United States Department of State
Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy (ACICIP)
International Disaster Response Subcommittee
Community of interest: Private Sector, Humanitarian Organizations and Governments
The lack of effective collaboration among private sector information and communication technology (ICT) organizations, the humanitarian community, and governments in disaster response in the past has led to duplication of effort and ineffective aid. The purpose of these recommendations is to share best practices in effective collaboration between private sector, humanitarian organizations, and governments that focus on use of ICT for preparing for and responding to international disasters. These recommendations are based on lessons learned by leading ICT and emergency response organizations based on involvement in various large-scale disaster responses over the past years.
These recommendations are intended primarily for members of the private sector that are involved in ICT related response to disasters, with respect to coordination and collaboration with one another and with humanitarian organizations (NGOs, Red Cross, UN) and governments. The audience is expected to have some basic knowledge of international ICT disaster response. These recommendations address particular problems the community faces and provide suggestions about how to address them in a collaborative manner.
The recommendations and guidelines provided are not to be interpreted as a de-facto standard, but rather as a summary of lessons learned in bringing together humanitarian organizations, governments and the private sector. The authors seek to provide these lessons as a means of extending their potential benefits to the broader community of private sector entities involved in humanitarian response.
These recommendations identify the various actions and roles that should be addressed to facilitate effective collaboration between key players during disaster situations to improve ICT related response. By assessing their own experiences as representatives of organizations with a variety of internal structures and protocols related to disaster preparedness and response, the authors have identified recommendations on effective membership composition, structure, and processes, as well as specific potential solutions for frequent challenges in preparedness, response coordination and after-action review.
This document is intended to be a living document that should be updated on an ongoing basis as improvements are identified, new information needs are understood, delays or overlaps are eliminated, or new practices are developed that enable better communication amongst players.
Members of the United States State Department’s subcommittee on international disaster response within the Advisory Committee on International Communication and Information Policy (ACICIP), to advance the November 2011 recommendations document, authored these recommendations for ICT collaboration for disaster response. Having worked together on a number of international disaster responses, the authors decided to capture best practices from their own collaborative efforts and put together these recommendations for collaboration.
This document is intended to be a collaborative community-driven effort that brings together diverse members of the ICT industry along with the broad humanitarian community. By publicly sharing these recommendations, the authors believe that more effective collaboration can be achieved.
The recommendations are not intended to focus on a particular government, company or organization, but rather serve as generic recommendations that are applicable to the broad community. The intention is not to duplicate or replace already existing coordination efforts, but rather enhance collaboration that already exists.
This section offers recommendations for creating a scalable structure for membership and governance of a collaboration group amongst the private sector to support the NGO community, governments, and the in-country commercial sector during any significant disaster, regardless of size. It is also intended for use in situations where private sector organizations are directly engaged in the response, either providing their own resources directly to the population or in support of their clients, partners or other companies. In such cases, collaboration amongst private sector organizations and with NGOs and government agencies can be of great value.
While a collaboration group may benefit from as broad participation and support as possible to maximize resources and information, those involved should keep in mind the ineffectiveness of briefings with too many participants, concerns about disclosure of personal or sensitive information, or the need to prevent compromise of operational security that can place the safety of response personnel in the field in danger. Therefore, while the spirit is to foster broad collaboration, some form of control or governance of participation is recommended.
Each individual and organization that responds to a disaster has its own reasons for doing so. In many cases, private sector entities support a response to make a humanitarian contribution. In other cases, private sector participates to provide for good public relations or gain exposure to new markets or potential customers. Motivations may also be mixed. Before engaging in a disaster response effort or joining such a collaboration group, potential members should ensure that they accurately understand their own motivations, priorities and expected returns, and how these motivations will impact their actions in the context of a larger collaborative humanitarian effort.
The motivations behind private sector participation in disaster response may vary; however, it is important for private sector responders to understand that commercial motivations are often cited as a concern by NGOs when working with private sector. Therefore, in order to assuage humanitarian sector concerns and facilitate free and open information sharing, The authors encourage participating private sector organizations commit to the following principles:
In order to be effective in achieving the intended goals, a broad membership of relevant organizations should be considered. While the focus is on collaboration across private sector entities, it is essential to engage humanitarian organizations involved in disaster response and appropriate government representatives as equal partners to maximize effectiveness of both preparations and response.
