Insights on InSight

One giant leap for Humanitarian InSight…

Heat map showing operational presence in Somalia

Since the last update here, we successfully launched alongside the Global Humanitarian Overview at a high-level event in Geneva, most 2019 humanitarian response plans have InSight pages available to the public, and a slew of new features have been added. So while NASA’s Mars InSight mission probes the surface of the red planet, its namesake Humanitarian InSight continues to forge ahead back on Earth.

The map and tables on the homepage link to all the pages on InSight for each response plan – simply click a response plan’s name to view a set of pages for that plan. Each page can be downloaded as a print-friendly PDF, and each page element can be downloaded as an image, for use in other reporting. We’re also progressively adding formatted Excel downloads for analysis.

The homepage plans table with the download dialog open

For some initial examples, see the tables on the homepage or the cluster tables on plan pages. Excel downloads of indicator tables and mapped data are coming soon. We’ve also substantially improved our spot-style maps for caseloads and indicators, by adding location search and pcodes

Map showing location search

In addition to these incremental improvements to our existing maps, we'll soon be releasing heatmaps to display operational presence for selected countries using project-based costing. This will be our first foray into Who does What Where (3W) reporting, and we're very excited about it. Expect to start seeing operational presence maps on selected plan pages soon.

Heat map showing operational presence in Somalia

We haven't just been working on maps and improving existing features though - we also have some totally new features in the works, including project and organization tables and an entirely new logged-in user experience built around a My Dashboard feature.

Watch this space…

Improving strategic planning and monitoring with HPC.tools

Humanitarian InSight is a portal providing access to data from around the Humanitarian Programme Cycle. Read an intro to how this works. One of the key tools in the HPC.tools suite that Humanitarian InSight relies upon for its data is the ‘Response Planning and Monitoring’ module, which allows the humanitarian community to work together both during the strategic planning process that takes place every year, and the subsequent periodic monitoring of the key indicators that were agreed as part of that plan.

What the tool does

The Response Planning and Monitoring module (or RPM for short) is the place in which all the different elements of the strategic framework come together. Usually in such a framework, at the top there are some high-level strategic objectives, and then individual response sectors agree on sectoral objectives that are aligned with those strategic objectives, and finally on activities that are needed to achieve those objectives. At each level of the framework, we identify ‘caseloads’ – such as the number of people in need, or the number of people targeted for assistance – as well as key indicators that will allow us to assess our response. We can also estimate the financial requirements of framework elements, from individual activities, to entire sectors or the plan as a whole.

A schematic of a response plan framework

What makes this so difficult is that there is no standard way of implementing the framework, and because each humanitarian response addresses quite different needs in quite different contexts (is it a sudden-onset natural disaster or a long-standing conflict? What role does the national government play? How is the humanitarian plan aligned with longer-term development objectives? …and so on), in-country coordinators may make very different decisions.

So at the very core of the RPM tool is an enormous degree of flexibility, that allows the entire framework, and all the work processes around it, to be completely customised – but retaining some common elements and ideas that allow us to bring the data together in a coherent fashion in sites like Humanitarian InSight.

How it works – some technical details

The entire user interface of the tool is driven by a template. This template is a JSON object that stores all the information about the different elements within a framework, what they are called and how they related to one another, and that is entirely user configurable. The template is constructed on top of just a few core concepts.

  • The first is that each plan will have one or more ‘governing entities’ correspond to real-world coordination entities that are responsible for defining and monitoring the framework. Often these are called ‘clusters’, but they could be called anything.
  • The second is that each plan will have one or more ‘plan entities’, that could be called things like ‘Strategic Objective’ or ‘Sector Activity’ (but again can be called anything) and that relate to one another in some kind of hierarchy.
  • The third is that each entity within a plan can have any number of different ‘attachments’ which represent things like indicators, or caseloads, or costs, or even things like contact details.

Given that relational data – connecting data together – is at the heart of the HPC, the tool uses the JSON templates as an intermediary between ‘fundamental’ elements (such as what an ‘indicator’ is), and actual plan elements (such as a strategic objectives or actual indicator values defined by end users), all of which are stored in a typical relational database (in our case, we use PostGreSQL). That way, we get the flexibility of a ‘No-SQL’ approach without losing the easily-queried structured connections that our data needs. And users are never faced with an unpleasant surprise when their innovative approach to improving the management of humanitarian response in their country is met with ‘Sorry, but the tool doesn’t support this’…

Further improving the tool

Tools such as RPM, and other tools in the HPC.tools suite, are all developed using what we call an ‘agile’ approach. This means that instead of going out, asking everyone what they need, developing something that corresponds to what people said they needed, and then walking away for 10 years until a new tool is required (which is what we used to do), now we quickly develop prototype tools that meet some of those needs, and then help people start using them. As we work with the humanitarian community on the front line, we understand much better what it is they actually need than we ever could just asking them up front, and we iteratively improve the tool – sometimes pushing out some new features just a few days after they were requested. This approach is ‘baked in’ – the iteration just keeps going over the years, so that as the users’ needs change (which happens a lot in the humanitarian community, where strategic approaches are constantly in flux) the tools change with them.

The price we pay for this is that sometimes, the tools don’t yet do everything when we first launch, and some things work better than others. But having an evolving tool with a few kinks that need to be ironed out is better than having a perfectly-functioning tool without any problems but that all too often doesn’t allow users to do what they want.

