Tag Archives: big data

Unpacking the Myth of ICT’s Protective Effect in Mass Atrocity Response

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Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are now a standard part of the mass atrocity responder’s toolkit, being employed for evidence collection and research by NGOs, governments, and the private sector. One of the more notable justifications for their use has been to supplement or improve the protection of vulnerable populations. In a new article published in the Genocide Studies and Prevention Journal, we argue that there is little evidence for the assertion of this protective effect by ICTs in mass atrocity producing environments, which we have labeled the Protective or Preventative Effect (PPE). This blog post argues that the mass atrocity community needs to engage more critically with a widespread perception that ICTs have innate protective effects in mass atrocity response. More testing and validation of potential harms is necessary to ensure that civilians on the ground are not negatively affected by ICTs. Risks to individuals and communities include for example the theft,  appropriation and distortion of personal data, geotracking of ground movements and surveillance of speech, communication, movements and transactions through hand-held devices

Technologies performing remote sensing, crowd mapping, individual identification through facial recognition and big data analytics have significantly impacted mass atrocity response over the past 15 years. These include smartphone apps, remote sensing platforms such as satellite imagery analysis and surveillance drones, social media and data aggregation platforms.

Such technologies are primarily adopted due to their low-cost relative to analogue intervention, and their ability to be remotely deployed in otherwise inaccessible or insecure environments. The specific applications of these technologies and platforms are diverse and constantly evolving, but can generally be divided into two broad categories:

  • Prevention/Response applications seek to create novel situational awareness capacity to protect populations and inform response activities.
  • Justice/accountability use-cases aim to detect and/or document evidence of alleged crimes for judicial and/or advocacy purposes.

These ICTs are now effectively treated as indispensable force multipliers that supplement or supplant traditional mass atrocity response activities. However, in the absence of validation of these claims, adoption of these technologies can be said to be largely supply-driven.

As ICT use in mass atrocity and human security crisis response has been mainstreamed over the last two decades, so has a set of generalized and hitherto largely invalidated claims about their effects on the nature and effectiveness of response. These claims constitute technological utopianism—the notion that technological change is inevitable, problem-free, and progressive. Moreover, the adoption of this technology-reliant and remote posture encodes within it the idea that the direct result of deploying these technologies and platforms is the prediction, prevention, and deterring of mass atrocity related crimes—a form of technological utopianism known as solutionism, which holds that the right technology can solve all of mankind’s problems.

Within atrocity response, this approach is exemplified by the much-publicized Eyes on Darfur campaign, where the public viewing of satellite images from Darfur was framed as action in and of itself—the assumption being that simply “knowing about atrocities” is enough to mobilize mass empathy and as a result engender political action. Implicit in this is the idea that technology itself can fundamentally alter the calculus of whether and how mass atrocities occur.  The adoption of this view by civil society, we argue, means that responders are not simply adopting a set of tools and techniques, but a theory of change, built upon a technologically utopian worldview.

Underlying this theory of change is the imbuing of these platforms and technologies with an inherent “ambient protective effect”—e.g. transforming the threat matrix of a particular atrocity producing environment in a way that improves the human security status of the targeted population. The underlying assumption of this protective effect is that increased volumes of novel and otherwise unobtainable data over a large-scale geographic area or environment may cause one, some, or all of several potential ambient protective effects which will prevent or mitigate the effects of mass atrocities.

Our article argues that the human security community—particularly mass atrocity responders—must come to terms with the fact that there is a difference between knowing about atrocities and doing something about them. Monitoring is a precondition for protection, but it is does not have a protective effect in and by itself.

More research is needed to determine the validity of the assumptions encoded into ICT use, and to address their relationship to a growing body of scholarship indicating possible direct and indirect pernicious effects of attempting to project a PPE through technology. In some cases, these may be exposing civilians to new, rapidly evolving risks to their human security and mutating the behavior of mass atrocity perpetrators in ways which harm target populations (for example by providing perpetrators with sitting duck targets through real-time information about population movements;  or about settlements and survivors not harmed in a bombing campaign, for example) . To do no harm to civilians, we must start by recognizing that the unpredictable knock-on effects of ICT use can cause real harm to civilians—for example, crowd-sourced data can be used to foment violence as well as preventing it—and  that the prevailing technological utopianism may prevent responders from noticing.

