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Mastering disaster: How to get the facts to cover humanitarian crises

In the aftermath of disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, its often difficult to get basic facts on casualties, damage and humanitarian relief. Our guide offers reliable sources for answering these critical questions.

In a midst of a humanitarian crisis like the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, information on the disaster pours to and from the media.  The situation is in flux and the needs are great, and troubling fragments of news drop in continuously from on-the-ground reports, government briefings, humanitarian responders and social media. It’s often incredibly difficult to answer the basic questions: How many victims? How much destruction? Who will help pay for the emergency response and help with the recovery? Who has already donated money and resources?

As an investigative journalist looking for facts and data about the disaster and humanitarian response, I first searched for any handy guide or tipsheet compiled by colleagues researching similar events. Although I found guides to using social media for crisis event reporting , like Emergency Journalism: toolkit for better and accurate reporting  from the European Journalism Centre, recent guides to essential sources for fact-finding were elusive.  If you have one, please send a link.

To answer my questions, I used the following sites:

ReliefWeb from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been online since 1996, and is still the go-to site to monitor disasters. The home page highlights ongoing crises and responses, with more than 450 updates on the Philippines in the last 7 days, as well as crises in Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Somalia and Sudan.  You can also browse by country for “Humanitarian Dashboards” offering overviews and key numbers for ongoing situations across the globe.

Humanitarian Response, also from OCHA, is a hub for response operations, with individual crisis sites currently  for 10 countries as well as resources for the organizations and agencies involved. Humanitarian Response’s site for the Philippines (where Typhoon Haiyan is called Yolanda) offers specific contact names and numbers, current maps, and topical pages for logistics, food security, emergency shelter, health, telecommunications and other vital topics.

Financial Tracking Service, another OCHA site, provides detailed information and data on humanitarian funding. You can see daily updates on pledges of support and on the actual commitment and payment of the funds and in-kind support.  There are statistics, in PDF or Excel format, where you can see the breakdown updated daily. On Tuesday, the US led the funding; on Thursday, the UK had moved to the top. 

But you can also search the Financial Tracking Service database for funding status for all humanitarian appeals, with details on the funding, summaries of amount requested and percentage of the funding covered so far. Dig down further in this site for data on funding by private donors as well.

Official Philippine government information on the disaster and response is updated on the Philippines Official Gazette with official counts of casualties, real-time updates, contacts, news, and a new Foreign Aid Transparency Hub, detailing aid pledged and received.  The names of the deceased, the injured and the missing are listed here. The Philippines government’s  effort to provide current comprehensive data online is notable. Similar  official resources elsewhere may not be accessible. 

As in other disasters, Google has offered a Google People Finder to help families locate family members in the crisis. For journalists, it may be a resource for finding contacts for people affected by the disaster.

A non-governmental resource for data on international aid is AidData, which collects and publishes data on development finance from 90 international agencies.  This site powers the Disaster Aid Dashboard  for the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, a partnership of 41 countries and 8 international organizations helping developing countries reduce vulnerabilities to natural disasters. Data from 1990 through 2010 is included.

EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, provides data on the occurrence and effects of over 18,000 disasters in the world from 1990 to 2013. You can see country profiles, make lists of events, or create rankings like Top 10 most important storm disasters for the period 1900 to 2013, by number of deaths, by numbers of persons affected, or by economic damage costs.

Margot Williams is ICIJ’s research editor. She will be sharing new online search sites and research tips for investigative journalists here weekly.


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