Oxfam Community Health Volunteers in Clara Town, Liberia during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Credit: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Information management matters in emergencies

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‘A properly functioning information management system means data can travel from a community health volunteer in a remote village in Nigeria, to a mailing pack which may land on your welcome mat.’ Tom Smith reflects on the importance of managing information well in humanitarian responses.

Oxfam Community Health Volunteers in Clara Town, Liberia during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Credit: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Oxfam Community Health Volunteers in Clara Town, Liberia during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Credit: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

I’m new to the humanitarian sector, but from what I’ve seen, information management isn’t at the forefront of peoples’ minds. And this is entirely understandable. If an earthquake or typhoon hits somewhere, we’re rushing people to provide life-saving aid, not excel sheets. A comprehensive activity tracker isn’t likely to lead on a fundraising campaign.

Information management is a big issue

I was recently in a meeting with someone who’d returned from a deployment, and one of their biggest concerns was the lack of information available to people in country. This prevented quick and informed decision making.

And it’s not just the quality of programmes and responses that suffer if information isn’t circulating properly – it touches many areas across Oxfam. The facts and figures we use in the media, in campaigns or in fundraising appeals; this comes from the field. A properly functioning information management system means data can travel from a community health volunteer in a remote village in Nigeria, to a mailing pack which may land on your welcome mat.

What does good information management look like and how does it help?

Establishing ‘information flows’ – the network in which we collect our info – early on in a response is key. It allows us to understand what information we need, and where it’s going to come from.

And this could be a lot of information, involving a lot of people. In some responses, we may have several field offices, with a number of teams operating out of it – each with their own programmes and ways of working. It’s easy to see how it can become an elaborate, complex network – and this is just the collating stage.

‘Our Ebola response in 2014 offers us a great example. Our health volunteers and staff used GPS to map where suspected and confirmed cases were’
Once these updates are received, they need to be managed – consolidating the information into one centralised system. This enables us to have an easily accessible overview of our response, and can help in decision making. Our Ebola response in 2014 offers us a great example. Our health volunteers and staff used GPS to map where suspected and confirmed cases were, and this allowed us to focus in areas where it was most needed. During a time where rapid action was required to save lives, this information meant we could act in a decisive manner.

As well as informing the decision-making process, a whole host of products are created on the back of the information management system – from situation reports and external updates to funding and advocacy messages.

How can we improve our information systems?

While no two emergencies will ever be the same, there can be some consistency in the way we capture, present and share information.

We also need to look at the issue of institutional learning, and how we ensure we’re using the experiences of colleagues to improve. Information management plays an important role here – especially in the sharing of knowledge. With such high turnovers of staff in responses, how do we put in place processes that mean lessons learned aren’t lost the moment a person steps on a plane or leaves the country?

We’re in the process of refreshing our information management in emergencies guide – taking in some recent experiences, from different contexts, to form a series of best practice principles.

It won’t be intended to be a rigid set of rules or processes to follow – speak to this person for this, and that person for that – but will build on some of the lessons we’ve captured from recent responses. And so that we’re really living the principles of good information and knowledge management, we need to go about engaging with our teams and sharing this learning. After all, a wealth of information hidden away in a labyrinth of folders isn’t any use to anyone.

Do you work for an INGO? What challenges and solutions has your organization found when managing information in emergencies? We’d be interested to hear from you, comment below.

Author
Tom Smith

Tom Smith

Tom joined Oxfam in 2017 as an Information, Knowledge and Communications Officer within the Global Humanitarian Team.