Talking Heads: ReliefWeb then and now

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Madeleine Wackernagel and Andy Footner
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© Solomon Makau/ReliefWeb

This month, ReliefWeb officially turns 25 - of course, the lead-up to the launch of a data-driven website in 1996 was way more complicated, but also much easier in many respects, than a similar venture in today’s tech world. But once the idea had percolated, and seed funding had been secured, it was achieved in a mere nine months.

The motivation behind ReliefWeb’s inception was the huge numbers of refugees generated by the Yugoslav conflict in the early 1990s, the Rwandan genocide of April 1994 and the Great Lakes crisis in 1996-97. The powers-that-be realised that pooling resources would mean better preparation but the concept of data sharing among humanitarian agencies was, in the main, anathema.

As Andy Andrea, the first information manager, told us recently: “Information is power, so I had a tough time convincing the various UN entities, INGOs and NGOs that it was in their best interests to share their data for a more efficient humanitarian response.”

In those dark and distant days, accessing the internet was in itself a challenge: “There was one computer in the Geneva office with internet capabilities and we had to get the director’s signature to be able to use it. But once we launched, we averaged 4,000-5,000 daily hits. That jumped to more than a million a week after the Jobs section was launched,” said Andrea.

Those numbers have grown exponentially over the past 25 years - up to 15.1 million users in 2020 while the number of users for 2021 is estimated at about 19 million.

Above all, says Andrea, ReliefWeb is a huge partnership - with more than 3,000 information sources, offices on three continents, operating 24/7 and publishing in English, French and Spanish, plus Arabic, Russian and Chinese content - and even Portuguese following the cyclones in Mozambique two years ago.

But, most importantly, adds Sharon Rusu, the launch initiator and first head of ReliefWeb, brought in by Martin Griffiths, then in charge of the UN Department for Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva (precursor to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), from UNHCR: “ReliefWeb is an invaluable source of information going back twenty-five years. That archival aspect will prove very important in historical terms. ReliefWeb’s standards on source verifiability and public access informed its conceptualisation and development; its users know ReliefWeb provides trustworthy sources.”

Further, she says: “ReliefWeb’s longevity is a result of its support for the principle of information-sharing and its capacity to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of its users.”

A sentiment echoed by Griffiths, now the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, who said: “With every year that passes global humanitarian needs grow larger and more complex. For those involved in planning and delivering humanitarian operations, the ability to fully understand the context in which they operate is essential to making the right decisions at the right time. This is why ReliefWeb has continued to play such an important role over the past 25 years as the humanitarian system’s trusted source of accurate, relevant and timely information.”

And we have certainly not been standing still. The path to 2021 has been packed with innovations thanks to our development team and some re-designs along the way. One such, in 2004, was the brainchild of Erika Hall and Mike Monteiro at Mule Design. Hall describes the experience as “fantastic preparation for future clients in how to handle remote working because of all the various parties in different time zones, as well as the political aspect. There was much emotion over logos etc, the brand was very important to all involved.”

Also involved in the redesign were user-experience pioneers Adaptive Path. Lane Becker, now at the Wikimedia Foundation, said: "ReliefWeb was one of my earliest introductions to the fundamental truth that technology doesn't solve problems. People solve problems and all technology can do is embed and scale those solutions. People like to skip the first step - solving the problem - because it's very hard." Much of their work involved how to map the way organisations see information into a way that users expect to find it - something we're still working on as we endeavour to make the ReliefWeb user experience as painless as possible. For more about the changes in the information architecture of the site, most of which remain relevant today, former ReliefWeb editor Sebastian Naidoo wrote an in-depth article.

Constantly evolving

Then came the momentous decision in 2012 to move offices from Geneva to Nairobi, and from Kobe to Bangkok. Events such as the 2015 Nepal earthquake, which happened on a Saturday, highlighted the gap in coverage as two executives scrambled to post numerous updates filed to the site in real-time - so later that year we went 24/7.

Other necessary innovations include going fully responsive in 2020; adopting social media, specialist topic pages to enhance thematic coverage, interactive maps, digital situation reports and apps.

Looking to the future, Satoko Nakagawa, the Chief Editor, says: “In the age of misinformation and disinformation, and when the access to information is not an option but an integral part of emergency relief for the affected people, ReliefWeb’s mandate continues to be critical in the international humanitarian community. We do not take this role lightly - more than 30 pairs of eyes across the globe are behind the site to ensure trustworthiness, timeliness and relevance of information distributed daily through this platform. I continue to be impressed by the ceaseless dedication of the team.”

As always we look forward to your suggestions, ideas and comments.