Evolving ICTs in humanitarian: The power of networks

Amy O'Donnell ICT4D, Innovation, Methodology

Amy O’Donnell unpacks the idea that ICTs save time, money and improve accuracy, whilst exploring the conditions needed for them to add value in humanitarian response.

For three years, the Scaling Humanitarian ICTs Network (SHINE) funded by Sida has been exploring the role of Information Communications Technologies in humanitarian response. Last month all five countries in the network: Ethiopia, DRC, Mali, Indonesia and Iraq, were represented in Addis Ababa for the final learning event which set out to pull together learning and plan for the next steps.

The group had a social opportunity to visit “Lucy” who is 3.2 million years old and the most ancient early human – or hominin – ever found. Evidence showed that she walked like a human, but her flat feet and long arms indicated she would not have walked very fast and spent at least some of her time up trees. In many ways we can draw parallels between this snapshot of our own evolution with how Oxfam are experimenting with ICTs. While the rapidly developing digital landscape is presenting humanitarians with new realities and forcing us to respond, pathways to digitise are not straightforward and we still have areas to develop and evolve to ensure we harness the full potential.


Mobile data collection has been the most popular and successfully administered functionality with time saving being the most commonly reported benefit. The proliferation of tools developed by private sector actors and by NGOs themselves makes it difficult to choose the most appropriate solutions. Tools have been researched and invested in centrally and as SHINE has encouraged experimentation, learning and decisions have informed future applications.

Focus needs to shift to a set of specialised functions which can be matched to the context

There is often an expectation that there is a single tool for multiple applications and contexts, but the reality is there is no one-size-fits-all. Focus needs to shift to considering a set of specialised functions which can be matched to the context or need. With realisation of the growing number of discrete tasks, more work is needed on integration of different tools and interoperability of data sets so these functionalities and ultimately the data can be pieced together, allowing for an interoperable and much broader toolkit as data sets are stored in accessible locations with comparable analysis drawn between them.

It is important to make space to trial new tools. However, for large organisations planning for support and data interoperability, there is an important tipping point to streamline and select tools for standard processes. Despite the existence of some free tools, the training and capacity requirements present a high barrier to entry for their application in most contexts unless technical skills are in place and knowledge does not reside with few experts.

Prioritising learning

At Oxfam, new applications of previously tested models should start with recommended solutions by default, such as those in the mobile survey toolkit. Unless there is a viable exception such as working in consortia with tools to support specific ways of working which may override internal selection. There is high value in initiatives that prioritise learning across multiple contexts to build a picture of good practice in the adoption of ICTs. It is evident that there is a need for global convening, organising and the circulation of learning and that measures, such as communications opportunities, need to be put in place for networks of staff using ICTs to thrive. Communities of practice take a great deal of work to moderate and keep alive so SHINE focal points will need to be proactive in opening spaces for learning which work for them.

Crucially, technology itself is only a small part of the equation as the success of application is dependent on quality programming, team make-up, human processes and the operational environment. Human process has been proven to be just as – if not more – important than ICTs themselves. While ICTs can enable time savings, efficiency and accuracy in data, to be effective they need to align with quality programmes, effective design and skilled staff to ensure rigorous use and application of data.

The approach of supporting a percentage of focal points from support and technical functions has been critical for success and enabled knowledge and skills to be maintained beyond the SHINE lifecycle. It is the combination of technical experts from Information Services (IS) or Monitoring Evaluation and Learning (MEAL) in collaboration with programme experts that has proven to be the most effective team set-up. It is important that ICT does not automatically fall into the MEAL remit and is owned in programme teams when their use is connected to programme delivery.

Opening spaces to learn

The SHINE network set up has proven to be a supportive space which offers staff confidence and inspiration and its model should be considered for replication in other areas. Systems and processes need to be mapped early to ensure the early involvement of multiple stakeholders and the concurrent running of similar processes in different systems.

It has been uncommon for donors to fund initiatives to dedicate space and resources to learning about what makes theories about technology become reality in practice. Through a wide breadth of contexts, geographies and humanitarian responses this fund has demonstrated how ICTs can support processes, including areas where it is appropriate to innovate and areas where enough knowledge and experience makes it conducive to streamline tools and approaches. SHINE was purposefully designed to test support systems with a view to longer term, sustainable use and to shape models for future adoption of ICTs in humanitarian contexts.

Further reading

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Razan Wazwaz