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Managing Data in the Pakistan Flood Crisis

When numbers get washed away, everything falls apart.

The Pakistan flood crisis has caused the death and destruction of thousands and as aid efforts pour through the country, a critical component becomes managing data—data of the flood itself, where people are going, how many are displaced, water levels, food amounts, and on and on.

A new report from indicates that data from such crucial sources as the Pakistan Meteorological Department's flood forecasting division, which measures the flow of the floods, is being mishandled and poorly managed, as part of a general miscoordination of information flow and management of Pakistan's flood disaster.

Pakistan has the necessary weather radars and other technical equipment to monitor its floods closely, but in the face of the crisis, the one thing that has been forgotten is management.

Of the data now being generated, "Much of it is being rendered useless in the absence of a sound and integrated flood management strategy and information dissemination," National Disaster Management Authority member Ahmad Kamal said. But what's the use of technological know-how when basic leadership and management skills are not employed to benefit from such technology and from all the data available?

In Haiti, the World Bank and Ushahidi got on the ground immediately to monitor data associated with aftershocks and the recovery needs of survivors. OpenStreetMap played a crucial role as well. So is that what Pakistan needs? An external service specializing in the collection and coordination of data, rather than relying on its own internal government resources?

"Many of the problems we have with information dissemination to ordinary people during a crisis situation (all over the world) comes from the same root problem: Crisis information has generally been a top down approach by governments, large humanitarian organizations and the media. It should come as no surprise to us that those who don't know how to gather information from ordinary people also don't know how to disseminate it," Ushahidi's Erik Hersman tells Fast Company.

Perhaps the next aid package from the United States government will include provisions for Pakistan's very own Ushahidi or OpenStreetMap or some other native data-collecting system that thrives off data generated from the people, rather than collected by a hierarchical agency.

[Top image credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team; bottom image via flickr/United Nations Development Programme]

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  • RalfLippold

    The "miss-management" of data happens almost at an instant. And it is not bound to Pakistan alone. Here in Germany, where had a severe flooding eight years ago, the information by officials was bound on German weather and water flow data. Missing out the real source of water, as it came for the Czech Republic. It needed a personal email by myself to the head of communication of the water institution (that handled the data and information flow) to make them aware of connecting the website with the Czech one.

    The same thing happens over and over again, as institutions, organizations and people are acting on bound rationality, they see what they know.

    PS.: Back then I was head of operations for the flood help in the Dresden area.


  • Frequency

    Real time video updates on this horrific natural disaster pour in from world news sources, but coverage remains minimal and sympathy seems to be in short supply. We maintain a Pakistan Floods Frequency, which is a dynamically updated stream of videos about the latest news from the region, to keep the need for humanitarian aid top of mind.

    As you point out, information dissemination is critical at this stage, and hopefully this contributes to the ongoing connection we need to have with the stories still evolving in Pakistan.