information as institution

Last month, rumors emerged of an Ebola outbreak in Guinea; by March 26, Guinean health officials reported 63 deaths as a result of hemorrhagic fever, a key symptom of the virus. When interviewed, Guinean citizens, humanitarian workers, and health officials have referenced the social corrosion of Ebola’s viral spread. “Rumors are rife among communities,” said one Guinean aid worker. If the response of Guinea’s health ministry and its regional partners has improved, all but containing Ebola’s spread, disinformation remains rampant. Earlier this week, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has provided emergency medical services in Guinea since 2001, surged its in-country staff, in part to more broadly deliver public health information to Ebola-prone communities.

Remote Guinean communities are globally opaque; located abroad, humanitarian groups may arrive with limited information about access points, infrastructure, quarantine spots, and potential sites of Ebola outbreak. As during recent separate crises, humanitarian crisis-mappers have attempted to fill these gaps. Since early this week, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOTOSM), a volunteer-based coalition of geographers, imagery analysts, and data scientists, has mapped three key towns to which MSF may deploy. HOTOSM’s “open” platform refers to the group’s crowd-sourced operations rather than its output, which exists on a restricted-access site. Other OpenStreetMap efforts, such as the group’s flagship map, are fully public. To confront MSF’s Guinea operations, HOTOSM has adapted its parent-group’s design to manage and produce sensitive data.

In past writing, I have described information as a resource: it is scarce or abundant, or somewhere in between, and various groups may control its distribution. Indeed, the scarcity of information is among the motivating factors behind MSF’s response to the Guinean Ebola outbreak. Here, information also mimics–albeit imperfectly–a discrete institution. Institutions have rules that restrict their members, and structures that govern relationships in their internal society. Public health services determine who lives, who is treated, who is infected, and, too often, who dies. As an institution, information is similarly fickle. Rumors generate violence; disinformation may further endanger a vulnerable civilian; and, true, accurate information may enable that same person’s survival. Power and privilege, which govern institutions the world over, also determine a civilian’s unequal access to the institution of information, and to knowledge of their health, safety, and security.

The right to information, as a moral notion, is a product of a global democratic norm that promotes transparent governance as its keystone. In the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) sense, the right to information presumes capacity–that is, that the institution from which public information is acquired is able to collect, protect, restrict, and distribute its knowledge. Recently, humanitarian groups, such as the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Program, have invoked a humanitarian right to information, to enable various state and non-state groups to better use information communication technologies (ICTs) to assist civilians in disaster-affected areas. The humanitarian right to information applies to the context in which civilians use information, and not the institution that supplies it.

Both norms–the transparency of information and its humanitarian right–view information as a resource, to be given by some and removed by others. This frame is sensible but limiting. If information is primarily a resource, and ICTs its vessel, those civilians who lack the latter must logically also lack the former. This is rarely the case. Guinean residents have had information amid the Ebola crisis; however, that information, especially prior to MSF’s arrival, was often inaccurate or delayed. Likewise, civilians during conflict have information, but it is often poor and insecure.

If information exists throughout, and is neither simply scarce nor abundant, “institution” may be our most effective metaphor for its social function. Weak institutions provide an inadequate basis for social cohesion, while strong ones unite and secure human livelihoods. In securing the right to information during crises, especially conflict, international actors should seek to strengthen crippled institutions, rather than to provide a lacking resource. Only then can humanitarians expect a brighter future for civilian protection.

Update: Kate Chapman, the director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, has provided the following comment below, reposted here: “Which restricted access site are you referring? All the data being digitized goes directly into OpenStreetMap and is available publicly.” For those users interested in the mechanics of HOTOSM’s crowd-mapping exercise, this clarification is helpful. Thanks, Kate.

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