The future of technology in crisis response

Adam Tidjani recharges mobile phones for a small fee in Doyaba camp for displaced people, southern Chad. Credit: UNOCHA/Philippe Kropf

From delivering aid with drones to replacing food parcels with digital payments, the humanitarian sector has experienced more disruption due to technology in the past decade than we have in the past 50 years. Last week UN agencies, NGOs, start-ups, tech and financial services giants gathered in Mountain View, California at the annual Humanitarian ICT Forum, hosted by Google, to discuss how to empower people in crisis through digital connectivity. Participants held important discussions on how to: expand digital payments to people living in crises; bring humanitarian data collection, sharing and analysis to the next level; and ensure two-way communication with crisis-affected people is the operational norm. As Gwi-Yeop Son, Director of Corporate Programmes at OCHA, one of the forum’s conveners, put it: only by connecting people in crisis can vulnerable people access the information and tools they need to make the best decisions to protect themelves and their families. Here are 8 takeaways from the forum:

Leverage local technologies and solutions

Daudi Were, CEO of Ushaihidi

Crisis-affected people are best served by digital connections when they are closely involved in developing them, along with other national actors, including governments. Many participants had stories of well-intentioned projects failing because they were flown in from the outside. Daudi Were, the Executive Director of Ushaihidi, a Nairobi-based tech company that pioneered crowdsourcing of technology tools, said: “US$5–6 billion of the 2016 global humanitarian appeal last year was marked for the Horn of Africa — our backyard. How can we help in those crises that are personal to us in a long-term meaningful way?” So what does this sustainable look like? It means helping drought-affected farmers to open bank accounts instead of giving them one-off vouchers. And reciprocating data back to individuals rather than just extracting it: for instance, when the American Red Cross mapped trash heaps in Harare, Zimbabwe, it did so alongside community members, giving them the tools to update the maps. In this case, communities used the data to pressure local authorities to clear the trash.

Apply the right technology for the context

Testing a WeRobotics drone. Credit: WeReobotics

WeRobotics, which works with communities to use robotics for social good, sets up innovation hubs, called Flying Labs, around the world. The Peru Flying Lab wanted to solve this problem: when residents of the remote Pampa Hermoza village in the Amazon rainforest are bitten by a snake they need access to anti-venom within hours but the nearest hospital in Contamana is a six-hour boat ride away. WeRobotics bought a $40,000 drone to deliver the venom but after nine months of research and testing, the drone didn’t work, so they resorted to a tiny beaten-up cheap drone instead. It took 35 minutes to successfully deliver the anti-venom. Lesson learned, said the start-up’s co-founder Patrick Meier: “Technology doesn’t have to be sexy, shiny or expensive. It has to work.”

Business models can work — even in an emergency

In protracted emergencies responders and their partners need to consider developing business models to sustain revenue if they want to have lasting impact. In camps in Chad, refugees and returnees were spending 40 per cent of their money on telecoms. By providing connectivity more efficiently at a lower price, refugees and providers would benefit. As one young refugee in Chad put it: “If I could connect, I wouldn’t have to sell half of my food rations to keep in touch with my family.” In surveys in northern Uganda, refugees said they willing to spend $2.50 per month to connect to power and the Internet. That may not sound like a lot but with one million refugees across the country, that could become a sustainable revenue stream for satellite providers and mobile network operators. In Chad, UNHCR, Google and O3b Networks have partnered to connect remote refugee camps through satellite connections for wifi; solar chargers to extend power supply more cheaply; and training in how to use the Internet. Ushaihidi’s CEO Were, summed up: “It’s possible to build tech for social good and pay the bills, and we hope you feel that way too.”

Paul Musser, VP of International Development at MasterCard

Language will help drive the participation revolution

Using local languages is key both to understand people’s situations and to build trust and respect, but translation can be challenging in crisis settings. Increasingly, technology can help. We are undergoing a language revolution — Google’s neural translation machines are being trained so quickly that languages such as Farsi will come online faster than we’d ever dreamed of, and both Google and Microsoft are working to eliminate language barriers on their platforms. Now we need to develop a common platform to share data, glossaries and terminologies, says Rebecca Petras, Deputy Director of Translators without borders.

Preparation pays off (literally)

Setting up agreements with preferred suppliers, mapping capacities and gaps in mobile money infrastructure, managing risk and identifying the right revenue models, all take time and have to be done in advance. MasterCard would like to seal agreements on mobile money solutions 36 months before any crisis takes place. Mobile network operators and tech firms need to team with humanitarians to map mobile and connectivity coverage gaps in high risk areas long before crisis develop, so we can develop a business case to build the infrastructure to address them.

The Digital ID is on its way

When people flee their homes, they often lose access to critical identification documents, or they may never have had official identification to begin with — almost one in four children is never registered at birth, according to UNICEF. Agencies like WFP, UNICEF and UNHCR are increasingly sharing baseline data on digital identification — now we need to take this kind of collaboration to the next level, to make shared digital ID platforms a norm. Getting there will require working through some complex challenges first, stresses Dakota Gruener, Director of ID 2020. These challenges include how to make digital IDs portable across borders as people are displaced; navigating national legislation over data; data privacy issues; ensuring individuals have agency over their information; and figuring out how to coordinate data-sharing across the public and private sectors and for displaced and host country populations. UN agencies will have an important role to play in setting standards and ethics.

Dakota Gruener, head of ID 2020.

Evolutionary over Revolutionary change

Many of us still believe in lightbulb moments — flashes of inspired revolutionary change — but for the most part, change is incremental and evolutionary. Paul Musser, who leads on humanitarian solutions with MasterCard shared this statistic: over the past 15 years, the percentage of US retail sales that take place in e-commerce has reached just 8 per cent of the total. Slow progress indeed. Change is usually incremental, and we need to invest in it for the long haul, is his point. Ushaihidi was able to gradually expand its portfolio of new digital solutions — RollCall, Crowdmap, SwiftRiver and others — because its principal investor, Cisco, respected the importance of funding evolutionary innovation to solve new problems.

People need good reasons to share data

FHumanitarian data sharing is getting better every day, and Humanitarian Data Exchange, or HDX, has played a fundamental role in this progress by setting up a common platform for practitioners, analysts, journalists and others to use. But as a community we still have a long way to go. Data-sharing across the private and public sectors requires support at the CEO level and a shift in public sector culture to demonstrate the data’s impact, stresses Dale Kunce at the American Red Cross. We need to identify the right incentives for sharing data and often they are not what you think they are. Take the Ebola fight in Liberia. To track the disease’s path, the Liberian Ministry of Health worked with USAID to create a WhatsApp two-way messaging exchange with 800 health workers and community mobilizers who were undertaking contact tracing of Ebola cases. Mobilizers used the app, not because they wanted to track cases countrywide, but because of the peer support they received from the group as they carried out their dangerous and often stigmatizing work.