KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

A real-time market for emergency response?

with 4 comments

On Monday evening I attended an interesting event “Why Not?: Humanitarian Crisis and Media” organized by Oxfam International and CauseShift which brought people together to discuss the role of media in emergencies and how it is and should be changing.

It included a set of brief panel interviews with thinkers on the topic including Kathleen Hessert, CEO of BuzzMgrSports Media Challenge, Sree Sreenivasan of the  Columbia University Graduate School of JournalismUnicef and Stephen Cassidy Chief of Internet, Broadcast & Image Section in UNICEF, Ayesha Khanna, Principal, Hybrid Reality Institute.

After this the participants broke into groups to discuss four questions:

1.  How do you explain a disaster in real-time?
2. How do you create a marketplace to more efficiently identify needs and match them with resources?
3. How do you keep 1 million people interested a year later?
4. What do we need to STOP doing during disasters?

Scott Henderson from Causeshift will be posting detailed reports on the panel and the working groups at a alter stage (I’ll add the links once they are up) but I wanted to share my own experience from the working group I was in.

I facilitated the brainstorming discussion on the marketplace. Although we were a bunch of people who had never met before, and only had around 30 minutes or so to discuss we came up with some interesting ideas which I’m going to share here. There are probably any number of missing pieces and reasons why this won’t work in practice – but I was quite impressed with what you  can achieve in terms of creative ideas by putting a bunch of smart people in a room and giving them a difficult problem to solve.

So here is my summary of what we discussed:

In an emergency market you need to bring together three things i) Needs ii) Organizations with capacity/expertise to respond to those needs iii) Resources – mainly money but also possibly supplies and other support.

Needs – One of the problem is that carrying out needs assessments takes time and is often uncordinated between all the various actors. To speed this up it would be good to use analytical modelling techniques to predict what would most likely be needed in different kind of crisis. Many orgaqnizations and increasingly more national governments now carry out emergency preparedness plans which could help inform this. But right now these are often unconnected. Existing plans and identified needs often involve a lot of guesswork and could be improved by predictive modelling based on past experience, but also making use of “data exhaust” from whatever data we can get from other sources not necessarily intended for this purpose to get a more accurate picture of  potential needs (e.g. school attendance, mobile phone usage, local food prices…).

Once a crisis breaks the predicted needs would be a first initial basis for response in this “marketplace”.  As additional data comes in from the affected country, responding organizations, formal needs assessments, but also “real time” data from new sources such as the kind of data collection being pioneered by UN Global Pulse, again making use of “data exhaust” from non traditional information resources, then the “needs” would be continually refined.

Organizations – How do we know which organizations have the capacity to respond and what they can do? How about if organizations entered their profiles onto a common platform including their geographical reach and what they could/would do in the event of crisis. This way you could see as soon as a crisis breaks which organizations are best placed to respond and what a first rough estimate of their resource needs would be.

But – there was a lot of discussion around who could sign up with the literally hundreds or thousands of possible organizations large and small who might get involved in  emergencies. And how do you know if what an organization claims it can do is reliable and that the money will be well spent? It was felt that the system should be open to any organization that fulfils certain minimum requirements, but that listed organizations should provide certain minimum information on their operations such as information on legal status, size, location, recent annual reports etc. and should be encouraged to share more such as evaluaiton reports, beneficiary feedback etc.

We also discussed the need for some lightweight but minimum reporting standards for organizations to report back on what they have actually done with the resources received. The idea here would be for this to avoid the need for multiple complex reporting requirements for different donors, but instead to have a common simple and transparent approach to reporting back that could include both quantitative and qualitative information (e.g. data and stories).

This should also include where possible comments boards, on the ground reporting using flipcams, blogs etc. from aidworkers on the ground, but also importantly from beneficiaries, including independently sources from the organization itself in order to give an unbiased view.

Resources – The last crucial piece to the puzzle is resources – the donors. These could include governments, philanthropists, private sector donors and individuals. They would be able to go to the market review needs and organizations to donate to and choose which organizations they trusted and which “needs” were a good fit with their own.  The most obvious resource needs would be money, but there might be other things needed too such as technical support and expertise and even “goods”. We had a bit of discussion around “goods in kind” – and how to ensure that any goods donated were driven by real needs rather than donor interest. The general feeling was that if these came from expressed needs rather than “random offers” then the risks of inappropriate GIK would be minimized.

There were a few other ideas we didn’t fully explore such as finding ways to make sure key supplies (food, medicine etc.) would be available on short notice at predictable prices by using financial derivative type instruments (as WFP have been experimenting with).

The other big issue was who would develop and manage such a system and how would you encourage people to use it, especially when there are a lot of existing vested interests on the part of donors and NGOs to keep the system complicated and unclear as it is at present. Some suggested the UN should manage this system and also play a role in “certifying” NGOs and other NGOs on the ground, and also play an active role in matchmaking. Working for the UN as I do I worried that we might not be the best equipped to do this and also we as responders should be subject to the same scrutiny as everyone else, although UN support (moral and financial as well as being participants) for such a system would be important.

Anyway it was a stimulating and interesting brainstorm. Although I  doubt it will ever happen quite like this, I think there are some interesting ideas here which are worth considering on how to make emergency response more efficient and transparent, and whether real time and markets have something to offer to our current way of working.

Feel free to tell me why this is all stupid (and I’ll free to say “it was group work” 😛 ) but if you like some of these ideas why not help figure out how they might be put into practice!


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 2, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Really interesting stuff… brought to mind the way UNHCR became overall humanitarian coordinator in Bosnia in the 90s; NGOs essentially had to operate under its auspices. It was years ago I studied this, but it might be worth doing a bit of research on this particular case to see what worked and what didn’t. (Maybe something I can work on since I still have my notes somewhere.) It would be a good study for a number of reasons, not just in terms of what you’re talking about here but also because of the way the political and armed conflicts greatly complicated matters.


    March 3, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    • The UN does currently have some quite complex co-ordinating mechanisms to co-ordinate both itself and major NGOs in emergencies (the famous cluster system). While a step forward it also has a lot of strains in getting it to work effectively.

      The co-ordination mechanisms don’t work in the same way as a marketplace though – it’s more a system of meetings and divided responsibility. I think what would be good about having a marketplace approach (maybe alongside the existing mechanisms) is that it would be much more transparent and real time, and also more inclusive by bringing in actors that are not part of the current mechanisms.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 3, 2011 at 3:53 pm

  2. […] (Full summary can be found on Ian’s blog: KM on a Dollar a Day blog) […]

  3. […] (Full summary can be found on Ian’s blog: KM on a Dollar a Day blog) […]

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