Why choose off-the-shelf software for your humanitarian Information Management workflow

Twelve years ago, ActivityInfo set out to redefine humanitarian reporting and coordination by developing an information management system that simplifies data collection and reporting. The web-based operating system, the mobile data collection app, and the self-managed server are some of ActivityInfo's capabilities designed to support Monitoring and Evaluation practitioners in humanitarian organizations in a variety of settings. The platform has been developed with the aim to facilitate tracking progress, collaboration, and effective decision-making despite the turbulent environments in which humanitarians operate. Today, ActivityInfo is being used by thousands of organizations in more than 50 countries for partner response monitoring and other activities in various sectors.

Sometimes, these Information Management systems were developed by talented individuals who moved on to new roles, leaving the system in limbo. In other cases, a heroic M&E officer is forced to stitch together a complex mess of different tools with a generous helping of duct tape to meet urgent needs that ultimately collapse under their own weight.

In the worst case, an expensive development project is abandoned due to overrunning budgets failing to deliver a working solution.

While there are certainly some success stories of home-grown solutions that have passed the test of time, ActivityInfo has proven to be a lower-risk and more sustainable solution for your organization’s information management needs. In the post below, we’ll discuss some of the trade-offs between custom development, open-source tools and off-the-shelf solutions.

You can read this article in French and Spanish too.

Options for acquiring an Information Management System

Custom software development means tailored-made software specifically designed for an organization’s specific requirements. Custom development can mean developing entirely new software or adding features to existing software. Either internal or externally outsourced developers can contribute to this process. Organizations can value this approach because of the ownership of source code, the precision of required features, and the flexibility to sustain and update the software in the future.

Off-the-shelf software refers to a ready-made, standardized solution available to purchase and use immediately. Such products are developed to be easily implemented in existing systems, without customization.

Another alternative is open-source software, which is free to use. Users tend to have the ability to do technical modifications on their side and distribute their versions of the program. This means users are also the administrators and are responsible for setting up the servers, configuring the hosting, and ongoing management of all technology, security, and updates. Some tools are more complex, and you might need dedicated consultants to set up and streamline your programs.

When off-the-shelf software outweighs custom software and open-source tools in the humanitarian context

Immediacy of use

The purchase of off-the-shelf software is a more attractive option because you can immediately start using their functions, while the deployment of custom software or open-source tools takes more time. This agile approach allows you to expedite the process and your staff to get acquainted with the features that fit their needs. Most often, off-the-shelf solutions offer a trial period, in which you can decide whether the software functions meet your organization's objectives and increase productivity. As commercial software applications have been tested and used among other customers, extensive testing and debugging are not required.

Meanwhile, customizing your system, by selecting either a custom-developed software or an open-source tool, requires a lot of time to complete. The process involves lengthy research to define the scope of your projects, and multiple testing phases with your end-users. It's also important to note that designing an information management system in the humanitarian context is particularly challenging and more time-consuming than in the commercial sector (Falagara Sigala et al., 2020).

For these reasons, ready-made software is a good fit for humanitarian operations. Humanitarian missions are often carried out in fast-changing and chaotic environments, which require urgent actions, and that means time constraints for staff. As a result, it is crucial to have a system that can be adapted quickly to their humanitarian routines and deployed at their own pace, to ensure the quality of input information for effective response to crises.

Lifetime cost

Off-the-shelf software is attractive when the lifetime cost is taken into consideration. Employing off-the-shelf software comes with lower upfront costs, as you typically pay a monthly or annual subscription to use it, rather than investing in building it from scratch. Likewise, the development costs are shared with other users, and the long-term ownership costs may well be lower than for custom development (McGuire, 2011). It also costs less to test off-the-shelf software, especially when a trial version is available. With non-profit humanitarian organizations, which often work with tight budgets with a high dependency on donor funding, an off-the-shelf solution might be the best option.

With custom software development, the built-from-scratch nature and endless customization will require a considerably large investment up front. Furthermore, although the system could perfectly suit the organization's needs at the point of delivery, without ongoing maintenance, it may start to slow down your operations.

