The digital humanitarians are coming

News and Press Release
Originally published

Robert Muggah and Patrick Meier*

Aid workers always have to do more with less. Since virtually all humanitarian appeals to assist victims of natural disasters and civil wars go under-funded, they are used to dealing with scarcity. Relief agencies also operate in information scarce environments. In fact, the dearth of reliable data during emergencies has profoundly shaped the direction and character of relief logistics, coordination and information management over the past five decades. But what happens when hot spots once known for their information shortages are instead overrun with data from mobile phones, social media and satellite imagery? We think that this kind of data disruption can give rise to tremendous digital opportunities.

Humanitarians are keenly aware that the tectonic plates of relief and development are shifting under their feet. They felt the first tremors during the rapid response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake which killed at least 150,000 people. Within hours of the quake, hundreds of loosely-organized digital volunteers mobilized social media, text messaging and remote sensing to crowd-source incredibly detailed and up-to-date maps depicting needs, damage and transportation routes across the country. Digital humanitarians have honed their skills and capabilities during crises in Australia, Japan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, the US, and most recently the Philippines. In the process, they have forged tech-enabled networks that are fast overtaking humanitarian organizations characterized by old-fashioned hierarchies.

Relief work is no longer the preserve of a select few heavyweight agencies. Rather, virtual networks of tech-savvy volunteers are speedily mobilizing big (and small) data in the wake of crises to connect survivors with services. They are piloting new social media platforms like AIDR and MicroMappers to manage information surges during disasters and better support relief operations on the ground. Take the ongoing response to Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. Even before the devastating storm made landfall, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) to craft rapid damage and needs assessment. The DHN now acts as the official interface between formal humanitarian organizations and digitally empowered volunteers.

How does this digital humanitarianism work in practice? In the Philippines, one DHN member is monitoring Twitter to identify urgent needs and assess infrastructural damages. Within days they harvested a quarter of a million tweets and used automated algorithms coupled with MicroMappers to tag relevant messages and images. This kind of information complements official administrative data used by government and UN decision-makers. Meanwhile, another DHN affiliate, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, is tracking satellite images to generate real-time maps to guide damage assessments and the delivery of essential services. Also, a Skype Chat created two years ago called the “All Hazards Disaster Expert Group” is helping coordinate the flight plans of unmanned aerial vehicles in Tacloban and Cebu to help inform recovery plans.

The relief and development sectors can be early adopters of these new technologies. To do so, they must not only acknowledge the astonishing potential of these digital tools, but also the ethos that gave rise to them in the first place. A signature feature of many of these information communication technologies (ICTs) is their "openness". Many were engineered as a result of collaborative approaches and forward-looking partnerships. Their designers and users are more comfortable working in horizontal networks than vertical hierarchies. They also purposefully draw from multiple disciplines to regularly upgrade their products, pulling in the required expertise on demand. And most of them prefer rapid iteration in testing out their products rather than long drawn-out pilots. Importantly, they embrace uncertainty and are encouraged to take risks.

To learn from and take advantage of these networks and new technologies will require a radical change in mindset among older and more established humanitarian organizations. It will also demand a greater tolerance for failure and the introduction of incentives to spur-on innovation. Relief agencies will need to purposefully step outside of their comfort zone, and place a greater premium on reflection alongside action. And it is the largest global players - from the Red Cross and Red Crescent and the United Nations to other large established agencies - that have the most to gain from preparing themselves for a world of information overflow. They still retain the advantage of scale. Some are already taking the right steps, and there is no reason for others to be left behind.

*Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute and directs policy at the SecDev Foundation. Patrick Meier is the Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) where he develops and prototypes using social computing, Big Data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

See also: Wired Humanitarianism by Robert Muggah in the Huffington Post