Private sector organization participation should not necessarily be limited to the ICT sector. In a disaster, resources such as logistical support, supplies and transportation are critical. Therefore, participation from non-ICT industries could be sought out to address such needs when they are identified. For example, transportation of both equipment and personnel is often required to facilitate ICT response, recovery and/or restoration. In many disasters, shipping and airline companies become directly involved and representation of these sectors on relevant calls could be of benefit.
Membership Evaluation Process
In order to maintain a level of trust and still foster broad participation, an evaluation process could be an effective and simple method for quickly adding new members.
It is often said that “the immediate aftermath of a disaster is not the time to exchange business cards”. However, the reality among private sector organizations is that this is often the case, such as when an ICT organization is participating in an international disaster response for the first time.
The group should choose the method that is most appropriate for their members, recognizing that new and perhaps inexperienced entrants can still offer technical and other expertise that will enhance the collaboration. In fact, a collaboration group could be a useful way to help guide new entrants to a more constructive engagement with an international disaster response situation.
One mechanism that has been successful involves prospective members submitting a brief biographical description that includes their role within their organization as it relates to supporting international disaster response. Candidates could be accepted as a member if two active members were able to vouch for them, or they are given an opportunity to discuss their interests.
The authors recommend that participating members be operational in nature, ideally chartered or affiliated with humanitarian assistance/disaster response within their organization.
Moreover, having the same representatives participate across multiple incidents helps build trust within the collaboration group. Very often, the best collaboration in stressful situations occurs when there are strong, pre-existing personal relationships. A level of trust can more readily permit the discussion of potentially participant-sensitive material and to maintain Operational Security (OPSEC) to prevent endangering the safety of any responders in the field.
The issue of confidential information must be carefully considered and communicated as a matter of policy for the group during its formation and when adding additional members. Disaster response situations often find organizations that are normally competitors working closely together out of a shared belief in the greater importance of helping to save lives. As such, there is a real potential for situations where a company may need to determine whether or not to share information that would normally be considered industry or organization confidential. The level of trust or understanding of confidentiality agreed to by the membership can affect whether an organization will choose to join and what information members are willing to share.
Based on experience, a few suggested models are offered:
A collaboration group is intended to be a collective that is not “owned” by any organization or governing body. It is intended as a forum for its members to improve the ability of the private sector to support disaster response globally. Some form of facilitation, even if on a per-incident basis, may be necessary to make decisions that range from which collaboration tools should be used to who, if anyone, may speak publicly on behalf of the group. Participants should choose a facilitator, to act as a neutral party among diverse participating organizations. The facilitator ideally will have a broad spectrum of experience with disaster response to be able to understand multiple perspectives of those involved.
Each response will differ based on the needs of the host government, the NGO community, the UN and/or the local private sector. It is the simple reality that the level of interest in participation by private sector and other organizations often relates to the size and profile of the incident. Therefore, it is counter-productive to create an arbitrary and complex structure for all incidents when there may only be a handful of members participating in the response to a smaller incident.
The authors recommend that a scalable structure be implemented to ensure that the collaborative environment does not become too cumbersome to be effective.
It is rare that an interactive meeting with more than 25 participants is an effective forum in which to collaborate. For smaller incidents where fewer than 25 members are participating, the facilitator should convene a forum of all participants at a frequency of their discretion based on the needs of the response.
In the event that the number of members indicating that they will be participating in a response exceeds 25, the facilitator could create Branches based on the needs of the response and the number of members indicating their desire to participate.
In addressing leadership and structure when a large number of organizations are participating, the use of industry associations as a proxy may be an effective way of reducing the number of call participants and increasing the scalability, noting that certain member organizations may not be members of an association or be able to have that organization serve as a proxy for its role in a disaster. Representatives from the industry associations also could fill the role of the Branch Leads if created for a response. If this is not possible or otherwise desired, the industry association could be delegated the task of identifying the Branch Lead from among Branch members to maintain impartiality. If one company or organization is playing a significantly greater role than others in a given sector, the facilitator may decide to offer the role of Branch Lead to a representative from this company or organization.
At the facilitator’s discretion, it is recommended that larger listen-only briefings may be held for the full participating membership to disseminate updates from the facilitator, any of the Branch Leads, the UN, the NGO community or any other key stakeholders.
This section provides recommendations on several issues that a collaboration group should consider as part of preparedness: rapid alerting/notification capability, cross-credentialing, establishing registries of prepositioned equipment and personnel, and establishing relationships with key government contacts.
