Advancing digitalization in DRR and development programs in COVID-19 times
by Michael Szoenyi
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be here to stay for longer. Much has been opined already on the economic and social impacts that the immediate fallout from the pandemic has. Governments and organizations alike are struggling to find the right balance between physical distancing measures / “lockdown” approaches and reopening to a new normal that will resume economic and social activities.
Immediately following the need to reduce interactions and to stay home, people and businesses were struggling for new ways of working including remote work and virtual conferences via digital media. Videoconferencing and the term “Home Office” boomed. While alongside the pandemic some of these changed ways of working seem also to stay longer it is unclear which of these will permanently transform the way we work and interact, and which will only serve as a temporary alternative that many will be too happy to give up to return to direct social interactions. While we all want to return to our DRR work in communities to ensure deep engagement, for now, we need to find new and creative ways to interact.
Challenging operating conditions for DRR programs
One sector for which COVID-19 lockdowns have been particularly challenging is the development sector. The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance helps communities in 13 countries strengthen their resilience to flooding. Our goal is to work in flood-prone countries and communities even in the midst of health emergencies, war, or famine – to continue to build resilience to floods.
Our efforts share some of the challenges others in the DRR space face, including working in remote areas with limited infrastructure and working with marginalized, vulnerable and less affluent groups and communities. While access to networks and digital literacy may not be high in all of the communities in which we work, wireless transactions are increasingly important especially on channels such as simple smartphones and software like WhatsApp. But that cannot distract from one fact: DRR work is traditionally done face-to-face.
Also for us, effective flood resilience programs start with community engagement and establishing a basic common understanding of the local situation vis-à-vis disaster risks, such as through Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments (VCA). Continuously, we need to deepen our community engagement and conduct in-depth discussions on what resilience means to each community topic. Socializing program intentions and plans are done through local stakeholder and all-community meetings. Baseline assessments and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of communities are done using household (HH) interviews, focus group discussions (FGD) and key informant interviews (KII). Since official data inventories may be sparse, outdated or non-existent, hazard and risk information needs to be collected on the ground – using pen and paper in its simplest form, but at most applying transect walks and on-site data collection that can be entered into digital devices as the data is acquired.
Swiftly adapting to digital solutions
All of this came to a grinding halt in the spring with COVID restrictions. Travel and traditional community interactions were no longer allowed (due to restrictions), possible (due to lack of travel connections) or deemed appropriate (as we all conducted our own health risk analysis to protect the communities we work with as well as the health of our own teammates). This was no different for our Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance programs.
Our Flood Resilience Measurement for Communities (FRMC) framework to measure flood resilience and help us inform interventions that help build flood resilience has been relying on direct interactions – enumerators collecting data through HH, FGD, and KII data collection methods by going from household to household and convening group meetings and visiting key stakeholders who hold important information. For the FRMC, the process and interactions are just as important as the data collection itself – as many data points do not get simply “collected”, but knowledge and information on our five capitals approach to integrated resilience means the information is rather “created” during the conversation.
In an effort to accelerate the virtual environment also for DRR work and to bridge the gap caused by COVID restrictions, our continuous improvements of the software and tool let us consider conducting online surveys.
The program implementers now collect the same data and measure the same sources of resilience without the need to be physically in the same space as the interviewees. Individual links to each survey questionnaire are adapted and personalized and sent to the interviewee. Participants will receive the necessary instructions about the survey and fill in the questionnaire using their digital device.
How to overcome digital challenges in DRR work
But of course, this approach also brings some challenges and issues that needed to be resolved.
- Recognizing the limits of digital access for communities. Participants need a digital device and reasonable access to the internet.
- Updating practitioners mindsets. A shift in mindset is also needed within the DRR community that is steeped in participatory approaches. We heard from several colleagues that they thought digital conversations in DRR work was out of the question. Following the COVID-19 lockdown though they quickly changed opinion, shared information with community members via phone, setting up video calls and sending out more information via email or creating video messages and guidance shared through streaming media and video platforms.
- Reaching the most vulnerable. We measure resilience at the community level and need to ensure good representation across all members and groups of the community including vulnerable – socially, economically and physically vulnerable. Community organizations need to consider whether certain groups might be excluded from digital participation because they don’t have access to such devices or services. Development and DRR work should consider how digital equality can be ensured from the outset of programs going forward. Can digital devices be shared among community members to reduce cost and material? Is this kind of sharing appropriate during COVID-19, and can hygiene measures for sharing devices be introduced? Is it appropriate to provide phones and internet access as part of DRR programs, and how will literacy inappropriate usage be ensured?
- Quality assurances of online-versus in-person. When quite detailed information is asked for flood resilience purposes, it makes a difference whether an enumerator is present physically during the interview to gauge the comfort level of participants, how well they understand the questions, and to provide guidance and support. In online surveys, this immediate support is not available and alternatives need to be considered. Remote support should be offered – answering questions via chat, email or phone the participants might have a beneficial impact.
We also completely rewrote the additional guidance notes accompanying the questions to provide the necessary context for this particular online survey situation. This included shifting the perspective from providing guidance to field workers who might need additional info during field surveys to ensure the guidance now directly speaks to the online survey participant. That meant choosing different words and trying to anticipate questions that might come up so they could be answered already in the guidance notes. It also required further guidance to the project leaders setting up the resilience measurement and provide suggestions as to when and under which conditions online surveys might be appropriate and when they might not be – for example in conditions where information is uncertain and would need to be verified by asking follow-up questions. And how do you find the participants digitally in the first place and ensure the response rate is high enough to get the desired data sample? What are the incentives to participate? Some entry point is necessary to reach out to community members digitally and invite them to participate, and you’ll need help with that from local contacts.
The way forward…
The online survey feature is now available for our resilience measurement tool. We will gain experience on its usage during the following months. Thankfully, we had chosen a software development process that helped us act dynamically, which was crucial especially when confronted with COVID-19 challenges. Ask your IT partner! We also want to ensure both participation and representation remain strong in a digital environment, and no doubt more experience will be gained and newer guidance emerge. While COVID-19 hopefully one day will go away, the digital transformation is here to stay and so will it, I am sure, in the DRR world. Digital remote work, certainly when cleverly coupled with on-site work, can increase speed and number of interactions while removing travel hassles and potentially freeing up operating cost as well.