"ReliefWeb" Interview with Sharon Rusu, Acting Coordinator

For humanitarians worldwide, journalists, donors and many others, ReliefWeb is a well-known name. It all started here in Geneva in the 1980s and has grown into a global reference for humanitarian information. Today, ReliefWeb has offices around the world, spanning major time zones, to ensure that nothing escapes the attention of the international community. We wanted to know a little bit more about ReliefWeb so we went knocking on their door, where Ms Sharon Rusu, the ReliefWeb coordinator, is one of the people behind the system.
Q: Could you please tell us about Reliefweb and how it all started?
ReliefWeb came together over a long period, starting in the 1980s, through the development of various types of managed information systems. In those days, the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO) was in charge of disaster relief and saw the need for a wider information system to aid disaster response. UNDRO was responsible for the precursors to ReliefWeb: UNIENet and IERIS among others. Following the Gulf War in 1991, and General Assembly Resolution 46/182, the Department for Humanitarian Affairs (UNDHA) and the office of the Emergency Relief Co- ordinator was formed. ReliefWeb was a child of this new agency.
Within the UN system there has always been a need for timely and reliable information — there still is today —a key factor in co-ordination. Since the Emergency Relief Co-ordinator must persuade UN agencies to co-operate in order to improve co-ordination of joint efforts, information is central to that persuasion. Gathering information, processing it and widely disseminating it to key actors ensures informed humanitarian decisions.
Though UN information systems had been developed over many years for disaster relief, they had some way to go to meet the challenges of humanitarian emergencies in the nineties. It took the Rwandan crisis in 1994, before Member States realized that early action had somehow been forestalled through the lack of clear, coherent information exchange. Recognizing the need for a global information response capacity that met the emergency preparedness needs of the international relief community, States came together. Out of their efforts, meetings where held in Geneva, New York and Washington with the United Nations. Finally, ReliefNet (as it was then called) was born with its home in UNDHA. At that time, I thought: “We need something that is going to work.” That meant that it had to provide information in a manner that relief agencies would directly benefit from. In those days, as you know, the Internet was a very new thing, but it was just at the right moment when everything came together. The donors reacted providing support and expertise, UNHCR provided my services on secondment, the designer was found and a talented, young team of editors and web developers took ReliefWeb forward. Like many other UN efforts, the situation could never be recreated. Within less than nine months, we had basically set up what you see today. The structure was certainly there, and we had agreements with 250 partners to provide us with information. We even had an advisory committee comprising experts from ICRC, IFRC, WFP and others. It was a wonderfully rapid response to a need that had been identified by Member States, the United Nations System and NGOs. Everyone co-operated to make it happen.
It was a great time! With that kind of start, ReliefWeb has gone from strength to strength. We started with Geneva, then New York in 1997, and then Kobe in 2001. In this way, we cover all relevant time-zones in order to provide 24 hour coverage and support our purpose, which is to strengthen the response capacity of the relief community through the timely dissemination of reliable information on natural disasters and conflict.
Q: How many people are working for Reliefweb?
We have eighteen staff members in three duty stations: Kobe, Geneva and New York. However, if you count the interns, we are most often about twenty-two. ReliefWeb staffers bring to the task a multitude of skills, talent and dedication. We also rely on excellent interns. Like other offices in the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), we are understaffed, and with zero growth we have to keep our staffing tables continuously in mind. Nevertheless, we do the job everyday and are committed to ensuring relevant information products for our users.
Q: I visit ReliefWeb from time to time and I am impressed with its coverage. Where do you get the information from?
ReliefWeb’s content, including documents, reports, maps and web links, derives from online sources and from a network of source partner/ providers. Our on-line editors are responsible for acquiring information from the UN, NGOs, media, academic and regional sources. Three managing editors provide supervision and oversight. The online editors collect information and search for new partners. We have a “web-spider” that gathers information on the Internet, but our editors check the work done by the “spider.” The editors concentrate their efforts on humanitarian disasters and emergencies, sometimes over a long period. A concrete example: the Somali floods. Though the floods may not yet have been designated a disaster by OCHA, ReliefWeb is already monitoring to ensure coverage in the event that the humanitarian impact is sufficient to have an OCHA Situation Report sent out. Though at a certain point there is a trigger for OCHA to become involved, ReliefWeb generally has been following the event from the first moment that it was reported. It may never “evolve” into a disaster, but ReliefWeb will be keeping an eye on it in line with our commitment to comprehensive coverage that, in many cases, acts as an effective alert for humanitarians.
