Information Management

Information Management

Information management is the orphan of the Cluster Approach; apparently misunderstood and neglected at the country level by too many Cluster Lead Agencies who almost always under-invest in the people, processes and machinery to properly harness the information needed and expected in the information age. The major challenges in emergencies are ensuring information is clear and reflects the most urgent needs of the affected population, and that information is produced and updated regularly. The outputs are relatively simple and are listed at the end of this section. The ‘back-end’ process is, however, far from simple. How many in the relief and development community know how to manage ‘bounded crowd-sourcing’, far less how to create multi-variate ‘mashups’ using googlearth? Yet, this is what Clusters need, not for external relations purposes, but for planning.

Clusters also need their own websites. Not as an aid to external communications, although that is also important, but primarily as an aid to coordination and collective planning. Sometimes it appears that those accountable for Cluster performance don’t know what is required to set up and maintain a dedicated web-space that requires daily updating? Is the hardware and software normally found in a country office, adequate? It isn’t.

“Information itself is very directly about saving lives. If we take the wrong decisions, make the wrong choices about where we put our money and our effort because our knowledge is poor, we are condemning some of the most deserving to death or destitution.”

(John Holmes, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, 2007)

What follow is adapted from IOM Handbook, drafted by ShelterCentre, 2010

Information Management (IM) is a critical function of the cluster. Accurate and timely information enables partners and government to take evidence-based strategic and operational decisions. Additionally, humanitarian advocacy efforts are stronger when based on objective, verifiable and reliable information. Accurate information is vital for effective operations and decision making processes. Within a cluster, information sharing contributes to stronger partnerships, and the visibility of each organization. Once processed and analyzed, information allows the identification of needs and specific vulnerabilities of affected populations, and helps to address gaps and overlaps in the delivery of aid. It also enables monitoring and measuring the impact of response. Ultimately, information is the basis for strategizing recovery of affected communities. Data is collected and processed to develop products for dissemination, such as reports, maps and charts. Data is defined as raw information – e.g. facts or statistics – collected together for reference or analysis. Information is data that has been processed in such a way that it can increase the knowledge of everyone who receives it. IM is particularly complex in large-scale emergencies and requires specialized skills and tools to manage a rapid and heavy flow of data. As currently used in the context of humanitarian response, IM includes Collection, Processing and storage, Analysis and Dissemination. IM cluster activities occur in four stages:

  1. Establish common needs, standards and tools
  2. Collecting and collating the information
  3. Analyzing and mapping information the information;
  4. Reporting and disseminating the information to those who need it.

Successful IM improves the speed and accuracy of information delivered, creating reliable baseline data that enables decision-makers to coordinate and plan response programming based on best available knowledge of needs and a clear understanding of each organisation’s capacity. Knowledge management (KM) is a methodology that makes sense of information and transforms it into tools, and practices tailored to specific needs (i.e lessons learnt, best practices, standards) During an emergency, retrieving and incorporating knowledge is necessary to support operational improvement and innovation. Beyond knowledge gathered from information collected by stakeholders,  incorporating lessons learnt, best practices, standards collected during previous experiences is critical to increasing the effectiveness of the operational response. Global clusters have a key role to play in providing support to country-level clusters in combining processed information with lessons learned, knowledge of the environment and context and application of standards to improve deliverables.


IM requires inputs and participation from the CLA, cluster partners, other clusters, government, beneficiaries, and donors. Guidance pertaining to roles and responsibilities are further documented in the “Operational Guidance on Responsibilities of Cluster/Sector Leads and OCHA in Information Management” which stipulate four main provisions: Cluster Leads:

  • Responsible for IM needs WITHIN their cluster
  • Are to ensure that adequate IM Capacity exists in their cluster


  • Responsible for ensuring effective IM between Clusters and support operational analysis
  • Convene an IM Working Group (IMWG) of IM Cluster focal points


CLA’s have a key role to play in providing support to country-level Clusters in combining processed information with lessons learned, knowledge of the environment and context and application of standards to improve deliverables. Each therefore has the responsibility to undertake the following:

