Regional Teams and Regional Data

Regional Teams are definitely not a new concept at the SBTF and every member is assigned to a Regional Team, depending on his/her location. Given the SBTF’s phenomenal growth and frequency of deployments, the need for increasingly effective and uncomplicated coordination/ cooperation is obvious. The regional teams are one of the instruments of the SBTF to embrace this need. So, what is the vision behind the Regional Teams? What do we hope to achieve through this categorization? How are deployments likely to benefit from these Regional Teams? This post is an attempt to respond to these questions and more.

Efficiency and timeliness are key as we deal with live maps in a crisis. Let’s say there’s a need to map a flood-hit remote region, which doesn’t have much of an online presence yet. Meaning, village X in this flood-hit region, which is in dire need of food supplies, cannot be easily mapped. In such cases, if we had a database of local NGO contacts in/ around the flood-hit region handy, we could simply connect with a few such organizations right away and seek help with the location. Chances are that at least one out of ten organizations would respond. The approach just described is definitely not new. Seeking help from other organizations/ personnel indeed happens during deployments, like in the case of Haiti. The idea is simply to be proactive in identifying such potential needs and collecting the required information in advance, so that during a crisis, where every second counts, we don’t have to make a hurried scramble to identify people and organizations who could possibly help.

In July 2011, less than 3 hours after the attacks in Mumbai, India, a crisis map was deployed and the SBTF volunteers got on board to map needs and impact of these attacks. Details on this crisis were more comprehensively covered by the regional media as opposed to the international ones. A key task, therefore, was identifying the list of relevant/ important regional media sources to gather information from. While this is no huge bottleneck in itself, it would have helped to have a pre-identified list of credible Indian media sources (both English and vernacular), so that the Media Monitoring team had something to start with right away instead of spending time researching credible local sources.

Scenarios of the kind described above are not specific to any one crisis but are often encountered in several deployments, in varying forms and measure. Every deployment comes with its own set of regionally specific data, gaps and sensitivities that have to be factored in. Where possible, identifying such data for as many regions as possible and in advance of any crisis, is definitely advantageous. Of course, not every need can be identified in advance and there are some which are very unique to each crisis but the common ones can and definitely should be addressed. This could be described as the SBTF’s emergency preparedness plan and this is where the Regional Teams step in.

What if volunteers in any deployment had access to a miniature “SBTF Country encyclopedia”, which would serve both as an emergency directory and a 2-minute deployment-related “crash course” on the specific country, to help smooth at least a few deployment tasks? Sounds ambitious, yes, but definitely worth an attempt and this will be a key focus of the SBTF Regional Teams. While an emergency directory could contain contact listing for local NGOs, local media sources, etc the latter could contain pointers specific to each country that could come in useful to volunteers during deployments. An important consideration here would be to ensure that the organizations and sources that we gather are indeed credible.

So what do we mean by the aforementioned “pointers”? A pointer could be just about any information that will likely help volunteers, who are not familiar with a particular country, during a deployment. This is where regional considerations, if any, that need to be factored into a deployment are collected. Who provides these pointers? The larger SBTF community which has volunteers from nearly 70 countries! Volunteers can offer information/ their opinion/ suggestions on just about any country they are familiar with and on absolutely any subject they feel will come in handy during a deployment. The information offered by these pointers could be incorporated into the overall deployment strategy as helpful country-specific considerations So, a sample pointer from a volunteer familiar with country X could be: “Beware of vernacular media reports when mapping in country X. Heavily biased”. This would translate to increased caution from volunteers when dealing with vernacular media reports during deployments in country X. Or “Rural regions always under-reported” which could possibly suggest an SBTF strategy to include more trusted, rural organizations to directly source information from. Or “low Internet penetration.” translating to lesser first person accounts (Tweets, Facebook, etc). Just about anything goes as a pointer!

Logically speaking, the Regional Teams are the obvious owners of this task of building such a repository. This is because only those who are living in/ familiar with a particular region can truly understand and appreciate the realities that can affect a region as well as the customs, language, knowledge and work of organizations on the ground.

So, how/ where would this encyclopedia help? Apart from slightly reducing the work of volunteers during deployments, this dataset could also help in the following ways:

Comprehensive Information Gathering and Information Verification: Not all events/ incidents are available on mainstream media, social media or official sources. Sometimes, the smaller, local organizations have greater access to information than media sources or international NGOs. Having a database of such trusted, local NGOs handy ensures that we have the resources to tap into for more comprehensive information, if ever there is a need. Similarly, in the event that media sources do not sufficiently corroborate a particular information for verification purposes, knowing what trusted and local organizations to directly contact, to confirm a specific report, would be very helpful.

Deployment Direction: The SBTF is activated by and works under directions of a deploying organization, usually on the ground and involved directly in response. However, given the novelty and volatility accompanying any major crisis, it helps to be proactive as we help the deploying organization improve its situational awareness. One option, with the vetted local NGO contacts that we identify, would be to identify a small SBTF team to initiate and maintain conversation with a few of these organizations, through the duration of the deployment. As discussed, local organizations often do have better insight into realities on the ground, projections for the future, etc. They are also often good sources to comment on early signs of an emerging crisis or indications of one crisis spawning another (like a natural disaster leading to a health crisis) – trends which start very local in scope before spreading to a wider expanse. If there are any important suggestions/ directions/ emerging patterns that these conversations with the local NGOs lead to and that are worth pursuing to better help the affected population, we could proactively relay those to the deploying organization.

Voice for those unheard: During times of crisis, the needs of the smaller organizations are not always heard. Having such a database gives us access to trusted, smaller organizations serving a very localized population and often independent of the country’s humanitarian cluster team. A worthwhile exercise could be mapping the non-monetary needs of such smaller organizations. Of course, a key precedent would be to ensure that these organizations are trustworthy and that the information they provide is true.

For the above and more, the emergency preparedness information or encyclopedia described above would be very beneficial and this is something the Regional Teams are looking to build for each region. If you are convinced that data of this nature would be helpful, you are most welcome to join us in our efforts to build this regional data.

Virginia, Svend and Bharathi

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