DataAid: managing information streams in the Philippines disaster response with FrontlineCloud

A huge thank you to Amos Doornbos for writing this guest post about his experience using FrontlineCloud as a co-manager of World Vision’s Speed Evidence Project.

What's the problem with data in disasters?

Over the past couple years, I’ve had the privilege of co-managing World Vision’s Speed Evidence Project, which seeks to improve information management in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  After most disasters, reliable field data is significant challenge - what we can find is normally incomplete and/or inaccurate.  This lack of rigorous data prevents us from understanding and anticipating the rapidly changing needs of the people affected or predicting the required scale of a response. It makes it harder to engage with important groups, such as affected communities, donors, media and UN/peer agencies, resulting in operational and organisational risks and significant loss of funding. Nonetheless, multiple offices and individuals ask field staff for information all the time, further reducing their ability to help communities.

In 2013, World Vision received funding from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund to further develop their Speed Evidence Information Management Portal.

A World Vision member of staff with a community member. Credit: World Vision
A World Vision member of staff with a community member. Credit: World Vision

The Speed Platform is designed to improve the ability of response teams to spend more time assisting communities, while also improving information flows from the frontline to the whole organisation.  Basically, the portal allows an agency to bring together multiple streams of data (assessments, SMS, social media, RSS feeds, etc.) into one place, where the information is mapped and complemented with question forums, calendars, latest activity snapshots, and notification options.  Once the information is in the portal, it can be filtered and analysed as the agency sees fit, as well as communicated back to the communities with whom the agency is working.

The portal has been deployed in the Typhoon Haiyan response in the Philippines and is currently being used by a consortium of NGOs working in Somalia.

FrontlineCloud: a new, global way of working

Rather than build the portal from scratch, we sought and brought together people who were already doing aspects of the portal.  For the SMS aspects of the portal, we partnered with SIMLab, using their cloud-based SMS system, FrontlineCloud, and created an API with the portal for smooth flow of data.  FrontlineCloud enabled staff members and community members to send information to the portal via text messages, as well as to receive information back from the portal.

We originally chose FrontlineSMS, the desktop version, because it makes it easier to use local mobile networks,  which helps keep costs low.  However, with the launch of FrontlineCloud, the value of the system has exponentially increased.  During the Typhoon Haiyan response, I could sit in London, England managing the SMS messages being sent and received locally while not incurring any international charges.  While this may seem like a small thing, it opens up the area of low(er) cost information management more than was possible before.  The only “in-country” requirement is for someone to keep a smartphone with a local SIM card connected to the internet enabling messages to sync with FrontlineCloud.  All the rest of the information management – the sending, analysing, and tracking of SMS – can be done from anywhere else in the world with internet connectivity.  This opens up possibilities for more people to be involved in a response, for 24 hour engagement, and much more.  I like FrontlineSMS and FrontlineCloud.  They are relatively simple and easy to use.  They're quite robust and with SIMLab's customer service, problems tend to melt away.

Working with SIMLab has been a treat as their customer service is brilliant.  It is one of the few companies I have interacted with that actually seems to care about their customers and want to help their customers address their challenges.  Most customer service is appalling at the best of times consisting of dodging responsibility, pointing the finger at others, and often telling the customer that it is their fault.  Rarely does customer service result in me actually being glad I called.  Some of the best customer service I have received has been from Apple, but SIMLab is not far behind.  At times I had SIMLab reps on four different continents on a Skype chat with me trying to resolve a problem I was having.  Even when the problem was clearly not a FrontlineCloud issue, they continued to work with me to create a work-around to resolve the issue.  Clearly, they’ve decided their customers/users are important to them.

A new challenge: Somalia

With the consortium working in Somalia, we set out to use the whole portal in a similar way to our work in the Philippines, but soon discovered that wasn’t going to be useful for the consortium, so we needed to change.  FrontlineCloud continued to work well and be a good solution for interacting with staff and community members, but we found out our ability to conduct surveys and assessments using smartphones was illegal in some parts of Somalia.  We turned to FrontlineSMS to see if we could find a solution as SMS and basic mobile phones were considered legal.  FrontlineSMS’s mobile data collection app, FrontlineForms, would have been a handy solution, although the development was a little out of date.  Again, SIMLab was happy to engage with us to see what was possible – it turns out we could still use FrontlineForms but we’d need to run it as a separate system on the side as it is not yet available in the cloud – not ideal, but still possible.  We are still working on this challenge and figuring it out as we go along, but as we have found in other situations, the technology is actually the easy part – getting humans to do things and behave differently is the most challenging aspect of the project.

amos headshot
amos headshot

So far, we have found information management is a never-ending sweater that once you start unravelling it, never ends. Information is everywhere and with the promises of big data and tech solutions to everything, aid agencies have jumped into the fray seeking solutions to their complex challenges.  Often in the midst of the passion and excitement at the beginning of information management projects, we build up hype around the technology, as it is what has, in the last decade, made information “cool” and “sexy.”  However, we forget the tech is the easy part.  This comment has proved true countless times over the past few years.  We jump to talking about tech and what can be done, forgetting that garbage in equals garbage out.

Like most things in life, we tend to do the interesting things first, leaving the “boring” (and often hard) parts till later.  Yet, it’s these boring parts which are the critical parts that make or break a project.  Speak to users, physically spend time with them, show them, go the extra mile, focus on developing what they want.  In the mad scramble for tech solutions, agencies often forget about the end users – the humans – without engaging them and helping them through the change, the project will fail.  Thankfully, SIMLab has not forgotten about us!


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Amos Doornbos, Faces of Another World -

World Vision UK -