Interview with UNICEF DRC's Steven Michel

Alex: Can you introduce yourself?

Steven: I am Steven Michel, UNICEF Emergency Specialist, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Alex: You have been involved with ActivityInfo from the beginning, can you tell us about how you got involved in the project?

Steven: As UNICEF, we had very large program with multiple partners operating in multiple provinces. One of the basic challenges was being able to report aggregated data about activities and results. Not only was it a large operation, across multiple partners and multiple provinces, it covered multiple sectors, with interventions around Non Food Items Distribution, Water and Sanitation – with multiple activities – spring & well construction; Education – rehabilitation of classrooms, building materials, it was always difficult to provide overall information about the scope of program. Each of the partners reported in to us about the scope of their activities during a certain period, but we often had to cobble together Excel sheets when we wanted to know about the whole program.

So we said ‘we have to be able to do better than this’, working with BeDataDriven we developed this online system which was meant to be quite easy to use, a few minutes of time but also linked into mapping, you could show exactly where the interventions were taking place. So in my office, I had data at my fingertips – cumulative information, I didn’t have to send out excel sheets and ask everyone to fill them in – ‘we need to know your information’, or try to patch it together from everyone’s different report formats and create our own.

So it was initially used for programs, large multi-province, multi-partner, multi-sector emergency response, to be able to have better idea of reporting on the entire volume of activity. The idea was that if reporting was done frequently enough, it would also give us a real time idea of where things were happening and be able to see coverage as well.

Alex: What about ActivityInfo & UNICEF’S cluster responsibilities in the DRC?

Steven: One of the things UNICEF has to do as part of our cluster responsibilities is to be able to report on the entire volume of humanitarian activities going on in the country. It was a little easier with our own partners, as we have a contractual relationship and could just ask them to use ActivityInfo, but with cluster actors where no contractual relationship exists, it was not necessarily that easy. But in DRC, especially the Education cluster, Non-Food Items cluster and parts of the WASH Cluster have picked up ActivityInfo to help meet our requirements from OCHA and the donor community reporting on volume of all activity in sector. For example, in Non-food Items cluster, 20-30 organisations have some sort of project activity that falls into the Non-food Item category. We have moved the reporting format for our own program and made it a platform for the cluster in general.

So when OCHA wants a mid-term review of humanitarian action plan, in the past what I would have sent an email to every organisation that does Non-Food Items, every provincial cluster, asking them to complete an Excel table, fill it in with information on families, returnees, host families, items in kits, cash vouchers etc. People then filled it in and returned it and then we had had to compile it into a master Excel file that provided the data we had to give to OCHA for the reports. Today, it is a matter of going right to ActivityInfo. I still have to ask them to make sure all the information is up to date; certain organisations update ActivityInfo once a month, some once a week; I still have to push for data, but it is not a big push. Once I have given a deadline, then I can make sure I go on ActivityInfo and extract it in a matter of minutes into Excel. I have a pre-set report with all the variables I want to look at, and I can report that into OCHA. Now ActivityInfo has moved beyond being a UNICEF tool for our own program, and it has gone out to the clusters, ActivityInfo is something a lot of other clusters have looked and would like to adopt, because they have the same requirements, they have OCHA coming to them and their own organisational requirements, not only volume of assistance but the type of assistance and location of assistance that their own program delivers, but also of the entire humanitarian community.

Alex: What’s been the reaction of the cluster members to ActivityInfo?

Steven: I don’t think it has been difficult to get them to buy into ActivityInfo. One of the challenges is in humanitarian work is staff turnover in many organisations is high, so you need to make sure the new people coming in are aware (of ActivityInfo) and can use it. One thing we have noticed, and are going to focus on this year, is that ActivityInfo can be a tool for the (cluster) organisation as well. They can do their own data analysis of their own interventions using ActivityInfo, they can do their own mapping – we don’t see the partners using it that much for their own information, building their own information products out of ActivityInfo. I think that may be a question of training and familiarisation – entering data is simple but you need a bit more knowledge for mapping and extracting data but it would be great to see that level of use.

We are also introducing, at a provincial level, using the reports at co-ordination meetings. I would really like to see the provincial co-ordinators come to the meeting ActivityInfo report from the previous month – and the co-ordinator can say ‘last month’s activities where this’, ‘xyz did this’, almost generate a dynamic where if it is not recorded in ActivityInfo, for us, it did not happen. And again make it as easy as possible, if people don’t want to fill in a form on ActivityInfo, send us an email about what happened, where, and when and we will input it for you.

One of the things that helps in the DRC is clusters have an important role in reviewing technical specifications. So we can state that organisations that receive money from the Pool Fund need to align themselves with the reporting expectations of the cluster. In the case of UNICEF’s DRC Clusters, this is reporting in ActivityInfo.

Alex: Can ActivityInfo be a coordination and information sharing tool – for example, be able to enter distributions or activities actors are planning or use it to make other people aware of what’s going to happen?

Steven: I think it would be great if we got to this level. We need to push communication and information sharing aspects of ActivityInfo.

Alex: At a certain level a group of actors is so small you are all in contact on a daily basis, but do you think we could get to a place where needs assessments are shared between clusters.

Steven: I think the challenge there has more to do with the flexibility and the appetite for organisations to be alerted to other needs. A lot of actors aren’t that reactive. There is a problem in how the humanitarian sector is co-ordinated, you have some flexible organisations, but others have very defined roles and goals, they can’t say ‘oh there’s a need over there lets go’. I think it is something we can work towards in the humanitarian sector.

Alex: As a program manager/specialist how does ActivityInfo help you understand RRMP? Does it improve your comprehension of the program?

Yeah, definitely. Sometimes, in programs like RRMP which cover enormous volumes, it’s important to understand precisely what volume RRMP’s assistance represents.

In one province, people were saying there were lots of other actors doing Non-food Items, so we (RRMP) could drop our response to a lower level next year. I was curious about that, I kept hearing it but I hadn’t run the numbers. When I looked into ActivityInfo, which includes the volumes both for RRMP and all the other actors, this impression of all the other actors was just not the case, most of the actors were based in a neighbouring area, and we were one of the only games in town in this province. It just helped to have the numbers for planning, to correct the false impression and demonstrate why we shouldn’t cut back on our assistance to the province.

A second example, that I find very helpful and that would be impossible without ActivityInfo is detailed analysis. We have different programming components of Non-food Items that we try to promote like Female Hygiene Kits, so we might specify that we want a certain item in 50% of the kits. It helps me to measure ‘are we getting there’- are we at 30% or 50%? Are we low? Do we need to push more? Is 50% too ambitious? I could not do this level of analysis without ActivityInfo.

These are two areas where ActivityInfo goes beyond reporting.

Alex: Thanks Steven!