effective policies that place information management at the centre of our responses, and management systems that back up those policies. While this might begin to sound like a complicated exercise in organisational development, there is only one basic and straightforward requirement for improving information management. This is simply that those involved in the collection of information do so in such a way that this information is able to be shared both within their organisation, and with other organisations.


3. What does this mean in practice?

It means working with other organisations to ensure that your data is compatible with other data, through the application of data standards, such as agreed geographic place codes for settlements. It means that lines of communication between senior decision-makers and those who work with them are clear and well-understood, and that reporting structures are timely, reliable and regular. It means that monitoring and evaluation are priorities, budgeted for in every project, to ensure that your organisation does learn from its experiences. For every aspect of an organisation's work, more can be done to make it more effective.
The ultimate aim is to create an organisational culture that encourages and rewards information sharing, an information culture that makes sharing that information simple - through channels as diverse as information focal points, the Intranet, regular meetings, listserv distributions, real-time bulletins, etc. In order to achieve this, changes need to happen at every level of our organisations to encourage the basic habits of managing information more effectively.
Information management is a process, not an event, and will only succeed if those involved understand the value of information and are committed to its effective use. Managing your information is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and the real measure of success is how improved management increases the timeliness, appropriateness and coordination of humanitarian assistance.