A Humanitarian Technology Policy Agenda for 2016

The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 will feature transformation through innovation as a key theme. Leading up to the summit, OCHA has voiced the need to “identify and implement….positions that address operational challenges and opportunities” (OCHA 2013) relating to the use of information technology, big data and innovations in humanitarian action.

In this blog post we sketch out four areas in need of further research over the next two years to provide policymakers, humanitarian actors and other stakeholders with up to date and relevant research and knowledge.

1.    Empowerment and Accountability

  • Pivoting humanitarian action: Maximizing user-benefit from technology

Affected populations are the primary responders in disasters and conflict zones, and actively use information technology to self-organize, spread information about their condition, call for aid, communicate with humanitarian actors, and demand accountability. New technologies also have the potential to put responders at the center of the entire life cycle of humanitarian action – from needs assessment and information gathering, to analysis, coordination, support, monitoring and evaluation.  It is crucial that member states, humanitarian organizations and volunteer & technical communities (V&TCs) improve their actions to take advantage of this opportunity. The 2016 Summit should strengthen the end-user perspective in the development of guidelines for V&TCs.

  • The changing meanings of accountability

Increasingly over the last 20 years, the humanitarian community has focused on issues of agency accountability and professionalization of humanitarian action, vis-à-vis donors as well as beneficiaries. However, the technological revolution in humanitarian action and the increasingly central role of large telecom and tech companies makes it necessary to broaden the focus of accountability considerations.  For example, OCHA is now considering developing guidelines for how formal humanitarian organizations and V&TCs should cooperate with these companies. Leading up to the 2016 Summit, there is a need for more reflection and research on how technology can be used to enhance accountability in humanitarian action for all parties, including new actors.


2.    The role of aggregated data

Data collection and the importance of aggregated data have come to occupy an important role in humanitarian action. As illustrated by the 2013 World Disasters Report, big data and remote sensing capabilities provide an unprecedented opportunity to access contextual information about pending and ongoing humanitarian crises. Many notable initiatives such as the UN Global Pulse suggest that the development of rigorous information management systems may lead to feasible mechanisms for forecasting and preventing crises. Particular attention should be paid to three issue areas:

  • Veracity and validity

Multiple data transactions and increased complexity in data structures increase the potential for error in humanitarian data entry and interpretation. Data that is collected or generated through digital or mobile mechanisms will often pose challenges, especially regarding verification. Although significant work is underway to establish software and procedures to verify data, understanding the limitations posed to veracity and validity of humanitarian data will be critical.

  • Identity and anonymity

As humanitarian data is aggregated and made public, the chances for re-identification of individuals and groups increase at an unknown rate. This phenomenon, known as the mosaic effect, is widely recognized but little understood. There is little understanding of the dangers that shared anonymous data would pose in a humanitarian context, where data may be limited, but the potential damage of re-identification would be quite extreme.

  • Agency and (dis)empowerment

The aggregation of humanitarian data from multiple data streams and sources decreases the likelihood that individuals and groups reflected in that data will be aware of, and able to influence, the way in which that data is used.  This principle, sometimes referred to as informational self-determination, presents a challenge to digital and mobile data collection contexts generally, but is highly problematic in humanitarian contexts, where risks associated with personal information are particularly grave.


3.    Enabling and regulating V&TCs

Remote volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) now play an increasingly important role in humanitarian contexts – generating, aggregating, classifying and even analyzing data, in parallel to, or sometimes in collaboration with more established actors and multilateral initiatives. They increasingly enjoy formalized relationships with traditional humanitarian actors, processing and generating information in the support of humanitarian interventions. Yet individual volunteers participating in such initiatives are often less equipped than traditional humanitarian actors to deal with the ethical, privacy and security issues surrounding their activities, although some work is underway. Although in many ways the contribution of V&TCs represents a paradigm shift in humanitarian action, the digital and volunteering revolution has also brought new concerns with regards to the knowledge and understanding of core humanitarian principles and tasks, such as ‘do no harm’ and humanity, neutrality and impartiality.

In considering the above issues, attention should be paid to inherent trade-offs and the need to balance competing values, including the following two:

  • Data responsibility vs. efficiency. There is an inherent tension between efficiency and data responsibility in humanitarian interventions. Generally, protecting the privacy of vulnerable groups and individuals will require the allocation of time and resources—to conduct risk assessments, to engage and secure informed consent, to implement informational security protocols. In humanitarian contexts, the imperative to act quickly and decisively may often run counter to more measured actions intended to mitigate informational risks to privacy and security
  • Western values vs. global standards. It has also been argued that privacy is a Western preoccupation, without any real relevance to victims of a humanitarian crisis facing much more immediate and pressing threats. This argument highlights the important tension between mitigating informational risks to privacy and security, and the need to efficiently and effectively expedite humanitarian aid. It does not account for the concrete risks posed to individual and collective security by irresponsible data management, however.

This is our modest contribution to an agenda for research and policy development for humanitarian technology. We would like to join forces with other actors interested in these challenges to contribute to a necessary debate on a number of issues that touch upon some of the core principles for humanitarian action. The ambition is to strengthen humanitarian action in an innovative and accountable manner, making us better equipped to help people in need in the future.

Note: This blog, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO), Christopher Wilson (The Engine Room) and John Karlsrud (NUPI), was originally posted on the website of the Advanced Training on Humanitarian Action Project (ATHA).