04 February 2012

Disaster Relief 1.0 vs 2.0? Bringing new voices into the humanitarian space

OK, so you need to get past the tired "2.0" framing in the report title, but "Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies" is quite interesting.

The report is "a snapshot of an ongoing discussion" and one of several initiatives under the $30m "Mobilising Development" collaboration between the UN Foundation, and the Vodafone Foundation. The report also involves OCHA (the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Apparently the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was different. For the first time, members of the community affected by the disaster issues pleas for help directly to those who could help. Also citizens around the world mobilised to plot and organise these pleas and help coordinate the humanitarian technical response.

So far so good. But the international humanitarian system is not equipped to handle these new voices and actors. The Report is a first attempt to help these worlds--old and new--come together to find ways of strengthening humanitarian initiatives. The seasoned humanitarian community relies on techniques that are tried and tested, that have been subject to scrutiny in the harshest of contexts and have come through and is understandably cautious when it comes to new technologies and armies of laptop volunteers.

The report does a good job of convincing people like me (i.e. not very well informed enthusiasts) that generating signals from people in distress via SMS technologies is only one part of the needed enabling technology. Also needed: (1) tools for viewing and processing high resolution aerial imagery, (2) geospatial wiki platforms (like OpenStreetMap) that allow many people to co-construct maps, (3) regular wikis for building up narratives of what is happening and needed, (4) collaborative platforms like Google Docs to allow people to share data and reports, and (5) bandwidth to allow Skype and other types of video conversation.

I feel that the report is a bit too pessimistic in how long it will take this technology to become useful and therefore used by people working in the humanitarian space. In a sector with many young people, they surely will be the champions of this new way of seeing, listening, analysing and acting. There is no substitute for experience, but experience is no defense against resisting innovation. This Report and the initiative seems like a good safe space to explore and learn. It is raising more questions than it is answering but, for now, that seems OK.

Footnote: my IDS colleagues Martin Greeley and Henry Lucas are doing a review of "Real Time Monitoring" with UNICEF and I'm sure it will prove to be a useful complement to the work summarised in this report.


Unknown said...

Hi Lawrence,

This was a really interesting post. I also found Disaster 2.0 a fascinating report and feel it rightly raises more questions than it answers. I firmly believe that the era of information sharing and open source technology poses as many challenges as it does possibilities. The first challenge is how aid providers and affected populations begin to make sense and use of the sheer volume of information now available. Secondly, how do we authenticate information which is open source. An example from Haiti which often comes up is about people appealing to search and rescue for assistance using open source communication channels and social media. Many of the appeals turned out to be speculative and wasted valuable time and resources.

That said, and putting my scepticism aside, I think emerging technologies and innovative use of them holds huge promise for aid effectiveness and the ability for beneficiaries to participate in the relief effort.

I have the privilege of working on the issue of communications with disaster affected populations. There is some amazing work being done in this area and I feel we are very much in a experimentation and exploration phase. I completely agree we you that there is an emerging "new way of seeing, listening, analysing and acting" and there are champions already out there... we just need more of them. Innovation and the integration of technologies to enhance response are beginning to take hold and I honestly believe that those who don't embrace these changes now will simply be left behind. I see many of these technologies already being used, and to good effect. I don't think the big question is how technologies can be applied to humanitarian response, but how they can be applied better and wider.

Lawrence Haddad said...

thanks UL, agree with you completely and the authentication issue is a really important one

Nick van Praag said...

Hi Lawrence. Interesting. Harnessing various types of information technology to humanitarian endeavor undoubtedly holds promise in a sector that has been slow to innovate. While technology can help make connections it cannot bridge the gap between listening to people affected by disasters, which most people agree is a good idea, and acting upon what they say, which still happens all too rarely.  This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing an industry that is increasingly urged by donors to focus on accountability to what are optimistically described as beneficiaries. This requires doing more than harnessing technology to transmit and collect information. It means making the beneficiaries the unit of account for humanitarian operations by tapping their perceptions to enhance the quality of humanitarian aid. This is something Keystone Accountability has focused on doing in development programming. Now, with the Ground Truth project, Keystone is translating this approach into the humanitarian space. Technology will be important  in gathering, analyzing and disseminating data. But the main innovation will come from the questions we ask and the incentives we create to encourage aid agencies to respond. Our methodology traces it's routes directly to the customer satisfaction industry and yields consistent, comparable answers that aid providers can act on in real time. Taking a leaf out of the behavioral economics playbook, we will provide aid agencies with incentives to respond through a published index that contrasts and compares performance of the different players -- and offers them an opportunity to make improvements (and be seen to do so) over time. Information technology can help lift the fog from humanitarian operations but it is only part of what must be a more systematic approach to accountability and performance management.