Master of Advanced Studies
in Humanitarian Logistics and Management


The Trouble with Getting Data in Iraq - E.S.

Analysis of the Data Availability Paradox in IOM Iraq
by Sandra Sarač, Diana
Moulla, and Krieng Triumphavong

The research was motivated by the problems we face daily in the Information Management department in IOM Iraq. We are struggling to respond to all the requests reaching us. Requests for information typically turn into a massive data collection exercises, followed by equally stressful processes of data entry and data analysis. In our attempt to provide information instrumental for the operations to assist the most vulnerable in a fairly complex environment, we tend to stretch the data collection as wide as we can. Resulting in more data we collect, needing more processing power, triggering more follow up requests and feedback, and again with more data collection. We learned that what we are experiencing is not unheard of or at all unusual. We also learned that we are the ones contributing to the problem.

In the situation of Data Collection Paradox or Data Overload, volumes of data reaching the system exceed its (system’s) capacity or ability to filter, process, interpret and generate meaningful information. This usually triggers, even more, requests, because users feel they are not receiving sufficient information or that the information they are receiving does not sufficiently support their decision-making process, and the loop goes on, with collecting, even more, data that the system cannot absorb.

One cannot easily anticipate the effect of requesting an extra piece of information to the system. We are often faced with requests for information without a clear idea about its final use. “A few more questions could be useful” argument usually results in expanding a data collections, collecting, storing and processing data without a clear understanding of the value this process will bring, costs associated with it and most importantly the effect this can have on the overall system.

We have selected a case study of the Community Revitalization Programme - CRP, the single biggest program in IOM Iraq, typically accounting for more than a half of the total mission’s funding. Three main sources of data were analyzed:

I.    Data sets from the central database system, distributed databases, and files for three consecutive years were used to study collected data.

II.    Reports supporting operation, implementation of activities, as well as quarterly and final donor reports were used for studding processed and data utilized in the reports

III.    Questionnaire filled by IOM staff with a range of pivotal functions in the CRP to explore their perception of availability, access, quality and usability of information in the IOM Iraq system.

We used descriptive statistics to analyze data collection rate concerning the quantity of data processed and unutilized. System Dynamics and Theory of Constraints helped analyze and understand the system behavior patterns over time about data accumulation and further explain the system constraints that generates such accumulations.

We found that the IOM Iraq’s Community Revitalization Programme is facing challenges to process and utilize its data collection. We estimate that 58% of the data collected in 2013 was not utilized. When converted to expenses the team incurs, around half a million of dollars invested to collect and encode data was wasted instead of being directed to timely and effectively support assistance to the most vulnerable population in Iraq.

A data accumulation is showing an exponential growth, and so does the backlog of data that is not processed and utilized. An exponential growth of data accumulation did not cause the same rate in the wealth of IOM Iraq’s information. It has caused a waste of data as well as of the resources involved in collecting the data. Regardless of the data waste, users are relatively content and mostly have access to information they need to support their functions. They, however, expressed their concerns about the delays to acquire information, quality of data, different and sometimes contradicting interpretations of data, and difficulties to access the information themselves and having to seek assistance from the information specialists, which they explained as a result of an overload of information available throughout the system.

A causal model illustrates how the backlog of unutilized data negatively affects the system. Increased backlog adds technical and social complexities to the system and causes an increase in a data collection. The model helped in understanding that reduction in data collection reduces the backlog and enables the system to seek the goal of matching data collection to data demanded. Following the same goal, a data collection process was identified as a system constraint.

The root causes for wasting over 58% of data collection are factored to both external and internal issues of which the rapid change in the environment, the lack of clear objectives and indicators to data collection, poor planning, social complexities generated by the number of staff and their crosscutting and interdependent roles, as well as inertia are core.

To effectively support roles of IOM Iraq staff we need a human-centric and function-based approach, adaptive to environmental change; the approach not proposing a major reconstruction measures but rather a continuous improvement targeting smaller, manageable and easier to implement changes.

To guide the thinking process of building a different approach to data collection, we are proposing a framework based on three main concepts:

I.    Focus on people and their functions in a domain of the work they perform. Analyze different and interdependent functionalities in the organization contributing to full-fill an objective of the organization.

II.    Interdependencies within the system; casual relationships and implications of changing one entity to the entirety of the system. By modeling proposed plans we can anticipate possible reactions of other components and prepare a mechanism to deal with the challenges.

III.    Continuous improvements in the cyclic technique to measure, exploit, subordinate and elevate system constraints. 

The research was successful in acknowledging the Data Availability Paradox in IOM Iraq; analyzing the causes and effects, it has on the system. However, the research was limited as it studied data only. Further research is required to study data collection approach in relation to the value of acquired information and the level of utilizing information effectively and efficiently supporting decision making in IOM Iraq.


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