How we created a humanitarian data resource in just nine months

On the 25th anniversary of ReliefWeb, I am proud that I was part of the design team back in 1996. Thinking back on those days, I am amazed by how much has changed in the past quarter-century. In 1996, something called electronic mail and the World Wide Web were just starting to be used in the work environment. Humanitarian information products, such as SitReps, appeals, maps, and assessments, were mostly disseminated by fax and post and archived in filing cabinets and libraries.

Since 1996, the internet and social media have revolutionized the ability to quickly access data, information, and analysis. Websites such as ReliefWeb and Humanitarian Data Exchange provide a one-stop-shopping repository for data and published information products on emergencies and issues of concern to humanitarians. Breaking news on disasters can be disseminated in real time via social media platforms. However, this quick and easy access to information also presents challenges of information overload, misinformation, and disinformation.

ReliefWeb was designed and has adapted to meet these challenges, following standards and principles of accountability, verifiability, inter-operability, relevance, and objectivity. It was created with a user-friendly interface, designed to be able to filter and retrieve the desired products according to the intuitive searching methods of the humanitarian professional. It publishes documents in English, but also in other languages (primarily Arabic, French and Spanish), so that information is accessible to the general public, including students and those affected by the disasters. It is also an internet archive of written and visual products on disasters and humanitarian emergencies, available to the academic and research community.

In my current job as a humanitarian affairs analyst with the US government, I still use ReliefWeb on a regular basis. I work on internal humanitarian analysis products, both written and visual, and use ReliefWeb for open-source research, monitoring humanitarian situations, and identifying emerging trends and issues. It is the place to go to if I am looking for assessments, situation reports, appeals, donor reporting, maps, infographics, evaluations, and analytical products.

As I have told many people, we never could have succeeded in creating a project such as ReliefWeb in just nine months back in 1996 if it had been conceived just a few years later, when project design, management and implementation became much more bureaucratic and technological innovation was advancing at an accelerated rate. Creating ReliefWeb was a team effort and I would like to acknowledge the others involved in the early design, including Sharon Rusu, Daniel Zalik, Craig Duncan, Andrew Andrea, and the support of Martin Griffiths and Larry Roeder back in 1996.

In its 25-year evolution, ReliefWeb has significantly expanded its sources and user base and added new features, functionality and applications to improve its service to the humanitarian community. Other team projects have made advances in big data mining and management, satellite and drone imagery, crowdsourced assessment, interactive dashboards, meeting webcasts, virtual training, and visualized analysis. All these tools and services have facilitated and transformed the humanitarian professional work environment and enhanced our knowledge and understanding of humanitarian emergencies and issues.

The author was ReliefWeb editor New York and acting project manager (1996–2001)