An information environment out of control: Turning disposable information into sustainable knowledge

Brigitte Troyon

Brigitte Troyon, Head of the ICRC Archives and Library - Directrice des Archives et de la Bibliothèque du CICR

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The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has worked in conflict zones for nearly 160 years.  As a result, we recognise that a misplaced document can be a matter of life or death. Many of our colleagues understand that preserving today’s information will help the next generation of the ICRC staff, who work in increasingly long protracted conflicts and require a comprehensive knowledge of the past.  

However, the need for quick action in operation puts pragmatism before information management rules: staff have no time to ensure that crucial information is handled correctly. Furthermore, faced with complex and continuously new technologies, they crave simplicity.   

These are three concrete measures the ICRC’s information managers, librarians and archivists are undertaking to go beyond the traditional role of curators to become knowledge creators and act on both ends of the information chain and to create sustainable knowledge in an “out of control” information environment. 

1. Proximity with the producer of information 

With 20’000 staff members dispersed around the world, enhanced proximity with the producers of information was key to ensure that critical information is safeguarded in a sustainable and secured environment. A new organisational model was set up, with staff dedicated to offering support and advise in close proximity to the producer. A monitoring tool was also developed and provided each country with a maturity matrix on where it stands in the management of its information and what concrete actions should be taken to improve the situation.  

This new model was fully functional in the Asian region prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The evidence soon surfaced that relevant information related to the pandemic had to be compiled and organised on a platform for delegations to access and consult when devising their actions and drafting interventions. Our information management staff set up this task efficiently and served as a model to all other regions. These measures indubitably helped operational performance whilst building an exhaustive knowledge on our activities related to COVID-19. 

While the implementation of this model is a success story, it does not hide the fact that coaching staff on how they manage their information is always a Sisyphean task.  

2. Advancing knowledge 

At the end of the chain, the ICRC Archives and Library team explored new ways of utilising information to create knowledge for staff, namely the production of research guides and concise and tailored documents, such as chronological notes on the ICRC’s actions within a particular country or key thematic issue. We set up an online platform so staff worldwide can have an overview of these notes and request access to them. 

Following a tragic security incident resulted in the death of an ICRC colleague, we learned that personnel in war-torn areas need a sound understanding of previous security incidents to better grasp the current context. Previously, records classified as strictly confidential, were systematically printed and kept in our safe at the ICRC headquarters, and digital copies were destroyed. Consequently, access was very much limited and usually happened only at the beginning of a senior manager’s assignment. This information got lost amidst the rest that needed to be digitised when heading to a new country. Our archivists have therefore created digitised “briefing” bundles per context, where information on past incidents is organised and retrievable from a secured platform. These bundles are tailor-made and regularly completed by our archivists and senior field managers. The challenge was to sort out which relevant records went into these bundles and how to organise them in a user-friendly way. The achievement of this demarche has been incredible and will indubitably lead to more systematic bundles of knowledge on other topics. 

 ICRC administrative archives are mostly analogical archives and kept in Geneva. © Archives CICR, V-P-CH-E-00598 
The full version can be downloaded from our audiovisual archives portal:  (You need to register to do so)
3. Artificial intelligence in action 

In the interest of simplicity and increased access to information and the production of knowledge, the ICRC is testing artificial intelligence techniques to describe, classify, and retrieve documents.  

Knowing that emails remain a primary source of crucial information, we carried out proof-of-concept tests to automatic classification according to our filing plan. The measure of a successful algorithm was its ability to correctly predict the classification of a sample of 200’000 email records that had already been classified. The tests provided promising results on a methodological level with an 80% of success rate.  

Another project was prompted by our lack of human resources’ capacity to answer the numerous requests from families of the prisoners of World War II. The way forward is to allow a direct online search of the 36 million individual analogical cards, which means digitising and indexing them, knowing that most contain handwritten key information.  The project aims at transcribing the handwriting automatically to complete the online indexing of the cards.  

 Testing AI to recognize handwriting: an example of a WWII card on a prisoner of war. © Archives CICR (DR), V-P-HIST-00403-04 
The full version can be downloaded form our audiovisual archive portal  (you need to create a profile for this)
Testing AI on handwriting
The way forward 

Information in our organisation will increasingly be diluted and scattered and securing sound knowledge will become mission impossible if information professionals are not present throughout the record’s life cycle. Organising and securing critical information is a precondition to have the content retrievable and searchable, and producing ready- to- consume bundles of knowledge for staff helps them digest the overwhelming amount of information available. We need to explore Artificial intelligence further to tackle these gigantesque tasks, including cross-referencing data and improving analytical reports. Our information managers, archivists and librarians are indeed expanding their skills and realm of responsibilities, going from curators of information to knowledge providers. It is the only way forward if we want our records to remain relevant and available for our functions