If a group hopes to respond to emergencies in a coordinated manner, it must have a quick and robust way to contact and communicate with key personnel. The authors therefore recommend that collaboration groups create a database, and participating organizations populate that database, with contact information for key coordination personnel from each entity in the group well before an emergency. The group should consider:
In the field, government, NGO, and private sector, response personnel offer each other’s organizations important assistance in emergencies. Often, however, this assistance is stymied by a lack of cross credentialing. If organizations intend to coordinate substantially in the field, a cross credentialing program may reduce friction and increase access to shared resources. With cross credentialing, vetted responders can access resources that are within the scope of a collaboration arrangement without unnecessary administrative hassle or delay. Careful and limited credentialing, however, is critical to security and resource management, so credentials should not be given lightly. The authors therefore recommend that during the preparedness stage, a group seeking to collaborate proactively:
Access to appropriate ICT tools in emergencies, especially in the first days of a response, is a constant challenge. Pre-positioning emergency ICT equipment and systems, and pre-identifying commercial ICT equipment that can be repurposed in emergencies, can significantly reduce delays associated with equipment needs. The authors recommend that a collaboration group seeking to coordinate emergency ICT response consider investigating whether a registry of equipment and/or personnel would be useful to furthering its goals. If organizations identify any useful existing registries, they should consider how to train personnel in their use and how to promote the registries among personnel. If they are inadequate, the authors recommend that organizations consider creating a new registry, perhaps at a more localized level or covering more specific types of equipment and/or personnel, and coordinating any new registries with global registries so as to improve both their own operations and those of responders outside of local coordination efforts.
Operations Best Practices
Government agencies, NGOs, and private sector organizations have substantial experience related to improving emergency response operations. To ensure that their experience and informational resources are distributed as widely as possible, the authors recommend that a collaboration group consider whether engagement with their local government or with the governments in countries where response activities are likely would improve response operations. For example, a collaboration group or its individual members could use the preparedness stage to respond to requests from governments to assist in further developing their internal disaster ICT preparedness capacities.
If a collaboration group determines that such activities are worthwhile, it should consider how it might best assist requesting governments, such as by creating a set of successful best practices, country case studies, and/or information on various technologies including recent innovations. Types of information to consider sharing include:
Regulatory Best Practices
Regulations, which are rarely developed with the emergency context in mind, can act as barriers to effective disaster response activities when an emergency occurs, delaying affected populations access to life-saving technologies and services. The authors therefore recommend that collaboration groups consider whether regulations, either generically or in specific countries, may have delayed or interfered with past emergency ICT missions. If this review identifies classes of regulations or specific regulations that are problematic, collaboration groups may consider whether or how to approach governments about ways to ensure regulations, procedures, and a lack of coordination between regulatory bodies do not delay or interfere with effective disaster response. Collaboration groups could also consider developing a more general set of regulatory best practices that promote effective emergency ICT response, and/or suggestions for governments to consider licensing or import requirements that do not unnecessarily slow or prevent emergency response activities. In this regard, collaboration groups should also familiarize themselves with international treaties and documents that a host nation may have ratified, such as the Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations.
Identification of Key Government Contacts
Knowing the right point of contact is critical for response coordination; regulatory, customs, and immigration compliance; and security matters. Responders often waste substantial time in the first hours and days of an emergency simply attempting to identify appropriate contacts and decision makers within relevant governments (including host governments). During the preparedness phase, the authors therefore recommend that a collaboration group create a database of key government points of contact in countries where a response may be needed. Since maintaining an updated database is a considerable challenge, the authors recommend that collaboration groups carefully consider a mechanism for keeping contact information up to date.
The authors further recommend that a group consider whether exchanging contact details or sharing their database with other collaboration groups, responding organizations, and field personnel might benefit either the preparedness or operational response phases.
