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Crisis Management Initiative has published a final report of a project aiming to improve the understanding of information sharing models and interoperability in national, cross-border and international crisis management.

The project’s four case studies have been chosen to reflect four different types of crisis: natural disaster (Portuguese forest fires), accident (Barents Rescue Exercise), complex emergency(humanitarian assistance in DR Congo) and post-conflict state-building (EU Police Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina). In order to investigate the essential information needs and informationsharing models in crisis situations, it is valuable to gain a good understanding of how actors process information. This study uses the Sensemaking theory as a theoretical lens to better understand how this is done.

The main findings of the case studies are grouped into three themes: two-way communication, interoperability of crisis response and decision-making in crisis situations. The study concludes that communicating and explaining the objectives and activities to the local population is vital in a crisis management operation. Often there is room for improvement in the public information area in international assistance missions. While national crisis management missions regularly operate in settings where they are close to the local population, there is often a lack of understanding of the needs for citizens to be informed of what is going on. Timely and clear information is a crucial component in managing consequences and of recovery. The study showed that information sharing when it happens is mostly one directional: from the authorities to the citizens.

The study confirmed the findings of previous research that the exchange of information with people from other organisations during crisis situations is often done informally. These contacts are not institutionalised, but are established on a personal basis. Information is shared more easily with people that one knows and trusts. However, it is clear that technology cannot help in information exchange if it is based completely on personal contacts. On the other hand trust can be built through, for example, common trainings in the mission area. It creates a sense of community and trust can be built which increases information sharing during crisis situations. In post-conflict crisis management operations where the situation is relatively calm, information sharing settles into more institutionalised ways and is not as ad hoc as during an acute crisis.

The study revealed that there are a number of shared requirements in terms of essential information and tools in national, cross-border and international crisis management. There are widely shared information needs such as situational picture, incidents, and other actors, but otherwise the essential information needs are mostly mandate-related. The different levels also share many of the same obstacles in achieving interoperability. Obtaining and maintaining shared situational awareness and picture is seen often a key challenge in crisis response where several organisations are working in parallel. Organisations continue to plan and procure their information and communications technology for their own organisational mission partly ignoring the multi-actor reality of crisis response. At the national level there are more efforts and investments into interagency interoperability. A positive development that the study noted is that interoperability is not any more seen as mainly a technology issue but organisational and human aspects of interoperability are better recognised.

The study concludes that within crisis response organisations there is a need for leadership and initiative to determine how communications systems best support the delivery of the organisational mission in a complex interagency environment. Political, organisational and other substance related factors should determine the development of systems, not the availability and push of technology solutions. Senior management would need to take an increased interest in what kind of tools and systems should be used in crisis management operations, so as to develop the tools from a needs based perspective.