“…an investment in researching access, sourcing, flow and trust around information movement in any given community is vital to the design of truly effective communications strategies, ensuring that people will believe, trust and act upon the information they receive, and thus ultimately saves time and money.” – Internews, Communicating with Communities – Walking the Talk

Often when the the Innovation team starts talking about communicating with communities, there’s usually interest, intrigue and enthusiasm from whoever we’re speaking to – whether it be our counterparts in different agencies or our teams in the field. For UNHCR field staff, engaging communities is usually an aspect of their day to day work and we see them nod along accordingly, even if they’re not working on communicating with communities as a dedicated discipline.

Beyond the theories of accountability to affected populations, as we’re going through some of the background, the nods start to turn to questioning looks as the reality of their field operation starts to supplant the theory. Of all the questions to emerge, it usually is synthesised down to one relatively straightforward one: ‘Where do we start?’.

Through this post, we intend to share some insight about how we approach this question within the UNHCR Innovation Service. We want to provide some tips and guidance for how you can start better understanding the information and communication needs of communities you’re working with, drawing on a number of resources and tools from the wider humanitarian community.

Where to begin

Often people have the presumption when we’re supporting a field operation that our starting point is to bring in a load of gadgetry – cellphones, radios and of course some sort of game-changing ‘app’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our innovation ‘process’ starts with one basic premise: listen first. Before designing and testing solutions, and generally thinking ‘we know best’, we need to better understand how communities are accessing information, speaking with humanitarian responders and communicating with families and loved ones. We start with looking at their information and communication needs.

The term ‘information and communication needs’ has been around for a while (Google’s first record of the term is September 2012 referring to Internews’ respective assessment in Zaatari camp, Jordan). It started as a term driven into mainstream humanitarian response by media development agencies. These agencies highlighted the importance of understanding information gaps, the prevalence or absence of different communication channels, levels of literacy, trust in different channels and more. By getting a grasp of this, it would be possible for humanitarian responders to ensure that people are receiving the timely, accurate and actionable information they need. Determining the appropriate channels of communication and investing in them can help communities communicate safely and securely with who they need to, whether diaspora, separated family members or humanitarian agencies themselves; with the latter being a critical precursor to understanding feedback and complaints that can help steer humanitarian response.

Practically, the approach for determining information and communication needs is by direct assessments with community groups; through group discussions or individual interviews. But, before stepping into the field with a clipboard (or ideally a tablet for mobile data collection!) it is best to kick-start the process by undertaking research to understand the media and telecommunications landscape within a country, bringing context to the results of a future assessment. Specific aspects of the history and ongoing development of the media and (tele)communications landscapes in a country – from telecoms market liberalisation to mechanisms protecting freedom of expression –  have a huge impact on the specific needs of communities and need to be taken into account. In recent years, the CDAC Network (building on the infoasaid project) aimed to consolidate some of the practices together across two sets of resources: Media Landscape Guides and a joint project with ACAPS on Understanding Information and communication Needs that provide details on the type of questions to ask communities to develop an understanding of their needs, as well as process and considerations for undertaking an assessment.

Internews and others have recently begun to utilise the broader terminology of ‘Information Ecosystem’ assessments more frequently which encompass both the review of the media and telecommunication landscape, alongside the specific information and communication needs of communities affected by crisis. It also encompasses a number of other aspects to provide a more holistic analysis of different facets of an information ecosystem. The advantage of this terminology is that it encapsulates the inextricable link between different information sources and needs, and how information can flow consistently within and amongst communities. Any impact on the ecosystem can have broader ramifications – from telecoms regulatory frameworks to how a specific community group is attempting to remotely communicate with humanitarian agencies.

In May 2015, Internews released ‘Why information matters?’ which aims to synthesise an understanding of Information and Communication Ecosystems in one core document – summarized in this infographic. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of undertaking an assessment, we’d highly recommend reading this publication. Also, take a look at a number of the different guides – like the aforementioned CDAC Network resources – and assessments produced by different media development agencies and other humanitarian actors. Here is a selection of example reports from Internews, BBC Media Action, and International Media Support respectively:

UNHCR also has assessments available online, including this assessment from fYR of Macedonia during the Mediterranean refugee crisis. There are also inter-agency assessments such as Understanding the Information and Communication Needs among IDPs in Northern Iraq which benefit from ensuring that the assessment outcomes are taken on board by different agencies and better incorporated across inter-agency humanitarian response programming.

