Monday, 4 May 2009

Achieving Efficient and Effective Information Management and Exchange in the Humanitarian Sector

The following is the executive summary to a paper I'm writing which outlines an approach for improving information management and exchange within the humanitarian/international development sector. The paper itself expands upon the ideas of a standard information exchange model and an open source information management software platform. Please let me know if you would like a copy of the full paper. Also, please share any comments you may have as I hoped that this paper would be a starting point for discussion.

Executive Summary

The Challenge

Information is the lifeblood of humanitarian operations. It enables humanitarian actors to identify the most critical needs; credibly advocate for resources, policy changes and humanitarian action; monitor, evaluate and manage operational performance; hold individuals, organizations and countries accountable; and learn from experience. Unfortunately, the information required for these processes is generally insufficient or inaccessible. Information gathering processes are often too slow to provide significant insights before action must be taken, and operational constraints (e.g. time, cost, human resources, access, security) force organizations to gather only the very minimum information they require. Once gathered, information is trapped within organizational boundaries, disconnected computer hard drives, disparate software applications and verbose text documents. At the same time, cultural, policy and technical barriers inhibit the level of information exchange and integration that is necessary to construct a truly holistic, accurate and shared picture of the humanitarian situation.

In order to address these problems, the humanitarian community must address five key constraints that have been undermining the efficient and effective management and exchange of information:

  1. Inadequate coordinating mechanisms have made it difficult to engage all humanitarian domains in the development of a holistic and consistent approach for information management and exchange

  2. Differences in assessment, monitoring and evaluation processes have made it difficult to combine efforts

  3. Differences in objective and indicator definitions has made it difficult to share and integrate information

  4. Differences in data models has made it difficult to automate, and therefore reduce the costs and increase the speed of information exchange

  5. Independent and proprietary approaches for software development and acquisition have made it difficult to reach the investment levels required to create applications that are sophisticated, effective and connected, while at the same time affordable for most humanitarian organizations

While the introduction of the UN1 Cluster Approach is improving coordination and initiatives led by OCHA2 and others are harmonizing processes and definitions, the inter-related nature of these constraints means that it is not sufficient to address just a few of them. The great challenge in achieving efficient and effective information management and exchange is that all of these factors must be tackled together. Only then will humanitarian community be able to move beyond the current limited and fragmented information perspectives toward a more holistic and integrated information perspective that is shared by the humanitarian community as a whole.

The Opportunity

In addition to the progress being made within the humanitarian sector to improve coordination, align processes and harmonize objective and indicator definitions, significant progress has been made outside of the sector in the development of information standards and software tools for information management and exchange. Upon this foundation, the humanitarian community has an opportunity to address the remaining two constraints through two new and complementary initiatives:

  1. Humanitarian Information Exchange Model

    Establish common XML data standards and methods for defining and executing information exchanges within and between organizations in the humanitarian sector.

  2. Humanitarian Information Management Platform

    Initiate an open source software development program to direct the currently overlapping software investments of humanitarian organizations toward the creation of a core information management system based on the new standards, and supplementary modules providing functionality for common processes, such as results-based management and field survey deployment.

With the addition of these two initiatives, the humanitarian community will have a holistic approach which addresses all five of the major constraints, significantly improves the efficiency and effectiveness of information management and exchange, and dramatically increases the availability and quality of humanitarian information.

Humanitarian Information Exchange Model

Based on experience from previous successful standardization initiatives, eight good practices will help to ensure the success of the Humanitarian Information Exchange Model (HIEM):

  1. Communities of interest take responsibility for defining the standards for domain-specific (e.g. health, education, etc.) data elements

  2. Naming and design rules are consistently applied by all communities of interest to ensure that the semantics (meaning) and the logical structure of data elements are clear to both humans and software applications

  3. Controlled Vocabularies for the values allowed within data elements are developed to ensure that the semantics of these values are clear to both humans and software applications

  4. Objectives-driven data modelling ensures that the scope of data elements defined is driven by what is required to measure progress toward the achievement of overall humanitarian objectives

  5. Hierarchical coherence ensures that the all of the sub-data elements required to describe or compute higher level elements are included within the model

  6. Metadata preservation (e.g. demographic group, geographic area and time period data) enables aggregation of data elements from sub-data elements and different data sets

  7. Domain namespaces are used to maximize flexibility and minimize conflicts when defining domain-specific data elements that conform to the HEIM naming and design rules

