Information for Disasters, Information Disasters, and Disastrous Information

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S. McDonell, MD, MPH; H. Perry, MA, PhD(Cand); B. McLaughlin, MPH; B. McCurdy, MPH; R.G. Parrish MD

Information for Disasters, Information Disasters, and Disastrous Information

The purpose of this article is to explore the “challenges that constrain the ability of humanitarian agencies to gather and use information...” for the purposes of guiding disaster response. The challenges identified by the authors are said to be pervasive within the managerial and organizational structures of the various agencies involved in responding to disasters around the world. While the kinds of data needed for effective disaster response have been previously identified, there is a noted failure to establish the “mechanisms” which may be implemented to gather and disburse the information on a consistent basis. The absence of such a system raises questions to the authors pertaining to the capacity and commitment of some of the stakeholders within disaster response (agencies, donors and governments) to solve “the underlying problems.” The failure to meet the challenges identified by the authors are cited as being the primary reason for the poor quality of data and the difficulty in proving the effectiveness of response programs.

The characterization of the challenges was aided by a meta-analysis of evaluations and reports on the International Disease Surveillance and Response (IDSR) program. This program, sponsored by the US Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization (CDC/WHO) was chosen because of the consistent approach with which this large information system is applied in an variety of settings and because the IDSR was named a “successful” information system project by the Working Group on Monitoring and Evaluation during the 2006 Humanitarian Health Conference Technical session.

The description of the organizational components of “good” information systems and the translation of these components to response guidelines was the goal the authors, who hope that their efforts will “increase the emphasis on these elements in disaster responses” particularly because the scope of such responses often expands well beyond the timeframe immediately following the initial crisis. The authors based their study on 13 evaluation reports from 12 countries and one region from the IDSR program. The issues identified by these reports where considered areas of opportunity, “attention” or “improvement” and were grouped into nine headings; Human Resources, Training and Supervision, Political Support and Authority Structure, Laboratory Capacity, Communication and Feedback, Coordination and Partnership with Key Internal and External Stakeholders, Infrastructure and Resources, Community-Based Surveillance, Monitoring and Evaluation and Specific Applications to Disasters and Humanitarian Relief.

The authors conclude that the capacity for organizational and managerial competence that is required for the development and maintenance of useful information systems is a process to be managed. The challenges identified by the authors are applicable to information systems in all contexts but “especially” to information systems deployed in crisis areas. Information systems in disaster settings, according to the authors must “accommodate constant change, and by monitoring the situation, the system should provide the information to recognize those changes as they occur.” The existing guidelines for information systems during disaster response do not currently specify what the minimum personnel requirements are to “sustain basic data collection and use.” While the authors recognize that too much emphasis on personnel requirements could set an unreasonable standard, they indicate that too little emphasis is “risky” due to the perpetuation of a lack of transparency regarding what is required for the deployment and maintenance of information systems. The authors also state that a demonstration of the ability to learn lessons from experience is needed and that the conditions of success should be created based on these lessons. According to the authors the IDSR has taken “small, but persistent steps” addressing the challenges described by the article and that the experiences gain can direct a more “practical and ultimately successful path” in developing, deploying and maintaining information systems during disaster response.

Information for Disasters, Information Disasters, and Disastrous Information; S. McDonell, MD, MPH; H. Perry, MA, PhD(Cand); B. McLaughlin, MPH; B. McCurdy, MPH; R.G. Parrish MD; Prehospital and Disaster Medicine; July-August 2007.