  • identify internal and inter-agency capacity for IM, and allocate necessary resources (financial and human);
  • ensure that IM and needs are included in the cluster strategic planning, and that appropriate mechanisms are set up. This entails: drafting ToRs, appointing IM focal points and teams, and defining priorities and standard;
  • produce timely and relevant cluster-specific information, such as situation and assessment reports, “Who, What, Where, When” reporting, and analyses on needs, capacity, output, gaps, and cluster imapct. This should be shared with cluster partners and all relevant stakeholders (OCHA, other clusters, authorities) during and outside coordination meetings;
  • convince partners to share and disseminated information and support capacity building in IM;
  • pay particular attention to collect and provide information on cross-cutting issues (gender, age.);
  • ensure compliance in terms of confidentiality and privacy protection with agreed standards;
  • define a public information approach.

The CLA is accountable to the entire Cluster. It is responsible for coordinating IM across the entire sector and facilitating information exchange on a daily basis. This can be achieved by ensuring the dissemination of meeting notes, technical guidance, and regular situation reports. An IM focal point should be appointed for each Cluster and is tasked with:

  • assisting strategic and operational decision-making and strategic planning, by carrying out common inter-cluster/sector IM activities, such as gap identification, risk mapping etc;
  • disseminating information to the appropriate parties, including in local languages;
  • encouraging stakeholders to use appropriate tools for IM activities, such as GIS, various web-based information platforms, etc and contribute to develop such tools;
  • supporting harmonized reporting;
  • providing coordination support to both intra and inter-cluster IM initiatives and contribute to the global inter-cluster IM coordination led by OCHA through the IASC IM Working Group;
  • coordinating the work of the IM Group, if appropriate;
  • defining common standards and good practices, and ensure the compliance of the cluster’s IM activities to agreed norms.

IM can be very complex and requires dedicated resources. To enable the functioning of IM process, CLA may appoint specialist teams to carry out main IM activities. In larger emergencies, cluster information management resources may require a team of dedicated, specialized resources.  These team resources could include database specialists, IT expertise, data entry personnel, GIS and mapping specialists, or communications and translation services.  Additional staff may be required to respond to carry out other ad-hoc tasks related to IM (i.e. assessment resources, undertaking statistical analysis, web content management and platform development). The IM team should be proactive in collecting data from various sources to inform cluster’s strategy and response planning. They should also consider the capacities of cluster partners in supplying data, e.g. operating systems and software capacity, internet access or restrictions, language barriers and help building their capacities accordingly. When carrying out IM activities, cluster members are primarily accountable to beneficiaries. They must encourage participation from affected communities in establishing their needs, and communicate with beneficiaries on services offered and delivered.  This can be achieved through: the formation of local community groups for information exchange, PI and outreach activities and mass media.


Beyond its responsibility for inter-cluster IM UN/OCHA is also responsible for establishing an IM Working Group at the country level in order to coordinate IM activities and provide support to clusters.  At minimum, this IMWG should include the information management focal points for all clusters involved with the response and should meet early and regularly to coordinate establishing basic IM protocols.

The IM Working Group may involve major stakeholders, including government representatives, NGOs and UN agencies. Primarily, this group would ensure that information is used consistently between all clusters and their partners and that sharing standards are developed and maintained.  In addition, this working group can combine efforts to provide information collection products including matrices for 3W’s, geographical datasets, specific humanitarian web-portals, provide technical advice for survey and need assessments design, and technical support for the maintenance of common cluster databases.



Processing information “consists of primarily technical processes that transform raw data (i.e. numbers) into a format that can be easily manipulated or combined with other data in preparation for further analysis.” (UNOCHA) IM coordination implies to consider how the data will be sorted and stored, e.g. database requirements, web-based data storage or hard files, etc.

Quantitative and qualitative information are then transformed into products and systems that are tailored to the audience, and are based on a user-friendly system, so that information retrieval is simple and appropriate for stakeholders. Information processing is facilitated by the use of common standards e.g. location and Place-codes (P-codes), gender and age, vulnerable groups, data sources.

Skilled analysis is the most essential part of the IM process. This may include disaggregating or combining information, identifying trends and gaps, and integrating lessons learned from previous responses. Effective synthesis of information reveals the impact of implementation activities, identifies potential gaps, helps to form an integrated response, and increases clarity among strategic, program and project plans.