The tool in practice

RPM is one of the core tools that enable the humanitarian programme cycle – because the strategic framework that is managed within it then forms the basis for the project registration and financial tracking processes supported by other tools within the HPC.tools suite. It is currently being rolled out across all the major humanitarian responses. If you see planning and monitoring data appearing on Humanitarian Insight for any crisis, that’s because the data is being collected and managed in RPM!

More countries, more features, more to come.

For humanitarians around the world supporting response coordination, this time of year is always one of the busiest. Needs assessments, analysis, and response planning for next year compete with urgent operational priorities and reporting on current activities. And for those of us developing and improving the HPC.tools suite, it's no different. 

Colleagues working in operations using project-based costing are currently transitioning to the new HPC Projects Module. This new platform replaces the ten-year-old Online Projects System (OPS) and features enhanced flexibility, a slew of new features in response to the evolving needs of the humanitarian system, and a fresh new design. You can check it out here. 

Meanwhile. since HPC Viewer launched two months ago, it has been adopted by two more operations: Niger and Somalia, in addition to Burundi and Nigeria. Several more countries are in pre-publication review and should be added soon. Some features have been substantially improved too, such as PDF downloads; find these in the overflow menu () near the top of each plan page.

Downloads and outputs is only one of several areas we are working on, and several major upgrades are planned for the next four to six weeks. These will include a new design for the homepage map, several improvements to plan page designs, more integrations with external data sources, and a much-needed update to this blog page.

Maps are a key focus area for the coming several releases. Besides redesigning the homepage map, we'll be improving the usability of plan page maps. Look out for location filtering, paging between locations, name and value toggles and design improvements, as well as an alternative style for plan page maps to match the upcoming homepage map redesign.

Bringing the Humanitarian Programme Cycle to life

Humanitarian InSight is the public portal of the Humanitarian Programme Cycle (HPC) – the approach that the humanitarian community takes together to coordinate an effective humanitarian response – by assessing needs, formulating response plans, raising funds and monitoring and evaluating our progress.

This approach requires there to be a strong evidence base that ensures accountability – and provides a justification for how funds are being spent, what is being done, how this is expected to help address the humanitarian needs, and what impact we are actually having. What used to be done exclusively in meetings, documents and – occasionally – a spreadsheet or two, is now starting to be handled by a suite of online tools that allows everyone to collaborate quickly and easily on planning and monitoring the humanitarian response. These tools are collectively known as ‘HPC.tools’.

Humanitarian InSight is one of these tools: it’s the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that brings together all of the data from around the cycle to allow decision-makers to have access to all the information they need to make better decisions.

But Humanitarian InSight – and its sister site, the Financial Tracking Service – is just the public portal that allows people to view the data. Behind it are another set of tools that focus not on presenting and visualising the data, but on helping the entire community collect, manage and access the data in the first place. Without these data management tools, Humanitarian Insight would be an empty shell without much data to show.

Different components of HPC.tools

These ‘behind the scenes’ tools are accessible only to the members of the humanitarian community who are responsible for providing and managing the data. They are designed to be as easy as possible for people to use, to help them make the switch away from traditional ways of handling data – in spreadsheets or PDF documents where it is difficult to extract or re-use, and where it is harder to manage the relationships between the data.

Because it’s exactly these relationships that make data related to the humanitarian programme cycle so useful. Following the assessment, planning and monitoring processes around the cycle, we know how our response objectives relate to the needs; and how our projects relate to those objectives; and how our funding is related to those projects; and what progress we’re making on implementing our activities and achieving those objectives. So HPC.tools allows us to ‘join the dots’ between all this data – not by having lots of different datasets that we try to visualise all together at the end of the process, but by collecting and managing the data ‘relationally’ – aligning objectives with needs, registering projects against objectives, tracking funding against projects and so on.

So these tools aren’t just a repository for data: they enable the actual coordination work itself. They save time because people only have to do things once, and then we can re-use the information again and again in many different places.

This is reflected in how we make sure that everyone has access to the data. In addition to the two public sites (Humanitarian InSight and FTS), the data managed in HPC.tools is provided automatically via ‘APIs’ (which allow computers to exchange data directly). That means it’s been integrated in websites like the Humanitarian Data Exchange – where you can visualise alongside all kinds of other humanitarian data – or ReliefWeb. It also means that humanitarian data analysts and report writers can pull the data directly into their products, which then update automatically whenever the HPC data changes.

Diagram showing how HPC.tools works

Ultimately, it means that when senior coordinators in humanitarian crises need to plan and adjust our response so we can best meet the critical needs and direct funding and resources to where they can make the most difference, they no longer turn to out-of-date documents written months ago, but have access to all the information they need, right at their fingertips.

If you’d like to know more about how some of these tools work, be sure to check out: Improving strategic planning and monitoring with HPC.tools

HPC Viewer Launches

... and we're live!

As of today, the humanitarian programme cycle has an online home, and a sophisticated Viewer which will be used by field humanitarians to communicate the status of their responses. For each country where the humanitarian programme cycle is used, and focusing on the quantitative data, the Viewer presents data on people in need and reached with aid, response frameworks, monitoring results and funding coverage and gaps.

The objective is to have all operations represented here by the time the Global Humanitarian Overview 2019 is published later this year. At launch today, the first plan page is online showcasing operations in Burundi. We'll be publishing Nigeria later today, and adding more countries over the next few weeks. These pages will be customized to reflect the data available and operational content in each country, and you should expect some variation. 

We'd love to hear what you think and will be deploying a dedicated feedback and engagement system in due course. In the meantime, please direct questions and comments to ocha-hpc@un.org