What ICTs can do for humanitarian programmes

Disasters, Humanitarian

In an era of ever increasing humanitarian disasters and constantly evolving digital technology, Oxfam is gathering evidence about how Information Communications Technologies (ICTs) can improve the quality and efficiency of our work. In this blog, Laura Eldon shares progress to date with an exciting Sida-funded multi country programme which is exploring how ICTs can add value to activities throughout the humanitarian project cycle.

Increasing levels of connectivity and penetration of mobile phones mean ICTs have ever more relevant potential to support quality programming where appropriate. Over 60% of the countries in which Oxfam works now use ICTs in their programmes and more than half of these applications are linked to humanitarian response: for assessments, monitoring, registrations, information provision and feedback mechanisms. There are also increasing applications of technologies linked to cash modalities such as mobile money and vouchers.  ICTs are allowing Oxfam to
increase our impact, broaden our reach, reduce costs, increase speed to complete procedures, to allow more responsive programming and increase accountability. 

To date, however, many projects have initiated applications of ICTs but haven’t had the chance to investigate what works in one place compared to the next. That’s why we’re excited that this year we kick started the Scaling Humanitarian ICTs Network (SHINE): a multi country programme funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation (Sida) where we are exploring how ICTs can add value to activities throughout the humanitarian project cycle to test out our theory of change that ‘The quality and efficiency of
humanitarian aid can be improved through the adoption of ICTs.’ 

Adapting to connectivity contexts in the DRC and Ethiopia

We are already drawing together some interesting findings from Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These locations were selected not only because of strategic humanitarian importance and our colleagues’ energy and willingness to introduce ICTs, but also because these countries represent a great deal of contrast in the context and set up of the response. 

Connectivity is one factor which can vary dramatically. When I was in DRC, I had the worst phone connectivity I have ever experienced, but mobiles seem to be fairly widespread and people are used to them. So the country team in DRC are now using Android phones for all monitoring activities using the Open Data Kit (ODK) platform that can be deployed in low connectivity environments and speeds up data collection by removing the need for data input. 

Ethiopia has much better connectivity so the team have been able to experiment with more advanced tools. Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS) – a digital beneficiary information and distribution management system is being successfully deployed in two locations. After a training workshop in Ethiopia, mobile data collection training participants fed back saying, “Using mobile surveys makes life easier for me” and “Mobile surveys are easy to adapt. They help us think about the content we are collecting and are a good
complement to qualitative data capture.” 

Although different, if one thing unites these locations it is the high acceptance of digital tools and willingness to try new applications.

Ethics and methodologies around using ICTs in programmes

Potential applications of ICTs through the humanitarian cycleA significant foundation for all of these activities is the ethical and appropriate usage of ICTs across the humanitarian project cycle. So we have been using this Sida grant to consider how to put into practice our recently published Responsible Data Policy. Whenever
introducing ICT, it is important for us to troubleshoot the right approach and focus on the whole methodology, not just the tool. When we spend time introducing the technology to the community they are more likely to accept our approach. 

The importance of informed consent came to light when I visited IDP camps. It can be hard to imagine the experiences that people have been through, so it was important to put ourselves in their shoes when asking questions. Participants had to be comfortable having their data collected on phones and have the chance to opt out. 

One interview participant said “Its fine to record my answers, but please don’t take my photo.” So from then on we covered the cameras on all of the handsets with tape to assure people their answers were not being attributed to photos. 

Overall, SHINE is giving us the time, space and freedom to be proactive with applications of ICTs, spotting opportunities to integrate in existing work and even allowing us to shape and develop internal guidance beyond the remit of our grant. For the first time we have the flexibility to connect up what works – soon will be sharing the outcomes. So watch this space. 

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1. Using Last Mile Mobile Solutions to register people in Ethiopia. Credit: Oxfam/Laura Eldon
2. Potential applications of ICTs through the humanitarian cycle. Credit: Oxfam/ Laura Eldon

Author: Laura Eldon
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.