21 Dec 2018
Managing information for better responses in the Pacific

In the disaster-prone Pacific region, ensuring accurate and timely information and updates is an essential part of keeping communities safe in times of crisis. Through the Australia Assists program, Information Management Officer, Greg Vaughan, was deployed to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in Fiji, to help build better emergency information systems and tools.

During his six-month deployment, Greg focused on assisting government and humanitarian actors to achieve shared situational awareness before, during, and after emergency response. When all humanitarian actors have a comprehensive understanding of the scale of an emergency, and are communicating effectively with each other, a more effective emergency response can be achieved through the dissemination of accurate information to local agencies.

“In an emergency we know that communications systems frequently go down, people are busy and stressed, and agencies can lose touch with each other,” said Greg. “But if we have a shared understanding of a situation, you are always going to have a better response."

Greg Vaughan attended the Regional Information Management Workshop in Suva, Fiji. Photo credit: Ministry of Rural & Maritime Development and National Disaster Management.

The protracted emergency due to the volcanic activity in Ambae, Vanuatu has been exceptionally demanding for the limited information services established. Greg undertook two missions to Vanuatu to support the Ambae response, supporting the Government coordination framework alongside the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) and establishing early situational awareness between agencies.

With the Government of Vanuatu making a significant investment in information management skills to improve the quality of information overall in times of crisis, Greg provided technical support to capacity build the NDMO in its collection, analysis, and end use of information in emergencies.

“I supported inter-agency briefings and cooperation through liaison and planning with a variety of partner agencies,” said Greg. “I also supported the high level government officials in making recommendations about the next steps in the response and prioritising humanitarian assistance to those most in need. By trying to quantify the situation, documenting it, and sharing it with partners, we can get a better picture of what different partners are doing and respond better to community needs.”

The age of social media is not without its challenges for roles like Greg’s, with the volume of unofficial information available often causing uncertainty and confusion in the emergency response.

“There are certainly a lot of platforms where unofficial information gains momentum that weren’t available ten years ago,” said Greg. “The answer to that is more frequent information from official sources like the Government, but also improved dialogue and information sharing between humanitarian actors and affected communities. It’s important that we stay accountable to communities by giving them timely information about what is occurring in an emergency response.”

Greg Vaughan at a demonstration of Kobo Toolbox at the Regional Information Management Workshop. Photo credit: Ministry of Rural & Maritime Development and National Disaster Management.

Determined to improve information quality not only in Vanuatu but across the region, Greg identified the need for information management skills to be improved among local actors across the region, and shared his experience and knowledge by facilitating a Regional Information Management Workshop in Suva, Fiji.

NDMO staff from 10 countries in the region were introduced to the importance of effective information management practices to strengthen the response to information needs during disasters.

“The response from the countries in the region that participated in the workshop was overwhelmingly positive,” said Greg. “They understand the importance of workshops like these and are eager to engage. Improvement of their technical capacity in the area of information management is something leaders are asking for.”

The workshop included sharing new resources such as Kobo Toolbox, a mobile data collection tool for humanitarian workers, which supports needs assessments, monitoring, and other data collection activities. For Greg, using technology to connect various humanitarian organisations and actors, can result in more accurate data, and effective assistance provided.

“I think the biggest takeaway from the workshop was the realisation of the common challenge of finding quality information during emergencies. I think it helped a lot to realise that these are issues that all countries are grappling with, and that they can support each other in finding solutions.

Given geographical challenges in the Pacific and the saturation of emergencies regionally, the importance of effective information management has become increasingly important in an emergency response, which Head of Office for UN OCHA Pacific, Anne Colquhoun, highlights.

“The work of an information officer, when done well, can contribute to better national responses because it underpins the information that needs to come together for a national response, whether it’s a needs assessment, emergency appeal, locations of vulnerabilities and how to best support them,” Anne said. “Greg has been critical in supporting the capacity of UN OCHA to fulfil these aims.”