Cleaning up complexity: Making information useful for all

Grace Lyn Higdon ICT4D, Methodology

In 2015 Oxfam was awarded a Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) grant to support field staff to capture (currently undocumented) informal feedback which is received face-to-face by creatively using ICTs to enable responsive and accountable uses of information. Below Grace Higdon, Project assistance within Oxfam’s ICT in Programme team, takes us through some of the project’s outcomes.

In June 2016, Oxfam launched a pilot using mobile devices to collect and respond to informal feedback about our services in the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. After extensive research on tool selection, members of Oxfam’s ICT in Progamme team arrived in Jordan to conduct initial training, set-up the technology and assist with implementation.

“Now our managers can actually see how much work we do” reflected a member of Oxfam staff following the first week of the pilot being live. Working in complex environments often involves incremental contributions that frequently get lost in the reporting ether. Decisions are often reached through a medley of text messages, passing conversations and short phone calls; all of which are rarely documented, but accumulate to a series of intermediary tasks that take a lot of time and effort. This pilot aims not only to consolidate certain types of informal communication between refugees and staff into appropriate instruments for redress, but also to consolidate certain types of informal, internal communication amid Oxfam staff. Recording the latter will underscore the volume and complexity of daily activities, as well as clearly determine what’s actually getting done and what’s falling through the cracks.

How do we organize an influx of feedback from refugees?
One of the most challenging but vital components of the pilot’s implementation revolved around how to practically conceptualize workflows as they might optimally operate. How do we organize an influx of feedback from refugees, so that individual cases are routed to the Oxfam team best equipped to resolve a particular type of issue? How can we systematically identify, link, and assign responsibility for responding to a particular complaint?

Our project has four different types of users:

  1. Refugees who receive Oxfam services
  2. Volunteers, those in our cash for work programme and members of the refugee population, who open new cases through the mobile application following informal conversations that take place within the community
  3. Oxfam managers and field staff based in Za’atari who interact with the system by creating new feedback cases on a mobile phone, update ‘open’ cases and close cases once resolved or responded to
  4. Global operations staff that primarily remotely monitor feedback being collected in real-time through the use of an online desktop portal

Facilitated dialogue with these four types of users, in conjunction with workflow mapping exercises, identified and refined the most common categories of feedback the teams already receive. Determining how to classify feedback and building consensus for how to delegate responsibility for follow-up required a myriad of technical conversations about what individuals do, and how to use technology to renovate internal accountability procedures.

The application we’ve launched in Za’atari allows users to select from a menu of staff-defined categories which redirect the case to predetermined team members. Staff then conduct specific follow-up activities, all of which can be chronicled through the application’s automated reporting mechanisms. The feedback categories will not remain static and the frequency of specific classifications will fluctuate. New categories can be defined and modified while old categories are discarded as the types of services Oxfam delivers change during a project’s lifespan, or from project to project.

The workflow systems need to be inherently flexible to adapt to changing circumstances, particularly high staff turnover, a sector-wide ailment given the required mobility of humanitarian personal, which we have also encountered during pilot implementation in Za’atari . Thus the technology we are using must be able to adapt as the people and the processes change.

Shifting the gaze from staff and internal processes, preliminary feedback from refugees indicates that the pilot is making an impression. Observing Oxfam staff enter feedback into a mobile device directly proceeding an informal conversation lends a heightened sense of legitimacy for refugees, they trust that the information they’ve just reported is being transmitted through official channels. We hope to explore these perceptions further monitoring these impressions, especially as we track staff capacity to address complaints and close the increasing number of feedback loops initiated as part of this pilot project.

Our main take away so far is that this is as much about the refugees, listening and responding to their priorities, as it is about the people striving everyday to deliver services to the refugees, to do it better, and to be recognized for the work that they do.

This post was originally published on the HIF website


Professor Bev Skeggs