Employing locally-based trained personnel during an emergency significantly improves response speed and effectiveness, and reduces costs. The authors therefore suggest that collaboration groups consider identifying training resources and programs available for individuals who are seeking to improve emergency response skills. A collaboration group may also consider whether any of the following would improve emergency operations:
In many circumstances, memoranda of understanding (or other similarly structured agreements), can improve collaboration or coordination between response-oriented organizations. This is especially true when coordination is required between corporations or NGOs, on the one hand, and UN agencies, government agencies, or quasi-governmental organizations, on the other hand. The latter organizations often limit coordination to instances where a MOU (or similar instrument) governs such coordinated work. Consequently, the authors recommend that a collaboration group consider whether negotiating an MOU is required to collaborate with certain organizations or where such instruments might substantively improve collaboration or coordination. Nonetheless, the authors also recommend that MOUs be avoided where they are not necessary, as they can impose transaction costs and lead to limiting and quickly out-of-date operational protocols and restrictions that are inconsistent with fast-moving and hard-to-predict emergency environments.
This section offers best practices, guidance, lessons learned, and examples related to operational collaboration between private sector organizations and the humanitarian response community when these entities have mobilized to respond to a disaster. The goal is to increase the effectiveness of a collaboration group in supporting impacted communities. Critical factors include: communication, partnerships, situational awareness, and assessing needs to define assistance.
Communication is widely acknowledged as a critical part of any emergency response, but recent increases in (1) the number and range of participants that comprise a response community, (2) information flows, and (3) the variety of communications tools used by responders can pose challenges to effective collaboration during a response. The following recommendations offer guidance on how a collaboration group can manage communications challenges to improve the response.
Community of Interest
A collaboration group should develop and actively participate in a “community of interest” that includes a broader group of stakeholders and partners from across the response community (ideally in advance of a disaster). This community may be defined in a variety of ways (common mission, sector, geography, etc.) and will likely be an informal group without an ownership hierarchy, but the purpose is to serve as a standard audience for communicating information during a response. Additional stakeholders or partners may be added to the community based upon the specific geographies, impact types, and active responders to each incident so it is important to be agile in adding to the audience throughout the incident.
All disaster scenarios differ and situations tend to be fluid; however, the authors recommend that collaboration groups establish a rhythm for communicating. This will allow others to know when to anticipate updates in order to align efforts more easily. The rhythm may change during the response based upon communications needs, but notification of changes should be included as part of the communications process.
The best way to support collaboration during a response is for organizations to be proactive about sharing pertinent information. When communications are more limited or closed, challenges can emerge such as: duplicate efforts to address the same issue, needs that are not addressed due to lack of visibility by a potential provider, available ICT services/goods going unclaimed due to missed connections with existing needs, and missed opportunities for alignment. While it is important to recognize the level of “noise” and volume of information that often can be transmitted during a disaster, by communicating more broadly, a collaboration group can better identify partners and minimize issues that often emerge with more siloed communication flows.
It is important for private sector members of a collaboration group to consider how to transparently communicate information about any costs or timeframes associated with ICT or other resources being made available during response activities, or how the support might affect any commercial engagements with those same members of the response community. There can be reluctance from NGOs and governments to engage with private sector organizations due to concerns about unknowingly entering into financial obligations with a company through activities that were initially understood to be humanitarian in nature.
Partnerships are instrumental to a successful response operation. In the last few years, there has been a positive, increased focus on reducing traditional barriers to partnership and collaboration in times of emergency. A collaboration group should consider how partnerships between response organizations, between private sector organizations and response organizations, and between private sector organizations can increase the efficiency of its response and help ensure that the appropriate subject matter expertise and resources are applied to the issues presented in a disaster scenario.
Each organization in a collaboration group will have a network of key stakeholders (ideally these are proactively cultivated relationships and contacts in the response community) that can be leveraged in times of disaster to contribute to situational awareness, address specific needs within their area of expertise, or to help make introductions between new partners. These partners should be included as part of appropriate communications. Depending on specific geographies, impact types, and active responders to each incident, it is important to be agile in adding partners as appropriate throughout the incident.
The best way to support collaboration with partners during a response is to proactively engage with them during the initial impact assessment and response planning phases. This will facilitate identification of and alignment on potential joint support areas early on. To this point, the authors recommend that a collaboration group include partner engagement as part of its core response activities to avoid duplication of efforts or inefficiencies of having to restructure activities to incorporate a partner later in the process. It is also important to acknowledge that even with well-established proactive relationships, partners and stakeholders may be able to provide resources and services or make connections beyond what is known in advance. Communicating about specific needs in an “in search of” type format to partners can help to identify these additional areas of support.
