Becoming a digital humanitarian, one deployment at a time

Melissa Elliott
© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Nine years ago, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, and I was among many looking for meaningful ways to help, albeit from far away. That's how I became involved in the world of digital humanitarianism, once unknown to me, which revolves around one thing only: information management.

From that experience to the more recent one of working with content management on ReliefWeb, a common thread is that disaster response suffers from severe information overload. Sometimes, the right information isn’t easily accessible. And with a variety of aid actors deploying to the field, it’s critical for organizations to provide safe and sustainable communication streams in order for them to make quick decisions and work efficiently.

Digital humanitarianism can take many forms

Soon after the 12 January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I found the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map, a crowdsourcing initiative using social media and the output of the Haitian Mission 4636 initiative to constantly update an online map of needs on the ground. The partnership between Mission 4636 and Digicel, a local telecommunications company, empowered those affected by the crisis to text their needs to the platform for consolidation. Tapping Haitian diaspora around the world to translate the messages, volunteers then categorized and geolocated the data on to a public map to provide aid organizations with the information to form effective responses.

Ushahidi platform for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Ushahidi platform for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

This first crisis-mapping experience marked the beginning of my almost decade-long volunteer engagement in humanitarian information management, which includes active participation in the Standby Task Force (SBTF), the Digital Humanitarian Network and the CrisisMappers Network. Each and every new deployment taught us valuable lessons: during the 2011 Libya uprising, for instance, the SBTF was activated by OCHA to provide a map visualizing 3W activities. As co-lead, I managed a global network of more than 200 online volunteers. My team and I encountered concerns regarding the security of data and devised a two-tiered mapping system to ensure only a limited amount of information flowed to the public map.

There have been a handful of common lessons across deployments, regardless of the global location of the disaster or the unique situations around the event itself. First, being a digital humanitarian means being ready: during non-deployment periods, the Standby Task Force participates in or conducts simulation exercises. Working with government bodies, UN agencies, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, to name but a few, SBTF volunteers are presented with a variety of scenarios to test the workflow, hone their capabilities, and uncover opportunities for improvement.

Second, I’ve seen how the aid ecosystem has changed. Volunteer, community-based and grassroots organizations have established a place of trust within donor communities, and now build relationships with larger organizations to support the response. Ensuring that communication streams between all players are as secure and smooth as possible is the responsibility of everyone involved. And last but not least, an important challenge is the amount of information circulating at the time of a disaster.

Information coming from all directions

Finding the proverbial needle in a haystack of useful data has become an impetus for research into AI, machine learning and microtasking platforms - such as the Twitter filtering that was put in place after the earthquake in Chile in February 2010 - that deals mostly with controlling the onslaught of information. The goal of this research is to produce technology capable of removing the ‘noise’. Until those systems become standardized, however, organizations and volunteers are left looking for ways to quickly find relevant content that they can trust because it’s been verified.

 OCHA/Rébar Jaff

Les Cayes, Haiti, after Hurricane Matthew (04 November 2016). Photo: OCHA/Rébar Jaff

Deciphering and disseminating the vast amounts of content coming through a firehose of information from countless sources has proven itself to be a challenge, regardless of the specific situation or location. And this is only amplified as time passes, with spambots finding active hashtags and capitalizing on their subsequent visibility.

When I joined ReliefWeb in 2016, I quickly realized I was in a position to help those organizations and groups leverage the platform to find consolidated and relevant information. With ReliefWeb content coming from verified sources, there are no worries about misinformation and no need to sift through retweets and spambot messages to find golden nuggets of data. In addition, search filters allow for narrowed-down results, including by vulnerable groups.

In the information gap between the onset of a situation and the first reports, the country pages provide background information that can prove helpful in understanding specific local challenges. After a crisis strikes, all relevant documents and updates, including situation reports, are aggregated on disaster pages that help users follow the latest developments and information from response partners easily, allowing both large NGOs and grassroots teams to make fast, informed decisions about how best to deliver aid. Humanitarian agencies can also use ReliefWeb to recruit staff for their operations in headquarters or the field via the Jobs Section.

There are different ways to keep track of developments in humanitarian field operations: you can subscribe to different services on our homepage to be notified on key updates, and share your experience using the site so we can continually make improvements. Information management saves lives!