I’m back in the Sudan to continue my work with the UNDP’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project. UN agencies typically suffer from what a colleague calls “Data Hugging Disorder (DHD),” i.e., they rarely share data. This is generally the rule, not the exception.
There is an exception, however: the recently established UN’s Information Management Working Group (IMWG) in the Sudan. The general goal of the IMWG is to “facilitate the development of a coherent information management approach for the UN Agencies and INGOs in Sudan in close cooperation with local authorities and institutions.”
More specifically, the IMWG seeks to:
- Support and advise the UNDAF Technical Working Groups and Work Plan sectors in the accessing and utilization of available data for improved development planning and programming;
- Develop/advise on the development of, a Sudan-specific tool, or set of tools, to support decentralized information-sharing and common GIS mapping, in such a way that it will be consistent with the DevInfo system development, and can eventually be adopted/integrated as a standard plug-in for the same.
To accomplish these goals, the IMWG will collectively assume a number of responsibilities including the following:
- Agree on information sharing protocols, including modalities of shared information update;
- Review current information management mechanisms to have a coherent approach.
The core members of the working group include: IOM, WHO, FAO, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNPFA, WFP, OCHA and UNDP.
Information Sharing Protocol
These members recently signed and endorsed an “Information Sharing Protocol”. The protocol sets out the preconditions, the responsibilities and the rights of the IMWG members for sharing, updating and accessing the data of the information providers.
With this protocol, each member commits to sharing specific datasets, in specific formats and at specific intervals. The data provided is classified as either public access or classified accessed. The latter is further disaggregated into three categories:
- UN partners only;
- IMWG members only;
- [Agency/group] only.
There is also a restricted access category, which is granted on a case-by-case basis only.
UNDP’s role (via TRMA) in the IMWG is to technically support the administration of the information-sharing between IMWG members. More specifically, UNDP will provide ongoing technical support for the development and upgrading of the IMWG database tool in accoardance with the needs of the Working Group.
In addition, UNDP’s role is to receive data updates, to update the IMWG tool and to circulate data according to classification of access as determined by individual contributing agencies. Would a more seemless information sharing approach might work; one in which UNDP does not have to be the repository of the data let alone manually update the information?
In any case, the very existence of a UN Information Management Working Group in the Sudan suggests that Data Hugging Disorders (DHDs) can be cured.
This is great news – but is definitely not a solution, but foremost a process and bureaucracy that now has to precede any solutions.
The concern I have, from participating in such groups from OGC, to UNGIWG, and community ones, is that ad-hoc approaches can quickly gain traction and success, and when done in committee can involve very long, and slowly progressive discussions.
Hopefully, through the gathering of these various organizations in a specific area they can quickly stand-up first approximation prototypes and iterate quickly to larger, longer-term solutions.
Hi Andrew, thanks as always for your comments.
I’m actually more optimistic. I believe it is unprecedented to have the heads of UN agencies sign an information protocol where they explicitly agree on what they will share, in what format and how often. I haven’t heard of UN agencies operating in complex emergencies outside the Sudan (where information sharing is so critical) agree to this kind of data sharing collaboration let alone to the development of an information sharing platform. So I’m optimistic.
The problem is as common among NGOs as it is in the UN system. Actually, it’s everywhere. Academe won’t share data until they have published everything they want to. Governments won’t share data for national security reasons. Commercial organizations are concerned about IP. NGOs are forced to compete for the same grants, and then does anyone wonder that they suffer from DHD? Progress on humanitarian data standards has been scant, because no one actually WANTS to share data. Until the Donors start mandating it, it won’t happen, and you can’t mandate what you can’t measure. We need new tools, and new methods, for quantitative and qualitative evaluation of behavior change related to information sharing.
The one place I have seen widespread willingness to share information cross-organizationally is in the area of field security coordination. If we can get the humanitarian community to adopt common solutions for sharing incidents, threats and vulnerabilities, and make sure that those solutions are built on a flexible platform that could easily be adapted or extended to address other types of information sharing, we might be able to use security scenarios as a first toe in the door. Logistics would be a natural follow-on, since supply flows need to be protected under a common security envelope, and from there, assessments…
Thanks as always for your informative comments. Yes, the folks in charge of field security have been a lot better at sharing information. If only that kind of expediency could be applied to beneficiary communities and not just ourselves.
In terms of using “security scenarios as a first toe in the door”, that’s exactly what we tried to do with the UN’s Security Incident Reporting System (SIRS) back in 2004, which was hosted by UNSECOORD (now DSS). We had set up an incident reporting functionality (somewhat mirrored on the platform we developed for the Conflict Early Warning and Response Network, CEWARN, in the Horn). But adding the situation reports (SitReps) where we could expand the indicator set to beyond security scenarios ran into political roadblocks. There were concerns within UNSECOORD and other UN agencies that had access to SIRS that expanding the monitoring and reporting beyond incident reports (IncReps) would backfire as Member States would once again accuse the UN of spying. So instead of trying to risk introducing SitRep indicators, which could have closed the entire project down, they stuck with the IncReps for SIRS.
What we didn’t try, however, is to use logistics as an entry point, that would be interesting. I know the head of UNJLC here in the Sudan, will run some ideas by him.
This is great.
As for technical infrastructures to support the intentions of this protocol, the best systems I’ve seen for sharing any kind of data put individuals and social relationships out in front, and build on already existing human relationships. OpenStreetMap is a prime example.
We’re currently in process of building out SocialGeo. It’s an extension to the open source, private social networking app Crabgrass, to enable lightweight sharing of geographic datasets. I could see this concept extended to include datasets in general.
Many thanks for your feedback, Mikel, really appreciate it. I shared the link to SocialGeo with the TRMA team to see whether this is something they could integrate. Thanks for sharing!
The IMWG information sharing protocol came first, and the 4Ws tool was developed to help facilitate the implementation of said protocol although the tool has a way’s to go before seamless info sharing and data synchronization is possible.
Keep up the good work, Patrick.
I thought if you used DevInfo in Sudan then these might interest you.
Sudan’s very own ‘SudanInfo’