RISEPAK - An Award-Winning Idea Seeks a Home

The future of the award-winning disaster management portal in Pakistan is uncertain. Organizers point to a lack of continuing participation on the part of government and relief organizations as well as World Bank criticisms.

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A multinational effort provided humanitarian assistance and support to Pakistan and parts of India and Afghanistan following the devastating Oct. 8 earthquake in 2005.

Lack of an institutional base, adequate commitment, and demand from the users of the service, are threatening the continuity of a novel information and communication technology-enabled disaster management system in Pakistan, which is on the brink of closing down unless the current coordinators can seek out a buyer who can take it forward.

The current managers of RISEPAK -- short of Relief Information System for Earthquakes Pakistan -- say that the project may have run its course in its present form and now needs a "committed institutional home or something that is not dependent on a personality but an institution," to realize its full potential and thrive.

Created in October 2005 by a consortium of Pakistani academics, The World Bank, and World Online (Lahore) with the operational hub at the Lahore University of Management (LUM) in Lahore, Pakistan, RISEPAK is a public portal that acts as an earthquake relief coordination and accountability tool for collecting, collating and displaying information about damage, access and relief for rural Pakistani citizens affected by the 2005 earthquake.

It is a novel initiative in the sense that it is the first public network composed of a multiple collaboration of academics, researchers, and policy makers at US and Pakistani universities, multilateral organizations, various government departments, and individuals, with the objective of providing -- literally -- the much-needed "roadmap" for the relief efforts in the earthquake effected areas of Pakistan.

According to its founders, the aftermath of any disaster -- particularly in an underdeveloped country like Pakistan where a large number of relief-agencies, big and small, act in a largely uncoordinated fashion -- requires steps to ensure that relief-aid reaches all affected areas in a timely and equitable manner. And that was the primary objective of RISEPAK.

Initially, during the first few months after formation RISEPAK was a "big success", says Sarah Zaidi, the current project coordinator under whose leadership the project now runs.

In fact so successful was this initiative initially that it even received the "prestigious" award for its innovative use of web-based communication at the Stockholm Challenge in 2006. "This project demonstrated the ability of ICT tools to respond rapidly and across a broad base to major disasters. RISEPAK rapidly provided all relief agencies with basic information on the villages and regions that they would be working in, and then provided the tools for the villages and NGOs to feed new information back into the system, which organizes and redistributes it to enable faster responses and better planning of resource," said Earl Mardle, the chairman of jury of the Stockholm Challenge.

The ten-year old Stockholm Challenge is a well established global networking program for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) entrepreneurs. One of contribution of this organization is its ICT prize, the Stockholm Challenge Award., which encourages the use of ICT for improving living conditions and increase economic growth in all parts of the world.

However, despite international recognition, RISEPAK faces possible extinction. "The interest from the public, NGOs and multilaterals in using this portal is dying out now," says Zaidi. "Although it is still sustained by people who launched the portal and who are still keeping it going, its future is only mapped out only until May 2008. After that, I don't know what the future of RISEPAK is to be."

According to a recent report by the World Bank -- one of its founding supporters (something which was not initially public information) -- a big reason why RISEPAK faces the risk of closure is that it lacks continued engagement.

"Some 53 agencies, both national and international, were initially persuaded to provide information on their activities. They appear to have

done so for altruistic reasons, after having been solicited by the RISEPAK team of volunteers, rather than through any clear understanding of how participation would serve their own purposes," says the still-confidential World Bank report adding, "This was not a sufficient motivation to sustain their engagement."

Another "challenge" that RISEPAK faces is access to data. "Technology-enabled data such as satellite maps and images, as well as geological reports prepared by the government, are still heavily guarded and are not given out to us," says Zaidi. Moreover, all the organizations that had initially contributed to build RISEPAK's database have not made repeat contributions. The result is that some of its data getting dated.

And finally, "The managers of the RISEPAK published some limited analysis of the data on its website. This was potentially a very useful role for a university-based civil society group to play," says the World Bank report, [But] "unfortunately, it was not pursued, perhaps due to the voluntary nature of the exercise."

Still even though RISEPAK is heading towards failure, there are a few lessons that could be learnt from this project. "The first and by the far the most important lesson is that developing systems of this kind should be part of a concerted effort to build up national disaster response capacity in vulnerable countries," says the World Bank report.

According to World Bank, to be effective, disaster response needs to be led by national authorities and possess an information management system that has a clear institutional owner, which takes responsibility for coordinating its use by other agencies. It should be an institution with the authority to discipline both national and international actors.

And this is why, says Zaidi, the present management is trying to rope in a government agency to take over the operation of RISEPAK.

"We have already identified National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) but nothing has been finalized yet," says Zaidi. NDMA is Pakistan government-owned organization for designing, promoting and implementing strategies and programs on disaster risk reduction, preparedness, response and recovery.

Over the years, adds Zaidi, RISEPAK has evolved into not only something that can provide information for managing disasters, but also a system for other civilian efforts like managing elections, distribution of food, spreading of education, and the likes. Additionally, RISEPAK has developed the capability of following relief money, assessing budgets and the impact these have on the ground.

"After all," says Zaidi, "even if some may consider that RISEPAK is an idea that has come too early, it is still a great idea and has a bright future if it gets an institutional home."

Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.