Integrated information systems: Einstein and the relativity theory

Einstein said with his relativity theory that: “The laws of physics are the same for all inertial reference frames.”

When I look at information systems I think we are in front of the antithesis of the relativity theory. In my work I find often myself in the situation in which people think that technology will solve everything or that technology cannot solve nothing, independently form the starting point. My theory is that everything is relative and that what we really need when we work on information system is the ability to integrate systems as to be able to have an holistic approach that will allow to face all the different part so the same universe.

I am particularly interested in humanitarian affairs and early warning systems, so I will use that as an example. When I was working a month ago in Central African Republic to design an information system that would feed information from the local population up to the UN and the international organizations in Bangui the first problem I was facing was that in the area where we wanted to work there was no electricity and no mobile network. As to say: technology has no power if there is no infrastructure. Solution: use what does not need infrastructure. So we came out with two solutions: one was VHF radio, and I have to give credit to the church for this idea.

When visiting the church in Obo I discovered that the priest was keeping contact with other dioceses by talking to them via radio, the only means that allowed him to communicate with them on a daily basis.

Second solution: motorbikes and letters box. Again, not my ideas. I discovered that journalists where already using motorbikes to go around and being able to get information from other areas around Obo. Then I remembered of an IOM project that is still going on in Haiti: questions box in the IDPs camps to ask the Haitians to report on their needs, their stories and in this way to give them voice that they have but that we have not been hearing for a while.

So the solution is right there: letters box that will allow local population to report their ideas, and then motorcycle for the journalists to go and collect the letters. But where to put the letters boxes? Solutions found very easily: where is that people need and where they go every day? Well they need food and water, and they will find it on the water pumps and to the market. Here is where we should put the letters boxes.

Now we got the system from the areas around Obo to the village of Obo. We need to work out the system from Obo to Bangui. Well this is kind of easier. Obo has a terrible Internet connection but somehow a better phone network. Piece of cake: let’s use Internet when it is there and if not, let’s use phones (SMS and phone calls).

Now that we get to Bangui then, we have another problem to solve. How will the information arriving there from the local population and from the radio station become relevant to what the different organizations do. This is tricky issue, and this is why: decision-making processes are complex and, again relative. According to what the goal of an organization is and what their role is in a specific context they will find certain information relevant and other not relevant. For instance ICRC will be more interested in first hand information on lack of water and food and protection of civilians, UNHCR more on the situation of the refugees, OCHA more on the overall situation, demobilization and disarmament and protection of civilians.

But there is also another issue to be solved here, which is, what is the degree of complexity that they need this information in? Again ICRC and UNHCR will be more interested in single cases to be able to provide specific aid. OCHA will be more interested in seeing the big picture and understand the trends and the hot spots.

This leads us to another important point: data is nothing if it is not communicated, which lead us to information. Information is nothing if it cannot be connected which leads us to intelligence. The way from information to intelligence is analysis.

But what does analysis means in the context of crowdsourcing? Analysis is basically the ability to let information telling us a story, so that we know the beginning and we know the end. In this context the typology of analysis is different from context to context and different analysis applied to different goals.

So now we know what needs to happen: each organization need to be able to receive information in  away that they can digest and understand and that is specifically designed for what they do. This can be done by breaking down the information into “clusters” and send to each humanitarian cluster their relevant information.

In this context the role of media become not only relevant but necessary, and we go to our last step. If we collect information from the local population and then send it to the relevant responders, who will guarantee that an action is taken? No one. But media can make sure that if no action is taken the responsible of this will be hold accountable in front of everyone. This is the lesson we learned from Rwanda: no one cannot say anymore: “We didn’t know”.

What s this example showing then? Well several lessons learned and point of thoughts for me:

1. Information system will work only if they are designed and specifically built on what is already there.

2. Integrated information systems are the key of effective systems: boxes – motorbikes – phones – Internet are a good example. Think simple and connect the dots.

3. The holy grail in those situations is to be able to drawn links and associations between different events, in a way that tells a story. Analysis of information will lead you to intelligence.

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