The reporting and dissemination of information is an integral part of the response. The format of the disseminated information must be in a sufficiently simple, comprehensive and usable format for the intended recipients. The style and tone of the information should be focused on informing operations.


  • Make information useful for others, e.g. share it visually. A simple map may provide more inputs and be more useful in a moment of difficulty and stress and serve as a better contribution than a 100 page report. Provide the date and source of all information to mitigate the risk of using outdated information.
  • Remember that all data reported by the cluster and by individual stakeholders will be scrutinized by the press and donors. Many agencies have a responsibility to local governments and must be aware of political repercussions of disseminating sensitive information. Particularly sensitive or confidential information must be highly controlled so that it only reaches those who need it for decision-making.
  • Ensure that all outputs include the sources of data (where appropriate) and a suitable disclaimer about accuracy and liability.
  • At the beginning of a response work with estimates and rough data at first, do not wait for the perfect data and delay the response.



The 4-Ws Who What Where (- When) is a data collection method, in which agencies enter their activities and the locations into a matrix. It is often displayed using simple maps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Maps can indicate: summary facts and figures, 3W for various services, climate, specific localities or sites, assistance planning, action and coverage, damage, risk and vulnerability, IDPs and displacement tracking, and other assessment results. Summary maps can be used for dissemination, as most humanitarian information has a geographic component, and are a very effective means of communicating a large amount of information in a simple form.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a group of technologies used to create digital mapping  products that support a wide range of analytical activities, e.g. damage assessments, gap analysis, response strategies, contingency planning.

There are also a number of emerging mapping technologies using open source, free software, such as Google Maps, OpenLayers and open street map. Google Earth is a commonly used example, as actors are able also to share files (KML) containing multiple layers of data in the same way as sharing single-layered maps.

Epi Info is a free questionnaire and statistical analysis software available from the Centre for Disease Control. It is designed for disaster epidemiology but can be useful across a broad range of response scenarios beyond health.

Web platforms are a critical IM tool because they provide a single hub for information collection and dissemination. These platforms should be accessible by responding agencies and the larger sphere of interested parties. Currently, there are a number of platforms under development to support robust inter-agency information sharing (,, etc).  In the interim, other commonly-used platforms include Google Groups ( to manage discussion, or Google Sites ( to create simple websites, which are easy to setup, edit, manage and use.

Google Documents and spreadsheets allow cluster members to update their agency activity data online in a common format.


Cluster Coordinators should be able to brief the Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator and all other stakeholders at a moment’s notice verbally and in writing (SitRep) on:

  • The Cluster’s strategy
  • Progress towards meeting the Cluster’s objectives
  • Main operational achievements
  • Main gaps and constraints to achievement of Cluster objectives (funding and operational)
  • Funding situation
  • Future intentions
  • Any outstanding Inter-Cluster issues, including those requiring advocacy



Establish a web platform that provides the following functionality. Ensure it is updated in all relevant languages daily and covers Hub-specific information (noting that policy, strategy and technical guidance is usually set at national level):

  • Meeting schedule
  • Contact details (of Cluster coordination teams at all levels + Cluster partners)
  • Documents library
    • technical best practices
    • map atlas
    • bulletins
    • strategy (SOF)
  • Latest SitRep (and history)
  • Latest Meeting Notes (and history)
  • Latest statistics
  • Bulletin Board for commercial company postings (with a warning that this does not act as any sort of endorsement)
  • Interactive discussion forum (including links to other social media)

For an example of a good Cluster website, see:



The Cluster’s Information Management (IM) team is to ensure production of the following:

  • Cluster-specific website content & functionality (updated daily)
  • Datasets (integrated and sector-specific monitoring matrices against key indicators)
  • Dashboard graphics (coverage and trends)
  • Maps (with multiple overlays); usually including Googlearth
  • Contact lists (e.g Googlegroups)
  • Meeting schedules
  • ‘How to Contact Us’ Poster
  • Situation Reports, Bulletins etc. (with the Cluster Coordinator)

For further information, see: or and search for ‘information management working group. There is also useful information on ‘dashboards’ annexed to the ‘needs assessment working group’ (NATF) draft guidance note.

Updated 20 May 2011
This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and were acknowledged when doing so.

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