The people working in OCHA and other agencies can see which events we are covering. There is a kind of reciprocity between what we do and what everybody else is doing in a very concerted effort to support emergency response, whether it is for disaster relief or conflicts.
We also follow the evolution of a conflict. That requires a huge amount of work and knowledge. ReliefWeb on-line and managing editors possess tremendous knowledge about their sources — most importantly, they have to know the provenance of sources because they have to be able to defend what they publish. To ensure defensibility, we ask questions about the source. If it is from a government — what is their record on the rule of law? If it is from an NGO — who is funding them? If it is from the media — what are their politics? They also need to have a strong understanding of research methodologies and how these apply to assessing different sources. Our editors do not simply say: “I find that interesting. Let’s post it”. The information they acquire has to be part of an entire response plan for the particular country or area. If it is for a disaster, we have criteria to measure its humanitarian impact. If it is a conflict, different criteria apply. The standards we apply to source acquisition derive from our principles: reliability, timeliness, trustworthiness, integrity, and independence. How do you measure independence? One way is to provide total transparency about the methods and criteria you use to acquire and assess information before you publish it. These are the criteria we apply to assess our sources. If we cannot defend the origin and nature of the source, we do not use it. If it is clear that the reporting is biased or otherwise unreliable— we will not publish it.
Years ago, when we started ReliefWeb, there was a funny cartoon that used to be found on the web. There were two little dogs, one was sitting at the keyboard, the other one on the floor. The one at the keyboard looks towards the one on the floor and says: ’On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.’ This is a lesson. On the internet, in the end, the user has to ensure that the information is credible. For ReliefWeb, our authority as a publisher rests on our ensuring our information is trustworthy and therefore defensible.
Q: Do you know how many people are regularly consulting Reliefweb?
The ReliefWeb site received an average of 7 million page views a quarter during 2006 and is viewed by up to 400,000 individual users a month. Over 160 documents and maps are posted daily, received from 2,500 information providers. ReliefWeb has its own map centre with its own cartographers. They produce maps and information graphics. These are done locally in both Geneva and New York. Our cartographers work closely with the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). In fact, an IFRC situation report is often our “trigger” to create a map. We make maps for OCHA and for the humanitarian relief community as a whole. We are now enlarging our scope as we move into a ’new’ mapping response that ensures updates of all relevant situation reports and info-graphics that frame key issues. The whole point of our service is to provide decisions-makers with the information they require to take informed decisions.
Q: You told me that you have twenty-four hour coverage. Does this imply that you work non-stop here in Geneva?
We ensure global coverage through time zones: when we sign off in Geneva, New York is signing on; when New York is signing off, Kobe is signing on, etc. It works well, as we have about two hours of overlap before any station signs off. Having the Coordinator in Geneva helps as it is between East and West.
Q: What are the priorities for 2007?
We have a strategic plan for 2007-2009. We are focusing on three areas: people, products and platforms. On the people side, we want, as far as possible, our service to be user-centred, in order that we equally meet the information needs of humanitarians and our beneficiaries. At the same time, on the people side, we are looking to increase our regional presence through the development of strategic partner-ships. We are interested in the transfer of talent and technologies and, more importantly, our methods and standards to people who are starting up similar services. Our first project is with a group called RedHum in Panama, who are involved with disaster response in ten countries. We are going to help them use our models with a direct benefit to them and to us though shared sourc-ing and immediate multi-lingual capacity.
On the products side, one of our new products will be advocacy-specific. We will be looking at how better to cover emergencies and what to say about them, especially forgotten emergencies. There are humanitarian dimensions in all of these areas that are often neglected or overlooked. We aim to highlight these and others to support better understanding and response.
On the platform side, we are implementing a new search capacity and investigating how to further develop our system technology.
Q: Do you have a message for the international community?
My message is that relevant and reliable information is key to ensuring that the major UN norm ’cooperation’ is realized within the challenging context of humanitarian coordination.
Q: If somebody wanted to do an internship with you, what should they do?
They should get in touch with us directly. They can look at the web-site and apply online. We have a lot of people who would like to be interns, but I think we are looking for a combination of education and skills: politics, humanities, law, library sciences and technology combined with research and information management skills. We are not solely looking for persons with international relations backgrounds —rather for people who have interesting and compelling backgrounds, languages, and most of all a profound interest in supporting humanitarian relief efforts.
For further information please consult the Reliefweb: www.reliefweb.int