  8. Existing standards are leveraged where possible to save time and resources and achieve economies of scale.

Humanitarian Information Management Platform

With better coordination, harmonized processes, common objective and indicator definitions, and common data standards, humanitarian organizations will have an excellent opportunity to significantly increase the quality and lower the cost of the software they use to manage and exchange information. One approach would be to encourage commercial software vendors to develop products tailored to the newly harmonized needs, and let the substantial development costs, traditionally borne by individual organizations, be shared across a larger group of “customers”. However, for reasons outlined below, a more sustainable and high-value value approach is to collaborate in the development of a shared, open source Humanitarian Information Management Platform.

The commercial software approach has two key limitations:

  • Even with harmonized software requirements, humanitarian organizations are too small and uncertain a market to encourage sufficient commercial investment in the development and support of truly tailored software

  • Attempts to form a consortium to contract a commercial vendor to develop tailored software will similarly generate insufficient investment and face significant challenges in managing inter-organizational consensus

The fundamental principle of open source software is that the human-readable programming code that makes the software work is freely available to anyone who wants to read and modify it, provided they give credit to the original developers and make their modifications open source as well. This principle, while simple, generates a number of important benefits, especially for the development of software that is intended to satisfy a relatively niche need, as is the case for humanitarian information management:

  • The open, transparent development process attracts large numbers of contributors which spreads the work, costs and risks while yielding more total resource inputs

  • Broad, flexible participation helps the development initiative remain resilient and sustainable

  • The use of open source, open standard and non-proprietary software and programming languages maximizes the pool of programmers that can be drawn upon for software development and support, thereby providing more choice at lower cost

  • The engagement of a wide array of users of the software in the development process builds loyalty and commitment to the overall initiative

  • The large community of contributors and users provides a large and inexpensive resource for ongoing software support

  • Frequent, freely available releases of new stable versions of the software along with ongoing availability of development versions enables continuous, adaptive development

  • Rapid and broad adoption of the application reinforces the standards (e.g. HIEM) that the application is designed to support

The Way Forward

The development of the Humanitarian Information Exchange Model and the Humanitarian Information Management Platform will require leadership, commitment, donor support and courage.


OCHA could launch these two new initiatives and integrate them with those for the harmonization of processes and definitions under a common inter-agency management structure. Bringing these initiatives together under one management structure will help to ensure that their outputs are consistent and mutually reinforcing.


To build commitment, a working group could be established to lay out the vision, business case and value proposition of the two new initiatives. If initial support is sufficient, the group may be able to develop an early example to demonstrate the power of integrating common processes, standards and software tools into a mutually reinforcing solution. Over time, a transparent development process and high quality, practical outputs will encourage increasingly broad commitment and contribution from humanitarian organizations.

Donor Support

Leadership from OCHA and contribution from humanitarian organizations will require resources in addition to commitment. For this reason it is essential that the donor community are able to see the long-term economic and performance benefits of the holistic approach. Fortunately, many large donor governments are also leaders in the development of data standards and in the support for open source software. These donors may be encouraged to form a core funding group and provide expertise in these areas. In addition, the donor community as a whole has long been advocating for more effective information management and reporting. If properly engaged in the initiatives, they are likely to be generous contributors.


There is no question that developing a Humanitarian Information Exchange Model and a Humanitarian Information Management Platform will be a significant challenge alongside current efforts to harmonize information gathering processes and establish common objective and results indicator definitions. However, it is only through the mutually reinforcing effect of all four of these initiatives that any one of them can be achieved and the dream of efficient and effective information management and exchange within the humanitarian sector realized. And with strong leadership from OCHA, commitment from humanitarian organizations, support from donors and courage from all parties to take on the challenge, it is certainly possible.

1United Nations (UN)

2Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA)

Friday, 15 August 2008

Performance Measurement as a Critical Leverage Point for Improving International Development Impact

Individuals and organizations need good performance feedback in order to be effective and meet their objectives. In the private sector there is the luxury of sales, profit and other clear measures that indicate output and outcome performance. These measures are used to identify and reinforce successful business patterns, such as effective strategies or high performing individuals, and to disrupt and correct unsuccessful patterns. They are critical to learning, development and long-term success. To survive, private sector organizations have to meet the performance expectations for these measures that are set by their funders. This mechanism helps to ensure that high-performing organizations and individuals are able to succeed and expand their impact while low performing organizations and individuals are not.

