Crises, Conflict, and Data: Creating an Open Platform for Humanitarians

On April 28th, frog kicked off a partnership with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to design an open platform for data exchange among UN agencies, NGOs, and governments.
Michael Delgaudio & Jennifer Dunnam

Humanitarian work is forever evolving alongside crises; emerging technologies suggest new opportunities for improving collection, communication, and analysis of data collected in crises. Recently, at the Open Knowledge Festival, OCHA launched a beta version of the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), bringing the vision of an open platform for data exchange amongst humanitarians one step closer to reality.

Behind the scenes, the efforts to improve the mid- and long-term vision of the HDX are ongoing. This includes planned improvements to the user experience, intuitive interaction models, insightful analytic features, and an approachable visual aesthetic. To achieve these longer-term objectives, frog began with three weeks of research in New York, Colombia, and Kenya. Speaking with humanitarians working at all levels — from policy advisors at UN headquarters to humanitarian affairs officers in the field — we observed firsthand how significant the challenge of relief coordination is for individuals and organizations. The frog team found immediate inspiration in the passion and optimism of those working in the humanitarian sector. After engaging interview participants in conversations, product demonstrations, and interactive design activities, the frog team returned from field research with observations that were synthesized into key insights and design principles to build upon in the definition of the HDX experience vision.

The Crisis Timeline

Prior to going into the field, frog assembled a toolkit of research activities. One of these activities, referred to as the “Day in the Life,” asks participant humanitarians to walk through a typical day and specify the people, tools, and information that are most important to their work. One of the most fundamental problems of humanitarian work: a “typical day” doesn’t exist. The demands on relief workers are forever changing because they are dependent on the evolution of a disaster or conflict, which is often unpredictable. The frog team quickly adapted our worksheet to reframe the question within the context of a crisis. We learned that data is critical at all stages of work, but the type of information and level of support needed differs before, during, and after a crisis.

OCHA Colombia’s Head of Office, Gerard Gomez, articulates the many challenges his team faces in responding to crises while frog’s Jennifer Dunnam diagrams the flow of activities and relationships. Photo credit: Yumi Endo

From these conversations, we sketched out potential usage of the HDX platform at each stage:

Before A Crisis: Perform Historic Analysis.

  • Construct a foundation of baseline knowledge about a location’s history, population, infrastructure and preparedness.
  • Generate predictive analytics to assess the potential for a crisis.

Immediately After A Crisis Strikes: Coordinate Mission Planning.

  • Access HDX for retrieval of critical operational data
  • Collect data to determine what is known and unknown.
  • Collaborate with partners responding to the crisis and agree upon common templates and tools for data collection.
  • Save and share data for efficient communication across the network.
  • Leverage analytics for visualizations of changing situations.

After Deploying Aid (Protracted Crisis): Monitor and Measure the Situation

  • Automate the tracking of critical location and crisis data.
  • Perform investigative analysis to look for insights on the situation and the impact of humanitarian work.
  • Contextualize the protracted crisis within the ‘big picture’ of humanitarian needs.

Design Research and Meaning: A Flexible and Structured Approach

Three weeks of immersive design research in New York, Bogota, Pasto, and Nairobi exposed the frog team to global and local perspectives on the challenges of data collection, transparency and sharing information in the humanitarian community. We were able to learn from the broad and informed perspective of humanitarians and pinpoint opportunities for further investigation. Patterns emerged through this process and the team identified seven insights from our fieldwork.

UNICEF Information Manager, Minu Limbu, points to one of many information products created by the UNICEF team to communicate evolving situations and reveal insights. Photo credit: Yumi Endo

  1. Emphasize the Ecosystem — From the individual’s perspective, it can be difficult to comprehend the big picture of humanitarian work and the role they (and their data) play within the exchange of information.
  2. Elevate People and Promote Collaboration — Personal relationships are foundational to humanitarian work and data access is reliant upon the level of trust attributed to an individual or organization.
  3. Tell the Story of Data — Data quality, availability, and relevance varies across topics (e.g, food security vs health) and over time (e.g., pre or post-crisis). Humanitarians are looking for data context in order to use it appropriately.
  4. Demonstrate the Value of Raw Data and Collaborative Research — Information is predominately shared in the form of reports. Disaggregated data is needed for comprehensive analysis and effective coordination, yet it is rarely shared in a raw format.
  5. Accelerate Data Investigations through Analytics — Analytics must be actionable by either driving users toward new insights or creating an information product.
  6. Focus on Advancing Skills, not Simply Systems — As information and technology grow in sophistication, so do the skills required for coordinating humanitarian work. The importance of data is undeniable but the human resources for managing and acting upon this content are still catching up.
  7. Promote Data Services, not just Data and Tools — Data needs vary across region and organization. Personalized services drive adoption and growth.

Understanding Emotional Characteristics

At frog, we perform design research as a critical step towards understanding the full context of the problem, but also to meet the people we are designing for, find inspiration in their work, and hear firsthand the personal stories they share. The diversity of backgrounds among humanitarians is inspiring however, presents a challenge when designing a shared tool that can be easily adopted.

In addition to understanding functional aspects of the HDX system, we also wanted to understand perception of digital tools and identify potential points for emotional engagement. To achieve this, we utilized a card sort activity asking participants to consider how they would describe an ideal co-worker. By abstracting the HDX platform to a person, we saw a new vocabulary emerge from our interviewees. There was an acknowledgement that the tool may be limited in what it could offer, but as long as it prioritized practicality and trustworthiness, and delivered content in an approachable, transparent, and strategic way it would align with people’s emotional expectations. This exercise led us to a set of principles that will guide the visual and interactive features of the HDX experience.

GIS Specialists Richard Bett (left) and Joseph Matere participate in frog’s card sort activity to build an assembly of characteristics that describe their ideal data-sharing and analytics platform. Photo credit: Yumi Endo

From Research, To Ideation and Implementation

In the immediate future, frog will continue to work closely with OCHA to construct a comprehensive information architecture for the next release of the HDX platform. From this foundational architecture we will create key workflows that demonstrate core features of the visionary experience informed by insights attained through the design research process. The team will be sharing more as the designs progress.

Michael Delgaudio
Michael Delgaudio
Michael Delgaudio

Michael balances creative and analytical thinking with one goal: bring the future into focus through the vehicle of design.

Jennifer Dunnam
Associate Creative Director, frog
Jennifer Dunnam
Jennifer Dunnam
Associate Creative Director, frog

Jennifer Dunnam is an Associate Creative Director at frog where she leads an interdisciplinary team to research and develop innovative products, services, and experiences for today’s leading organizations, and emerging start-ups.

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