In developing proactive partnerships or initiating engagement in times of disaster it is important to understand each partner’s legal requirements or internal obligations that may impact the partnership. Depending upon the policies of involved parties, there may be a need to establish an NDA, MOU, or other formal agreement related to the joint activities for the response. Ideally, these will be established in advance of a response effort, but each collaboration group should at minimum clearly understand its own requirements when initiating a partnership.
In order to be able to respond effectively and responsibly during a disaster, it is critical for a collaboration group to have strong situational awareness, and an understanding of needs and requests from within the host nation. In this context, situational awareness includes understanding conditions on the ground, sensitivity to the geopolitical and cultural climate in the impacted region, and cognizance of existing response frameworks, including which organizations are engaged in response.
Responding members of a collaboration group must be aware of needs and conditions on the ground in order to be able to operate safely and tailor support offered to specific needs. Since incident information and response updates come from a variety of sources, a collaboration group should proactively identify those sources that are publishing information that is most relevant to them. Such published updates, along with assessments and information received through partnership channels, should be the basis for ensuring that any resources provided appropriately address a specific need.
Existing disaster response frameworks and operating models provide clear structures, responsibilities, and decision-making authority for incidents where multiple response organizations are engaging simultaneously. A lack of awareness of existing response frameworks and the proper protocols for operating in alignment with leadership structures and operating models can lead to conflicts or actions that may be counter to the mission. Noting that the impact severity, capacity of in-country response organizations, and geographic location will affect the underlying framework, it is critical to determine how best to engage in each disaster based on existing frameworks. As much as possible in advance of a disaster, a collaboration group should work to integrate known and available international frameworks or models as part of its own operating protocols. This may be more difficult to do proactively at the local level because protocols will vary by geography.
The impact severity, capacity of local response organizations and geographic location will also influence which response organizations are active in a given disaster. A collaboration group should have awareness of other active responding organizations in order to be able to collaborate, coordinate, and partner to address needs most effectively. Without an understanding of other active response organizations and how they fit into the broader response framework, support resources may not connect properly with the needs on the ground and duplication of efforts or conflicting activities may occur.
Establishing strong collaboration practices for communication, partnerships, and situational awareness are critical for a collaboration group to effectively assess needs and then define assistance to be provided based upon those needs.
Needs Assessments and Solution Delivery
There is a tendency for the private sector to be provided with a “shopping list” of needed equipment and services required by the response community. This has proven ineffective on many occasions. In some cases, responding organizations may not have the level of ICT expertise needed to adequately understand their ICT needs when preparing such a “shopping list”. In other cases, the “shopping list” may not be optimized based on available resources or current technology, or may not consider options for sharing of resources between responding organizations, leading to inefficient use of often limited technical and human resources.
To ensure a more successful and effective response, the authors recommend that collaboration groups form a communication loop with responding organizations, be they UN, NGOs, governments, or even local private sector ICT organizations. Action should only be taken if it responds to a confirmed need coming from a responding organization. The recipient entity should subsequently provide feedback to confirm whether/how the actions of the collaboration group met stated requirements. Such feedback can be valuable not only for future actions within the same response, but also for future responses. Failing to meet identified needs often can result in problems for responders, as can exceeding those needs.
Just as response agencies may not be as knowledgeable about ICT as technology companies, it is reasonable that technology companies may not be as knowledgeable about the best practices in supporting disaster response as the organizations they seek to help. Many individuals and organizations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster feel the need to do “something” that they believe is in support of the response. In some cases, this has led to well-intentioned attempts to provide assistance that not only failed to have a positive impact, but actually resulted in negative consequences by taking resources away from other tasks. A number of examples from recent disasters include:
The After-Action Review (AAR) is a necessary part of any disaster response as it provides the collaboration group with a methodology for learning from experiences – both positive and negative – so that future disaster response efforts can be more effective, and in turn may directly improve the quality of life and survival chances of those impacted by disasters. This section recommends a structure for a collaboration group to undertake an AAR in order to: analyze what happened, why it happened, how it could have been done better, and then to modify processes and practices as necessary.
While all disasters have some fundamental commonalities, each one is unique; and therefore, the respective response efforts will vary considerably. Factors affecting the nature and success of a response may include:
Due to these variances, the scope of the engagement at the initiation of the response may not be clear, and it may need to remain fluid for many reasons. Also, a less formal approach (than for example those used in the military or private sector) may be more appropriate for AARs of disaster response engagements.
Once scope, structure and participation are defined, the following are steps that may be considered when undertaking an AAR: