The Center for Data Innovation spoke with the leaders of KoBoToolbox, an open source toolkit for humanitarian workers designed to make it easier to collect and use data, at Harvard University’s Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Phuong Pham, co-founder, Patrick Vinck, co-director, and Tino Kreutzer, program manager, discussed the value of data for humanitarian response efforts as well as how common platforms can address some of the challenges of coordinating humanitarian efforts across multiple government agencies and non-governmental agencies.
Alexander Kostura: Could you start by explaining why data is so valuable in responding to humanitarian crises?
Patrick Vinck: Without good data, decisions are made on a hunch, based on assumptions or anecdotes. In humanitarian contexts where resources are scarce and stakes are high, we cannot afford to make uninformed decisions.
Phuong Pham: KoBoToolbox enhances the capacity of humanitarians to rapidly gather, manage, and analyze data relevant for decision making. This information is critical to rapidly assess needs, scale response, and overall, make humanitarian action more efficient. KoBoToolbox is also meant to promote common standards and support the creation, distribution, and sharing of libraries of reusable questions and indicators. In doing so, it improves the coordination of needs assessments even in the absence of a formalized joint approaches. This will help humanitarians know “who does what where” in terms of humanitarian assessments, and possibly merge datasets as well as prioritize and distribute resources. The result is a more complete and accurate picture of the situation on the ground, and a better-informed and prioritized response.
Tino Kreutzer: For example, in Nepal, we used KoBoToolbox during a coordinated rapid needs assessment following the earthquake in 2015. This was led by the local government together with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and several humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Several dozen local volunteers were sent out to speak with local community leaders, health staff, teachers, and so on to find out the exact damage caused by the disaster and what the most pressing needs were for emergency assistance. There was often no way to reach these communities other than by foot. Using KoBoToolbox allowed the humanitarian partners on the ground to immediately analyze and then act upon the findings. Using paper would have caused longer delays for transporting forms, transcribing, and then cleaning the data. Assessments like this are now done routinely with KoBoToolbox in all humanitarian crises, such as in South Sudan or Syria. This saves valuable time for everyone involved.
Kostura: KoBoToolbox is intended for use in places where electricity and Internet connections are unreliable or unavailable, such as in the wake of a natural disaster. How do these tools work in these environments?
Kreutzer: KoBoToolbox was built specifically for the kinds of environments where power and Internet are hard to come by. Data collection will always work offline and can be sent back to the server even after weeks of fieldwork.
Vinck: Synchronization and upload of the data can be run once Internet is accessible to take advantage of the remote server, but it is also possible to run KoBoToolbox locally and synchronize data without Internet access. Having access to electricity remains critical to power tablets for data collection, and possibly a laptop for data synchronization. In the field we have used a combination of external chargers and solar chargers to operate for weeks without connecting to the grid. A small generator or using vehicle batteries pretty much guarantees energy independence.
Kreutzer: In fact, we have an actual toolbox which is ready for rapid deployment and includes everything needed to run assessments. That way it is possible to use all parts of KoBoToolbox completely locally, without ever needing to use the Internet.
Kostura: Coordinating emergency response efforts by various government agencies and NGOs can be incredibly complicated. How does KoBoToolbox help address some of these logistical challenges?
Pham: KoBoToolbox seeks to harmonize and coordinate approaches to humanitarian data collection. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is responsible for ensuring a coordinated and coherent response to emergencies, officially adopted KoboToolbox as the tool of choice during emergency response. This strategic partnership encourages the use of a common platform by humanitarian actors which overtime will facilitate joint assessment and sharing of data and hence coordination during an emergency. In addition, through KoboToolbox’s new sharing features, users can share standardized question libraries and soon will be able to better share data and metadata. This will not resolve the entire issue of coordinating emergency response, but it will at least help create a common information platform.
Kreutzer: The vast majority of humanitarian organizations now uses our tools in various projects and countries. This includes UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders, and other NGOs. Having all these organizations use the same tool has made it much easier to collaborate and to share data or questionnaires. Staff from different organizations can be pooled more easily to work together if everyone is already used to working with the same tools. In the past many organizations were doing their own assessments with different tools and methodologies, often not sharing data with each other.
Kostura: What factors might be limiting the use of data to improve humanitarian response and international development projects? Can these be addressed through better technology, or are there other obstacles?
Vinck: We are rapidly moving toward a data-centered humanitarian action. New technologies have made it simpler to acquire, store, and analyze data. At the same time, the drive toward more efficient humanitarian response has created a thirst for evidence, measures, and quantified monitoring and evaluation. This is not to say that there are no obstacles. Data collection and analysis can be time consuming, difficult and costly to implement, and KoBoToolbox is an answer to some of these challenges.
Pham: But it is important to remember that humanitarian aid must be community-centered more than data-centered. It is important to ensure that the people most concerned—communities themselves—access this information and understand and use the data. We have recently launched our training program on humanitarian assessment with the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard University. For now, it is aimed at practitioners, but we hope to reach a broader audience.
Kreutzer: When it comes to humanitarian needs assessments, technology can definitely make a big difference to get more accurate results faster and at lower cost. But there are still a number of challenges around agreeing on common indicators, organizing human resources, and how to analyze and act upon collected data.
Kostura: Humanitarian aid workers are the main users of KoBoToolbox, but some researchers in other fields have found valuable applications outside of humanitarian response. Why do you think this suite of tools lends itself to other research environments?
Pham: Our team comes with many different backgrounds: public health, agriculture, information management, to name a few. So we are always excited to see applications outside of humanitarian response. In fact, KoBoToolbox was originally developed for development and human rights documentation and assessments. Over the years we have seen many applications, from environmental protection to archeology. It is great to hear about creative use of KoBoToolbox. But perhaps more importantly, it also creates new ideas, features that we would like to develop, perhaps as added modules or add-ons that would be specific to some disciplines.
Vinck: KoBoToolbox is completely free and fully supported, which takes time and resources. The challenge is to find the resources to support and develop features in response to requests across disciplines. For humanitarian applications, we are generously supported by a number of partners. We consult with humanitarian users to establish priorities for new feature development and respond to requests. We would love to do the same for other applications, especially in the humanities. Of course we also welcome code contribution. KoBoToolbox is fully open source.