Humanitarian Information Efforts in Iraq -- Creating a Common Operational Picture

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Welcome to GISWeekly! Last week our Industry News Feature focused on the efforts of Shawn Messick, leading expert on Applied GIS in the field of Humanitarian Relief, in Kosovo. This week we continue that series with an in-depth look at Messick's work in Iraq. He gave a presentation on this work at ESRI UC, entitled, “Herding Cats: Initial Work Supporting Humanitarian Information Efforts in Iraq.

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Industry News

Humanitarian Information Efforts in Iraq -- Creating a Common Operational Picture

By Susan Smith

Currently working as a Senior Analyst for VVAF's Information Management & Mine Action Programs (iMMAP), Shawn Messick is assisting the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) with humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq. He was one of seven humanitarian information management officers that iMMAP deployed to Iraq to support the UN Humanitarian Information Center (HIC) for that country. He has worked on post-conflict environments in countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Pakistan and Iraq.

Developing a deeper understanding of how to negotiate a strange environment is only a part of what the Humanitarian Information Center (HIC) does extremely well. Interorganizational coordination allows organizations to share relevant data in a timely manner. The HIC comes up with simple solutions to what many people find very massive, confusing problems. The goal is to create a common operational picture, so that the organizations can use it to coordinate amongst themselves and to fix problems.

In Iraq, Messick described the UN Humanitarian Information Center's (HIC) work with the Health Sector. Usually there is a lead organization from the UN, in this case the World Health Organization, and many independent health organizations who come together to discuss what they're going to do. Those are relief organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Doctors of the World, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Medical Corp, and others.

“The challenge is - you can't control them, you can't dictate to them, so you have to appeal to their vested interests or their enlightened self interest to get them to comply to certain standards like data standards or georeferencing,” Messick said. “You have to work through various interest groups such as a health group, so you have a 'health sector' as they call it out there.”

“The big contractors like Bechtel came into the situation not understanding that they had to coordinate with every other organization,” explained Messick. “Without coordinating with anyone they showed up and decided that the repairs weren't good enough or they don't even know that repairs have been done and they decide that there's minor repairs that are needed and they're going to go in and do it all over again.” What this causes, according to Messick, is a situation where the relief agencies ask for cooperation from the companies so that money isn't wasted in unnecessary repairs and procedures. They ask for a division of labor so that one party can solve one part of a problem while another can take care of another problem.

Part of the process in setting up the Humanitarian Information Center (HIC) for the UN was to make contact with the lead organizations. Then it was a matter of convincing them the HIC could help them to make their job easier and give visibility to the project. “First we had to hook them and the line that was necessary was they have to start developing better tools and more simplified data.” The process of gathering health information involved initial 20 page assessments, with some people doing digital photos of infrastructure damage- an incredible amount of information mostly in narrative format. Questionnaires had been filled out and the information was being put into data tables, but that still didn't give an accurate picture of what the problems were that needed to be solved because there was too much information to manage.

“The HIC sat down with the Health sector and went over with them what were the key issues for immediate need, and identified what they needed as far as information in order to coordinate with each other,” explained Messick. “And it came down to actually about three fields, 1) status of infrastructure of the health facility, 2) the status of furniture, 3) the status of medical equipment. Next to each of those on spreadsheets would be which organization was doing it, if someone had signed up. It was just a very simple way of dealing with reams of narrative data. They didn't have to do new assessments, they could use old assessments, pull out those three factors, along with geographic information, so they had both administrative level coding and a precise coordinates for the actual facility.” After that, the HIC could very quickly represent that on the map with multiple symbolizations status showing where requirements are and where things had not been addressed.

In Iraq, the iMMAP program has three contracts:

- The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to support the Humanitarian Information Centers in Iraq. Before the war, iMMAP had a full deployment of people around the country waiting for the war to finish -- in Ankara, Tehran, Kuwait, Amman, Jordan, Cairo and Cyprus. Now there are people in Erbil, Basra and Baghdad.

- Supporting the Coalition Provisional Authority, the occupational government, the U.S. has the lead but it is essentially made up of coalition allies, so the UK has a heavy presence. There are also Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Poles, and Czechs involved. They are the civil authority as well as the coalition troops, which are the military power. HIC has a contract with the U.S. Department of State to support the creation of the national mine action authority. What iMMAP is focusing on is the data management and GIS components of that. The contract is extended through December.

- iMMAP has a third contract to conduct the emergency landmine/UXO survey for the UN Mine Action Service. Prior to the war there had been a mine clearance program in the north, but there have been no mine or UXO clearance in the south at all. Now, with the country opened up, they are able to define the countrywide problem. The emergency survey is a hasty survey to go out and identify all the potential contaminated sites. This includes anything from a stockpile of munitions that is either intact or broken into and now the stuff is scattered, or it could be sites where cluster munitions have been dropped, it could be the old battlefields of the Iran/Iraq war, which are littered with unexploded munitions and destroyed vehicles that haven't been cleared since that time. Other areas include standalone missile systems, with very corrosive fuel that could begin leaking. The survey rapidly captures this information, and all of it is georeferenced.

“We 're taking GPS coordinates on every site,” said Messick. “We're estimating areas so we'll be able to display these areas as polygons on the map, and we're collecting some basic socio-economic and hazard data for the population. So that then we can set up a prioritization process.”

What about Iraqi involvement in these efforts? “There was a UN mine clearance effort that was Iraqi based, the Mine Advisory Group, almost all the staff are Iraqi, so there are Iraqi personnel involved in management,” Messick stated. “Now what they're trying to do with the Coalition Provisional Authority is try to create a national management body under the Ministry of Planning that will take responsibility for coordinating all these assets and the funding that will be given to it to manage and fund the clearance programs.”

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