Strategizing the Best Disaster Recovery Plans

Daniel Couture, CIO, UNICEF
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Daniel Couture, CIO, UNICEF

As the frequency of humanitarian disasters remains high globally, response and recovery strategies are increasingly turning to Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-enabled solutions for enhanced effectiveness, often as a matter of life and death. Let us explore some key components of UNICEF’s ICT strategies for disaster response. From perpetual warfare and civil unrest in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, to typhoons in Asia and hurricanes in the Caribbean, 2016 was not an unusual year for UNICEF and our partners in the humanitarian community. UNICEF was established 70 years ago with a primary aim to protect children’s lives in precisely those types of tragedies. UNICEF’s ICT function, operating in over 300 locations worldwide, has developed and gained tremendous experience over the years because of numerous successes as well as the occasional failures to be learned from. We have established–and are continuously improving–our disaster response and recovery strategies that have proven themselves successful time and time again.

Several aspects of UNICEF’s Disaster Response and Recovery Depend on ICTs:

1. Disaster response mainly revolves around deployment of staff and resources to save children’s lives. This requires the rapid deployment of the ICT services that emergency responders need to work in remote areas that are often difficult to access. Our ICT services in such scenarios mainly consist of data communications over mobile or fixed quick-deploy satellite terminals, pre-built as pre-stocked kits. They also include security communications for staff and vehicles, typically based on two-way VHF/UHF radio and Mobile Satellite Services (MSS), such as Iridium, Thuraya, and Inmarsat.

  ​Disaster recovery primarily revolves around re-establishing the most critical ICT services during and after a disaster, at the same or in an alternate location

2. Disaster recovery primarily revolves around re-establishing the most critical ICT services during and after a disaster, at the same or in an alternate location. In such situations, MSS, quick-deploy VSAT terminals and radio communications are employed.

Maintaining a well-trained staff body with the right skill sets to deploy ICTs for response and recovery is critical. On an annual basis, UNICEF conducts Emergency ICT preparedness and response training of ICT staff, drawing together around 40 to 50 ICT responders from UNICEF offices worldwide. It provides far-ranging, practical benefits to staff and offices in both response and recovery scenarios.

Our own organizational disaster resilience is critical to ensure continuous services to others. Therefore, a revolutionary movement in our disaster response and recovery strategy was the centralizing of some global ICT services in the Cloud while consolidating others in our own comprehensive data centers. To ensure business continuity we equipped the primary and secondary data centers to operate in parallel warranting that at least one, if not both, is readily available in the event of a major disruption. All mission critical systems and services are running in high availability mode.

The Business Continuity Approach

In the field, however, the approach to business continuity is highly decentralized, designed to increase the autonomy of field offices and response teams, significantly reduce dependency on headquarters. Field offices are therefore empowered to take maximum advantage of new technologies in voice and data communications. However, our policies and standards, set by Headquarters, are designed to ensure that field offices have up-to-date hardware, software, training and resources to create locally sustainable ICT systems.

The resilience and ability of a workplace to recover from ICT service interruption depends on its level of planning and vigilance. To support that process, we illustrated a detailed ICT disaster recovery plan that is updated, tested and validated regularly. In an emergency, quick and reliable, in-country communication is of paramount significance. Data and voice communications, as well as other mission-critical systems and services, are outlined in field office ICT disaster recovery plans. All our offices are equipped to handle minor or temporary disruptions using remote access, when necessary.

Although we have merely explored the main pillars of ICT as an enabler in disaster response, other aspects of our ICT Strategy are equally important to ensure solutions that agile, localized, connected and scalable. Beyond setting a framework for response action, the ICT function is now more than just a back-office utility, as implied by the SDGs which embrace the ICT sector as a strategic partner and business enabler. In the same vein, the UNICEF ICT strategy similarly aims to build and strengthen partnerships to successfully implement programs through the effective use of innovative, technology-enabled solutions to achieve improved outcomes for children.

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