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Coordination and the Indian Ocean Tsunami
Evaluations at Work
OCHA Women and Men: Working Towards Gender Equality
Information Management and OCHA
Coordination Snapshot: OCHA in Sudan
Humanitarian Response Reform


Information Management and OCHA

Responding to Sudden Onset Disasters

There is a generic slide that is included in all disaster-related presentations by OCHA. Usually it’s the last slide. It’s very simple and merely says “Disasters always happen on Friday evening, at weekends or on holidays”. And so it proved to be the case with the South Asia Earthquake on 8 October, 2005 (Friday evening/Saturday morning).

I returned home from dinner with friends at midnight and did my usual last thing at night – the email check. The US Geological Survey runs a very useful service that automatically sends an email notifying listserve members that there has been an earthquake. When I opened my mail that evening there was the data – a high magnitude earthquake, close to the surface, and quite near to Islamabad. Anything above a 6.0 magnitude quake near an urban centre triggers OCHA’s response systems; this one did exactly that. An UNDAC team was deployed within 24 hours. By the end of the weekend two staff from the Field Information Support Project also had been deployed – jointly and for the first time – to support the UNDAC Team and determine the need to set-up a Humanitarian Information Centre.

Much had to be done to ensure that they arrived there ready to start work. Whatever GIS data we had on the affected area had to be assembled, computer equipment prepared, tickets booked and administrative arrangements completed before deployment. All needed to be put into place as quickly as possible. Despite being Saturday, almost everyone was in the office; ReliefWeb staff were producing the first maps and updating the web-site with the ever larger amounts of data coming in, our IT colleagues were helping to get our two-person team ready and the rest of us were working the phones, trying to get in touch with those who needed to make things happen.

After our first joint deployment with UNDAC, there are lessons to be learned, especially concerning the role that information management staff and HICs can and must play during disaster response. Effective information management is a fundamental element of disaster coordination, and our tsunami deployment experience showed that:

  • Getting in early, setting up alongside the UNDAC team, and providing information products and services as soon as possible in the response was essential to obtaining an overview of the situation on the ground to support the operational agencies and NGOs.
  • Working with other information management partners, such as MapAction, pays dividends in terms of ensuring that information outputs are harmonised.
  • Early deployment, right at the start of the emergency, positions information management as a key component of the response from the outset.

    We also realise that key challenges remain to be overcome:

  • Working with the humanitarian community on ensuring that information management is mainstreamed by the cluster lead agencies, in order that a rapid and relatively accurate ‘big picture’ can be developed as soon as possible.
  • Improving our response time and mechanisms so that they are better harmonised with those of the UNDAC system.
  • Improving the understanding amongst our partners of what a HIC can and cannot deliver, and what the prerequisites are to develop and provide quality information that is useful and relevant to decision makers at all levels of the response.

Development of Information Management Capacity

The first outside responders to disasters such as the South Asia Earthquake, (after those people who are within the scope of the event itself), are the humanitarian organisations, both national and international, that bring in resources, materials and expertise to save lives, alleviate suffering and restore livelihoods. These organisations can benefit from OCHA’s efforts to provide them and their partners with the best available information to help them deliver assistance in difficult and challenging conditions.

Our goal for 2006 is to have a HIC working within a week of a deployment and fully staffed and operational within a month. For Pakistan, it looks as if we have succeeded in this aim. The close teamwork between our key donors (under pre-established standing arrangements the Humanitarian Aid Department of the European Commission provided start-up funding, the UK’s Department for International Development provided staff, equipment and transport, and USAID/OFDA continues to place the Emergency Response Fund at our disposal) and our colleagues in other parts of OCHA has helped us enormously to improve our capacity to be there on time.

OCHA can only make this commitment on the basis of predictable donor funding. Strong donor support has allowed us to enhance essential humanitarian information systems, providing information to those who make the coordination decisions. The fact that donors have agreed to provide funding on a multi-year time frame has given us the ability to do more than plan only for the short-term. This was not always the case. As part of the improvement process, in March 2004, the Humanitarian Aid Department of the European Commission supported OCHA through Thematic Funding to develop new humanitarian information systems in recognition that information management underpins the coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance.

In the last two years, OCHA has focused on developing and deploying Information Communication Technology infrastructure and information management tools to support the coordination functions of our field offices and HICs. Although OCHA has successfully developed and deployed these tools to the field, integration remains a challenge in 2006 and beyond. With 13 assisted offices as well as six HICs connected to OCHA’s Wide Area Network (WAN) and provided with reliable access to OCHA’s global email solution and Field Document Management System (FiDMS), the tools and conditions to improve the effectiveness of the response are in place. Nevertheless, this is only the first phase in incorporating these tools and processes into OCHA’s work culture.

The systems developed by OCHA have the potential to exponentially improve the effectiveness of humanitarian aid. The faster the humanitarian community is able to collect, analyse, disseminate and act on key information, the more effective will be the response, the better needs will be met and the greater the benefit to affected populations. To further improve our capacity to facilitate this we need to ensure that UN agencies, NGOs and donors understand what information we need to have, how to obtain it, what we do with it and, in the final analysis, how it can be used to better support decision making by those who coordinate and implement humanitarian response. This remains a great challenge, but one to which OCHA is committed.