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close this bookEmergency Information Management and Telecommunications - 1st Edition (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - Disaster Management Training Programme - United Nations Development Programme , 1997, 62 p.)
close this folderPart 1: Information management systems
close this folderData analysis and information production
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentCross-checking and verification
View the documentFiltering and prioritization
View the documentInformation presentation
View the documentSoftware tools for data analysis and information production

Software tools for data analysis and information production

At the most basic level, a manager wants to be able to ask the information system “What if...?” and get one or more meaningful answers. Data analysis software tools vary in their capacity to help answer the question “What if...?” from highly sophisticated complex GIS, statistical, and econometric modeling packages to the “lowly” but ubiquitous spreadsheet.

Emergency managers seeking software support for decision-making should always consider the availability of ongoing software support - particularly in remote areas where expertise may be lacking. The old maxim still applies: if there is little chance that needed expertise will be available, then use the KISS method of management: “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” That “lowly” spreadsheet package may be just what is needed to support the tasks at hand.

Spreadsheet modeling: The most widely used decision support software is the spreadsheet, familiar to almost all personal computer users (e.g., Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel, Quattro-Pro). Spreadsheets enable the manager to calculate - and visualize - the impact of changes in the values of input data. they help to answer the manager’s question “If I increase (decrease) these inputs, then what are the effects on those outputs?” They are extremely useful in analyzing, for example, the effects of changes in one or more budget lines on the total budget of the emergency response program.

Food deficit modeling in Armenia

In July 1993, an emergency assessment team to Armenia using a simple spreadsheet modeling tool, assisted the Ministry of Economy - which was charged with planning for the coming winter emergency - to forecast the January 1994 rupture in the state bread ration system due to a likely rupture in the wheat supply. The model permitted officials to visualize the impact on the food supply by varying a number of factors such as donations of EU grain, losses (eg, thefts along the Georgian rail corridor), and bread ration levels. Prior to development of this simple tool, the entire winter emergency planning effort had been focused entirely on problems of energy and heating. This simple software tool was significant not for complexity, but rather for its capacity to get ministry officials to focus on the coming food supply problem.

Database management system (DBMS) software: DBMS software packages are particularly useful to managers in storing and retrieving great volumes of data records quickly. All DBMS packages have what is called a “query” function. This is basically a feature that enables a manager to make a very specific request for information according to criteria selected by the manager. An example of a query might be: “select all the records of food deliveries to centers in locations A, B, and E, during the period from March to June from donors X and Z only; then sort the records by location, and sum the totals for each location by donor.” Such an exercise can be performed manually from written ledgers with a calculator; it is, however, performed almost instantaneously by a DBMS.

When emergency managers need access to large volumes (ie, hundreds or more) of similarly formatted records (eg, invoices, weight-for-height charts, transport waybills, registration cards), a DBMS software package can provide useful support.

Project management software: A number of project management software packages (eg. Harvard Project Manager and Microsoft Project) are available to assist decision-making with resource allocation, scheduling, and tracking. These packages are especially useful in planning and organizing projects which must share resources (particularly human resources) and in analyzing the effects on planned project completion dates of potential shifts in needed resources from one activity to another. Operation of these packages does require understanding of basic project management tools and concepts (eg, Gantt Charts, PERT, Critical Path, histograms, etc.)


Drowning in Zenon: The Nortenian refugee emergency is now three weeks old. It is Thursday, 16:00 hrs. The assistant EPC director is summoned to the office of the director who appears to be having a very bad day. The director’s desk blotter is strewn with papers, his in-box overflowing with documents, reports, spreadsheets, telexes and faxes.

“You’d better tell the staff to be prepared for a late night,” the director says as his assistant enters. “The PM has a donor rep meeting in the morning and he wants an EPC summary of the response to-date on his desk by 08:00 sharp tomorrow.” The director, red-faced, points at his desk.

“I’ve got reports from Red Cross, reports from UNHCR, Caritas, MSF, AHAZ, Save the Children, CARE, from the Friends of Nortenian Refugees whoever the hell they are! I’ve got reports from every ministry and department in Zenon and nothing, nothing adds up!” The director picks up a fistful of papers and begins to shuffle through them..

“According to this report, we’ve distributed 250 tons of food, but here it says we’ve delivered 680 tons. According to this report, we’ve handed out 24,302 blankets and here we’ve handed out 56,867. The EPC finance coordinator says the Government has received $72 million dollars in assistance but the Treasury reports deposits of only $46 million.” The director looks at his assistant. “I have been on the job now for exactly 24 days. You have exactly 24 minutes to explain to me just what kind of sea this agency is drowning in!”

Q. You are the EPC director. What problems do you confront with regards to data analysis and information production? What steps will you take to resolve these problems?

A. _____________________________________________________________