Unfortunately, measuring output, and particularly outcome performance is very difficult and generally poorly done in the international development sector. Outputs are often complex and highly variable, there are rarely any clear measures of outcome performance and outcomes are usually affected by a vast array of factors outside the control of any single organization or even the international development sector as a whole.

In the absence of high quality output and outcome feedback information, people naturally focus on things that are easy to measure, such as activity and costs. Consider this example. You have 100 euro to donate to charity. Care says that 95% of your money will go directly to projects for people in need. Save the children says that 50% of your money go directly to projects for people in need. Given this choice, most people would immediately say "that's a no-brainer, I'll give my money to Care!".

However, without knowing the track record of the two organizations for meeting outcome objectives, how do we know that a 5% investment in organizational capability will benefit those in need more than a 50% investment? How much should be invested in understanding the dynamics of the problems affecting the people in need? How much should be invested in training staff, in supporting technology, in measuring performance, etc? Without reliable performance feedback, noone knows. So, the overiding assumption that drives behaviour in the system is that more projects is good, overhead is bad. The consequence of this dynamic is that international development organizations almost invariably over extend themselves across too many projects and massively under invest in long-term strategic capabilities.

It is for this reason that I have been trying to help international organziations and the system as a whole improve the way that outputs and outcomes are measured, and how this information drives accountability, learning, improvement and long-term impact. I believe that this is a critical leverage point for achieving rapid and dramatic improvements in the perfromance of the international development system as a whole. In a future blog I'd like to discuss some of the areas of investment I think are required, but a few of the key ones are robust measurement methodologies; a conceptual framework for continuously improving the collective understanding of the systemic dynamics affecting development outcomes; widely adopted data standards; a culture and practice of data sharing within and across organizations; tools to facilitate data and knowledge generation and sharing; and a culture of accountability.

With regard to the tools, I have been working on some ideas for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of collecting the data required for output and outcome performance feedback. I have been working with a technology called xforms, which enables the creation of very user-friendly electronic forms that can be accessed through a web browser and used off-line. Using electronic forms makes data collection easier and faster, improves the quality of data and enables broader data sharing.

A number of experiments using electronic forms are being conducted but the forms are typically on a small hand-held device and the small screen is a major constraint. I have been thinking that the ideal interface for the forms would be an A4 or Letter sized touch screen tablet computer. It would only need enough power to run a cut-down version of Linux and a Firefox browser. It could have a relatively small flash memory card for storage and wouldn't need most of the bells and whistles that make computers complicated and expensive today.

One option I've been thinking about is the XOXO pc from the One Laptop Per Child project. It's their second generation kid-focused laptop that is under development. It has two touch screens that fold together. One of the screens acts as a keyboard when necessary. The attraction of this device is that it is cheap, has the specs required and enough screen real estate to make form completion fairly easy. It also is a device that hopefully will be very common and familiar in the settings where the data collection would take place.

Another option is an initiative launched by Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch to produce a "dead simple web tablet for $200". This is only at the dream stage but would be a fantastic device for field data collection. Check out the initiative here. Search for "Fraser" to see my comments on this blog where I describe how the device could be used by UN agencies. After a wise crack that the device could be developed with UN slush funds I had to come to the defence of the UN because there is such low awareness of what the UN does and the positive impact that it has.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

If you love them set them free!

I've decided that inside my head is not a good place for all the ideas, observations, frustrations, and inspirations that occur to me. Although they do slosh around in there and occasionally spawn some useful insights, I'm thinking that they will be far more useful if I give them a little fresh air.

So, this blog is intended to be a place where I can write down some of my thoughts and, hopefully in collaboration with others, shape them into useful ideas that can help make the world a better place. Expect half-baked ideas, unpolished writing and contradictions. I will share some strong opionions but I enjoy being challenged and will always reserve the right to change my mind!

I intend to write about the challenges of international development, humanitarian assistance and social, economic, political, technological and environmental sustainability. Some ideas will relate to very specific problems I'm working on for my clients in humanitarian organizations while others will relate broader systemic factors affecting issues like poverty, health, human rights and the environment. I'm always trying improve my understanding of the systemic and complex nature of these problems so that we can identify powerful leverage points for change.

If you find any of my posts interesting and feel you can build on some of the ideas presented please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment.