Information management for NGOs

Paul’s linked me in a post that first had me scouring for a definition of “meme”. I found two useful definitions – one on Wikipedia and another on a website called Meme Update #3.

Now that I got that sorted out, I thought that a half-digested definition of meme is a wonderful excuse to share some resources I’ve found useful when dealing with information management for NGOs in post-conflict situations. First principle, they are not interested in information management that leads to better collaboration. There is the great fallacy that NGOs in particular are more open to technology and collaboration. They are not. In Sri Lanka, NGOs are bedevilled by the same parochialism and myopia that they seek to change in the party political architecture. I’ve written about this in an earlier post.

In sum, it’s a tough call to recommend resources (online or print) that I’ve actually found useful in application, rather then just good bedtime reading. I also see that Nancy’s already put up a great list of online resources in her response to Paul – so I’ll just go with some that I’ve found useful from the perspective of an IT strategist, peace activist and researcher working in a geography of ethnic violence in the Global South.

1. Final Report of Symposium on Best Practices in Humanitarian Information Exchange

I’ve found this report to be extremely useful in getting my own head around what I seek to instill with the NGOs I work with. Especially after the tsunami, there were a plethora of information exchange architectures, including those of InfoShare, which weren’t designed for easy exchange of information. The ones most successful were ones built on open standards, an idea that encounters significant resistance from NGOs who have designed their internal IT architectures on proprietary closed architectures that may work well for them internally, but are ill-suited for the multi-level complex collaboration needed in any humanitarian / peacebuilding effort.

This report outlines some of the fundamentals needed to set up such inter-locking information exchange frameworks. Not useful as a advocacy document to thrust at NGOs themselves, but essential reading for anyone who wishes to engage with the NGO / INGO sector on information management.

2. Strategic Intentions: Managing Knowledge Networks for Sustainable Development

Authored by Heather Creech and Terri Willard, this resource is useful because of the ideas it contains on the architecture of knowledge networks – essentially arguing for greater emphasis to be placed on peripheral enablement (say workers in the field) rather than IT frameworks that concentrate all the power in a central node. In this sense, largely speaking, knowledge networks are seen as peer-to-peer architectures as opposed to centrally managed systems.

This is revolutionary for many NGOs – especially those with the cult of the founder. In other words, NGOs which are launched by a visionary are rarely geared for long-term engagements with peace and governance. Information management in these NGOs is basically linked to authoritarian oversight by the head of the organisation on everything that happens under him / her. Delegation doesn’t come easy for visionaries.

The core thrust of this resource is to establish that the bedrock of knowledge networking is based on sharing decision making authority – enabling those in the field to make decisions independent of the centre, but supported by expert systems that provide information and logistics support to in-field operations.

Put another way, part of information management for NGOs is the organisation’s ability to move away from a centripetal IT architecture to centrifugal frameworks that empower workers / colleagues wherever they are – in office or in the field.

This is one of the toughest concepts for NGOs to grasp – that letting go is actually helping them more than a strangehold on information and decision making.

3. Networking Knowledge for Information Societies: Institutions and Intervention

Though 4 years old, this tome contains many interesting essays that approach information management in a holistic sense – coupling socio-political institutions along with ICT in an endeavour to transformation our social world for the better using technology.

In so far as each of the essays go, you can perhaps get the same ideas from elsewhere. What makes this book useful for me however is the emphasis on a larger palette of issues that underpin much of what we talk about in information management – issues of politics, ancient institutions, parochialism, nepotism, spectrum regulation, economics of access, democracy and the digital divide etc.

As a whole, it’s thought provoking and well edited. A very long cover to cover read, but more useful as a resource that one keeps coming back to as a guide to articulate better one’s own thoughts on information management.

4. Bridges.org

As the website blurb states:

Bridges.org is an international non-profit organisation that promotes the effective use of ICT in the developing world to reduce poverty and improve people’s lives. We tackle the obstacles to effective ICT use throughout society and work with initiatives focused on socio-economic development to help them use ICT to make a Real Impact.

Our core work deals with ICT policy, technology research, and ICT project evaluations. We foster Real Access to ICT by providing information and resources; advising decision-makers and the public on key issues; and supporting grassroots projects, local businesses and e-government efforts.

Over the years, I’ve found bridges.org to be a useful resource that informs me about ICT innovations that are applicable in the context of peacebuilding. Though a bit Africa-centric (and with good cause – Africa is a hotbed of innovation on ICT and mobile telephony) the website lists some interesting case studies on the use of information management frameworks in various contexts, though the question remains as to how scaleable these donor funded experiments are.

5. Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding

Apologise for this, but an article I wrote two years still guides my interactions with NGOs in Sri Lanka on the need for information management, especially the section on Information Communications Technology (ICT) and Challenges & Future for ICT in Peacebuilding. I wrote this article from the perspective of someone who continues to attempt to posit technology as a powerful catalyst, if used in the right manner, in the transformation of ethno-political conflict. In the sections mentioned above, I take a view of technology from the lens of a practitioner on the ground – markedly different to many resources I come across on the internet that are great pieces of academic research bearing little relevance to the actual application on the ground.

So there – 5 resources that in response to Paul’s request. There are of course many more in print and online, but in our digital age of information overload, it’s getting more and more difficult to find what’s really useful in a local context. That is then the central issue of information management for many NGOs I work with – tempering their desire to attain a greater footprint and visibility on the web / the internet / with their partners and at the same time resistent to letting go of their information and knowledge into the public domain.

This is not a problem for technology alone. It’s social engineering, and in a post-conflict context such as mine, calls for a complete re-engineering of the way we relate to each other as human beings with the shared goal of sustainable peace in our lifetimes.

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