Managing information in times of crisis

23 August 2016

How do you identify the most vulnerable people in a humanitarian crisis?

Calculating where they are and what they need comes down to Information Management Officers (IMOs) such as Vicki O’Donnell, who give decision makers a clear picture of the situation on the ground by digesting a broad range of data, analyzing it and disseminating it as quickly as possible.
In this interview with UNHCR Ireland, she tells Giulia la Scala about numbers and data coming to life around you and why coffee is an important part of every IMOs diet in the initial stages of an emergency.
How did you begin working with the UN and refugees? Is it rewarding work?

I was based in University College Cork (UCC), as a researcher in a marine research centre, when I read an article in the Irish Times about the Irish Aid Rapid Response Corps. The article discussed the different skills needed for various roles, one of which was an Information Management Officer (IMO). Essentially the description of the IMO job was what I was already doing in UCC (using tools like GIS, managing information, statistics etc.). I already loved travelling so it sounded like a great fit. That was back in 2010 and I deployed with OCHA and UNICEF for the following few years. In 2013 I left UCC to work full time in emergencies.

For any person working on a computer, you can often feel a little detached from the real world and the consequences of your work, but as an IMO you are often working in the field (tent, under a tree…) so you are right in the middle of an emergency and the numbers and data you are working are all around you which makes your work become very real. This is a very rewarding part of the job.

How does managing information in an emergency or disaster help save lives? Can you give any examples from your own work?

At the initial stage of an emergency the overload and chaotic flow of data can be overwhelming and it is really impossible for the decision maker to see a clear picture without the help of the IMO who can digest a really broad range of data, analyse it and disseminate it. It wouldn't be unusual in a large scale disaster to receive over 30 assessments in one day, by correctly analysing these, along with response information, the IMO can help to steer the responders in the right direction both geographically and by identifying the needs of the target population.

When an emergency happens, what does the information management officer do?

The job of the IMO encompasses the whole emergency cycle from initial needs analysis to planning to eventual response monitoring. For a sudden onset emergency, the analysis of needs is the first key task. At the same time the IMO will be busy developing an IM Strategy and Work Plan, linking in with the other IMOs on the ground, NGOs and working directly with thematic specialists. The job involves a lot of juggling and multitasking and the key is to be able to stay focused and work at speed! Coffee can be an important component of the IMOs diet in the initial stages of an emergency.

You've worked in natural disasters and man-made emergencies. How does the operational environment compare in both?

It would be easy to think that for natural disasters there are no security issues but in fact this is not always the case. Many of the countries that suffer from natural disasters have, in addition, man-made emergency situations, so the operational environment can be very complex. Each emergency is very unique and requires a targeted response.

Could you describe a typical working day or week?

There is no typical working day in this job, although no matter where you are in the emergency cycle there are bound to be many meetings to attend. What we are trying to do in the Training on IM for Emergencies (TIME) training course is to systematise the tasks that are required at the different phases of an emergency and give the participants the framework that can fit into their own situation, be it an extended conflict situation with refugee camps to a sudden onset emergency with many IDPs requiring shelter or protection interventions.

What changes and new challenges has the current refugee crisis brought in the area of data and information management?

I have some friends working in the Mediterranean refugee crisis and they say this is the hardest/most complex emergency that they have worked in for many reasons (multiple countries, changing policies, constant flow, large geographical spread). Essentially much of the data that the IMO receives goes out of date instantly so keeping up with such a mobile population is very difficult. There will be interesting lessons learnt from this crisis across the board.

What do you miss (if anything) about Ireland?

In the last few years I have worked a lot from Ireland, developing tools and processes for emergency responders and testing them in the field. I am currently working with UNHCR's Field Information Coordination Services Section (FICSS) on a training course for IMOs deploying to emergencies and I am home-based with this work. When deployed, it depends on where I am as to what I miss. If based in a high density city I really miss the space, fresh air, hills and sea. If in a hot country I miss the cold and rain! With technology, keeping up with family and friends in much easier but there is nothing like coming home and having a cuppa at the kitchen table.

By Giulia La Scala


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