How to improve information management and decision making in disasters


Files (Photo: Daniel Y. Go on Flickr)

I have just spent a few days brainstorming on a policy paper about how information collection and analysis can be improved to lead to better decision making in times of crisis. Below are some of our central thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think about them.

  1. The members of the affected population themselves have the biggest impact during emergency response and early recovery. IM systems should have the information needs of the affected population at heart, so that they can make well informed decisions.
  2. The most efficient information systems are those that the affected population is already familiar with and many communities have existing, trusted mechanisms to share information.  Mapping these systems and connecting with them has to be part of disaster preparedness plans.
  3. Similarly, as part of disaster preparedness, relationships with the private sector should be developed where these can assist in communicating with the affected population, for example through mobile phone providers.
  4. IM systems have to adapt to the increased information flow that many-to-many communication brings with it. This can include involving new actors, such as the Volunteer & Tech Community who can assist with filtering and prioritizing information.
  5. IM systems should treat actionable information differently from information for situational awareness. This means that different kinds of information should also be routed to different recipients.
  6. IM systems always have to adapt to the current disaster. However, the software that IM relies on is frequently built according to requirements that have been specified many years ago. Humanitarian response organizations should instead pursue an agile, open source approach where developers add modules to a common, standardized core.

(Please note that I use the term “system” in its broadest sense. I.e. “IM systems” includes the people and structures who are part of it and not just IT systems)

Of course, the sad truth is that we were by far not the first people to sit together and think about how to improve the information -> decision loop (see “Best Practices in Humanitarian Information Management and Exchange”). However, I like to believe that maybe organizations weren’t ready to tackle these challenges in 2002 when data still mainly flowed from organizations outwards. I sincerely hope that the increase in multi-directional communication means that this time the recommendations will be acted on and not just be yet another document that people look at in 2022 when writing the next paper.

What are your thoughts? What central thoughts should be part of this policy paper?

  • I wrote a paper a couple of years ago with some ideas for how to improve information management and exchange in the humanitarian sector that might offer some ideas for you. My focus was on developing a common syntax and xml vocabulary for information definition and exchange, and developing an open-source information management platform that humanitarian organisations could use and contribute to. This might be outside or your scope but if your interested there is an executive summary here:

    • Thanks, Fraser! Interesting post. I'll read it in more detail later.

  • Andrej Verity


    Great post. The one point that really bothers me is that most IM professionals tend to jump directly into the IM chain (info -> decision loop) as it is often drawn (collect, process, analyse, disseminate, and then decision are made based on products). However, it is very rare that I see anyone who really understands what decisions need to be made, how the decisions are made and what the ideal data / info products would actually be to enable these decisions. [Not to say that Decision Makers can really articulate well what decisions they need to make are]. I have been advocating for a couple years now that the IM chain should be drawn as Decision Maker Needs -> Collect -> Process -> Analyse -> Disseminate -> Decision Supported by Products. Perhaps subtle, but something that would stress it in people's mind (especially the more technically-focused ones)

    Determining what a Decision Maker Needs is actually quite a complex issue. Taxonomy of different decision makers, decision making process, sense making, etc. "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" by Malcolm Gladwell is a great book on the topic.

    I did see that the 2002 doc outlined "User Requirements: The Symposium emphasized that information management systems should meet the clearly defined needs of users and decision-makers, and aim to reduce the effects of information overload." BUT, I think that we need to do a lot more in order to put Decision Makers Needs first in the people's minds.

    As part of the Communities of Interests created after OCHA's collaboration with SBTF on the Libya Crisis Map, we have a group of people interested in the Decision Makers Needs puzzle – MIT Humanitarian Innovation Lab, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, ISCRAM (, ICT4Peace, ACAPS (, etc. Hopefully the group will be able to kick-start the work and see where it can lead the community.


    • Hi Andrej! Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I'd be interesting to see a methodology to determine the decision makers needs in a disaster response environment. Most methods I'm familiar with take quite some time which is of course not ideal in this situation.

      What do you think of the idea of opening the definition of "decision maker" to include the affected community? Is it realistic? Will that meet a lot of internal resistance?

      • Andrej Verity

        I think that it will be interesting to see what type of (realistic) methodology that can be developed. The group is aiming at having an initial workshop (with seasoned humanitarian responders) at the end of August to hopefully get things started.

        I don't think that there is any resistance to include the affected community within the definition of "decision makers" (at it only seems logical!), but I suspect that it will be a very complex component just by itself. I am guessing that the start might focus solely on responding decision makers (intl & national) in new sudden onset emergencies….to keep the focus on something we can hopefully tackle well and then expand.

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