This post comes from Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Nathaniel A. Raymond. Kristin is a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and a professor of  Sociology of Law  at the University of Oslo. Nathaniel is the Director of the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. This post was also published on the ATHA blog of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

A Humanitarian Technology Policy Agenda for 2016

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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).

The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone: Giving Content to an Emerging Concept

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Kristin Bergtora, who directs the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies (and sits on the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network, UAViators), just co-authored this important study on the growing role of UAVs or drones in the humanitarian space. Kristin and fellow co-author Kjersti Lohne consider the mainstreaming of UAVs as a technology-transfer from the global battlefield. “Just as drones have rapidly become intrinsic to modern warfare, it appears that they will increasingly find their place as part of the humanitarian governance apparatus.” The co-authors highlight the opportunities that drones offer for humanitarian assistance and explore how the notion of the humanitarian UAV will change humanitarian practices.

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Kristin and Kjersti are particularly interested in two types of discourse around the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The first relates to the technical and logistical functions that UAVs might potentially fulfill as humanitarian functions. The second relates to the discourse around ethical uses of UAVs. The co-authors “analyze these two types of discourse” along with “their broader implications for humanitarian action.” The co-authors make the following two assumptions prior to carrying out there analysis. First, technologies change the balance of power (institutional power). Second, “although UAV technology may still be relatively primitive, it will evolve and proliferate as a technological paradigm.” To this end, the authors assume that the use of UAVs will “permeate the humanitarian field, and that the drones will be operated not only by states or intergovernmental actors, but also by NGOs.”

The study recognizes that the concept of the “humanitarian drone” is a useful one for military vendors who are urgently looking for other markets given continuing cuts in the US defense budget. “As the UAV industry tries to influence regulators and politicians […] by promoting the UAV as a humanitarian technology,” the co-authors warn that the humanitarian enterprise “risks becoming an important co-constructor of the UAV industry’s moral-economy narrative.” They stress the need for more research on the political economy of the humanitarian UAV.

That being said, while defense contractors are promoting their large surveillance drones for use in humanitarian settings, “a different group of actors—who might be seen as a new breed of ‘techie humanitarians’—have entered the race. Their aim is to develop small drones to conduct SAR [search and rescue] or to provide data about emergencies, as part of the growing field of crisis mapping.” This “micro-UAV” space is the one promoted by the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), not only for imaging but for multi-sensing and payload delivery. Indeed, as “the functions of UAV technologies evolve from relief-site monitoring to carrying cargo, enabling UAVs to participate more directly in field operations, ‘civil UAV technologies will be able to aid considerably in human relief […].”

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As UAVs continue collecting more information on disasters and the impact of humanitarian assistance, they will “part of the ongoing humanitarian challenge of securing, making sense of and maintaining Big Data, as well as developing processes for leveraging credible and actionable information in a reasonable amount of time. At the same time, the humanitarian enterprise is gradually becoming concerned about the privacy implications of surveillance, and the possible costs of witnessing.” This an area that the Humanitarian UAV Network is very much concerned about, so I hope that Kristen will continue to push for this given that she is also on the Advisory Board of UAViators.

In conclusion, the authors believe that the “focus on weaponized drones fails to capture the transformative potential of humanitarian drones and their possible impact on humanitarian action, and the associated pitfalls.” They also emphasize that “the notion of the humanitarian drone is still an immature concept, forming around an immature technology. It is unclear whether the integration of drones into humanitarian action will be cost-effective, ethical or feasible.” I agree with this but only in part since Kristin and Kjersti do not include small or micro-UAVs in their study. The latter are already being integrated in a cost-effective & ethical manner, which is in line with the Humanitarian UAV Network’s mission.

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More research is needed on the role of small-UAVs in the humanitarian space and in particular on the new actors deploying them: from citizen journalists and local, grassroots communities to international humanitarian organizations & national NGOs. Another area ripe for research is the resulting “Big Data” that is likely to be generated by these new data collection technologies.

Note: This blog, written by Patrick Meier (PhD), was originally posted on the website of iRevolution.