In comparison to an open-source tool, it might seem like off-the-shelf software's price tag is too high for humanitarian organizations to consider. However, you need to consider the lifetime costs, not just upfront software and hosting costs. Additional costs for open source software will accrue over time, including maintenance, development, managed services, and administrative responsibilities. Moreover, with open-source software, your organization will also need to take responsibility for the security of the software and serving infrastructure.

Available documentation and further support

While you are using the commercially available off-the-shelf product, you will often find a large database of supporting documentation to help navigate its available features. A company should have been developing their off-the-shelf software for a long time, which allows them to understand users' requirements and frequently encountered problems. As such, there will likely be a greater wealth of support materials, such as user guides, help center articles, webinars, and FAQs, for you to rely on. At the same time, off-the-shelf software usually comes with a Service Level Agreement and an experienced support team. This means you can get direct access to the developers of the software to get help when you need it.

In terms of custom software development, initial training might be provided by your developers, but it can be more difficult to receive support down the road. Humanitarian organizations often have a high personnel turnover rate and often suffer from a lack of trained personnel (Falagara Sigala et al., 2020). It is likely that there won't be an adequate amount of staff familiar with the software within the organization (either internally or on the developer's side).

While an open-source tool could be the solution to help stretch your IT budgets, technical support isn't always guaranteed when there is an issue with your software. Although you can resort to online communities for advice, the support comes at a time price, and no one is obliged to help. And if there is an urgent issue, qualified agencies and consultants come at a premium price and long-term engagement.

Some other points to consider

If you are thinking of custom software development (both internally and externally), you should consider a substantial risk of failure or budget overrun. According to a report by The Standish Group, 31% of software development projects will be canceled before they're completed, and 53% of projects will run over budget by nearly twice as much (189%) as originally budgeted. If you decide that customizing your own software is no longer viable after already investing, valuable time and money in your efforts have already been sacrificed. Furthermore, taking focus away from your core competency as humanitarian coordinators to take on a massive internal undertaking, such as developing IT software, can put your humanitarian operations at risk.

If you decide to adopt off-the-shelf software, also consider whether the particular software has been designed with organizations like yours in mind. While ActivityInfo has some similarities with highly-customizable Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics, ActivityInfo has been built from the ground up for organizations working in challenging environments and features essential functionality like offline availability and a seamlessly integrated mobile data collection app that CRMs built for sales teams naturally lack.

No need to reinvent the wheel with ActivityInfo

ActivityInfo has been designed to offer organizations all the flexibility they need to create the solution they would have developed themselves, in the most cost-effective way possible. Built on twelve years of research and practical experience developing humanitarian information management systems, ActivityInfo well understands the complex humanitarian routines and ever-changing humanitarian landscape. Our solution includes Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) information management software, a mobile data collection app, and a self-managed version.

We have an over ten-year track record of providing ActivityInfo as a service to thousands of users in 70+ countries with 99.95% availability. If you are planning to set up a database to monitor the response in your country or region, schedule a call with us to discuss your needs further or start right away with our 30-day free trial.

If you need further help in evaluating the options of choosing a commercial off-the-shelf software, developing software from scratch, or opting for an open-source tool, here is a whitepaper in which we go deeper into the pros and cons of each solution.

Download the whitepaper: Off the shelf, external contractors or building your own application..


  • (1): The Global Fund, Monitoring and Evaluation and Data System Investments in Grant Cycle 7 https://www.theglobalfund.org/media/12906/grantcycle_2023-03-information-session-monitoring-evaluation-data-system-gc7_presentation_en.pdf

  • (2): Falagara Sigala, I., Kettinger, W.J. and Wakolbinger, T. (2020), "Digitizing the field: designing ERP systems for Triple-A humanitarian supply chains", Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 231-260. https://doi.org/10.1108/JHLSCM-08-2019-0049

  • (3): McGuire, G. (2011). Handbook of Humanitarian Health Care Logistics. International Association of Public Health Logisticians. https://iaphl.org/resources/publications/handbook-of-humanitarian-health-care-logistics/