Starting behind a desk

It sounds silly, but when reviewing the media and telecommunications landscape a good place to start is the ‘big G’ – Google. Reinventing the wheel can be a big risk when it comes to looking at media and telecommunications landscapes – but thankfully the internet can help us avoid much of that. By having a little knowledge of where to look and what to search for, you can build some parameters for a secondary desk review of a media/telecoms landscape within the best part of an afternoon.

Websites of organisations such as Freedom House and the aforementioned media development agencies can provide vital information around the liberalisation of media, freedom of expression and government ownership/control of media and telecommunications networks. The CDAC Network’s resources list also includes a wealth of information. Beyond this, Wikipedia hosts, for instance, a list of the list of telecoms regulatory authorities with links to their websites. While not always comprehensive, these websites of national telecommunications regulators can contain important information such as costs of FM radio transmission licences, and potentially support for the roll-out of rural connectivity, i.e. through universal access funds promoting rural connectivity. It’s usually worth spending some time reading through them! This research can be complemented by discussions with relevant actors including Mobile Network Operators, Media agencies, and regulators to discuss the specific issues and challenges each party faces in-country. More detail on different considerations for this are included as part of the CDAC Network/ACAPS quick and easy guide to information needs assessments. In sum, this desk review and discussion with the relevant organisations and individuals at country level will help determine the parameters for the questions to be explored with communities themselves.

Understanding information and communication needs of communities

When you’ve developed a reasonable understanding of the information ecosystem/media and telecoms landscape, it’s a good time to go out and start pro-actively listening to communities. Despite there being numerous resources from a number of agencies around this, there is (to our knowledge) only one purpose-built guide that has been created on assessment modalities themselves – the CDAC Network/ACAPS guide. If we unpack this a bit, the guide is framed as a series of considerations at different stages of an emergency/crisis response cycle, i.e. the first 72 hours, the first two weeks etc. It then elaborates a concise number of questions – 5 in total – that could be part of a more formal assessment. Additionally, the tool is currently available in PDF format only.

In general, this CDAC Network tool – supported by its members – has gone a long way to promoting the use of Information and Communication needs assessments and has supported many different actors including community-based organisations to develop their own assessments. Nonetheless, feedback from UNHCR staff has pointed to the need for further concrete guidance in helping staff extensively outline areas for enquiry, formulate appropriate questions, and technically facilitate mobile data collection making for more robust analysis of data. Before conducting your own assessment, it is worth thinking through how the findings of such an assessment can be disseminated appropriately through the response community – particularly with key decision makers. Is a comprehensive report required? A two-page summary? A dashboard full of graphs and charts? Every response operates differently so it is worth thinking about the most appropriate output. Regardless of what is decided though, it is clear that robust data is needed to ensure we’re not simply being anecdotal or sensationalist in our assessment. This is why we encourage a move towards more robust and structured data collection using tools such as Kobo Toolbox which can be run off even the most basic smartphones and tablets.

Given this move, we’ve re-worked the 5 questions from the CDAC / ACAPS tool this into an XLSForm for download here – this is compatible with mobile data collection tools. While not wanting to reinvent the wheel, the UNHCR Innovation Service recognised that a broader, flexible and adaptable tool is needed to help field teams get started with their assessments. We’ve created a new tool: ‘Information and Communications Needs Assessment Tool’. This provides a bank of questions for those looking to create their own information and communication needs assessments. We’ve also created associated guidance videos that demonstrate how you can get your own assessment deployed on a mobile data collection platform in a matter minutes.

More details on the tool and what it offers are available on the tool’s page itself. Essentially, we want to open the tool up and maintain it as a living document that is updated regularly. It won’t be perfect straight out the gate; over time we want to include more languages, types of questions for different target audiences etc. We welcome any suggestions on elements we can add, improve or change so please let us know. We’d also love to see examples of assessments you’ve undertaken. The UNHCR Innovation Service can also provide direct support to UNHCR operations working in this area so don’t hesitate to contact us if you need that second eye on any assessment your have undertaken, or are about to undertake.



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