On The Humanitarian-Technology Divide and What To Do About It

It was Larry Brilliant’s TED talk over four years ago that first got me hooked. He spoke about the technology used by the Global Public Health Information Network (GPHIN) which had detected the outbreak of SARS months before the WHO by crawling the web (including blogs) for key words (symptoms) in multiple languages. “I envision a kid (in Africa) getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street. I envision someone in Cambodia finding out that there is leprosy across the street,” Brilliant said.

I  was teaching a full semester course on Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems that Spring and watching the TED talk made me realize how far behind we were as a community. And by community I mean those of us working on conflict prevention and rapid response to complex emergencies. I’ve been trying to close this gap ever since by actively cross-pollinating innovative thinking and best practices as well as reality-checks. I’ve done this through consulting projects in the field like the Sudan and Timor Leste, applied research with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), the publication of policy reports, extensive blogging, joining Ushahidi, presenting at numerous conferences, co-founding and curating a new conference series on Crisis Mapping, co-launching the Crisis Mappers Network, etc.

I think both communities have come a long way but we need more bridge builders, as Ethan Zuckerman recently emphasized in his 2010 TED Talk in Oxford when he referred to my colleague Erik Hersman. We need builders who are comfortable in both communities, who are bilingual in both humanitarian and tech languages. I can only think of a handful of these individuals. This means the majority of technologists who respond to crises have little to no experience in disaster response or how to communicate with humanitarians let alone the disaster affected communities. At the same time, this also means that many seasoned disaster response experts and policy types ignore technology innovation altogether, largely because they don’t understand it. This is also an issues in the human rights community.

The 2009 Crisis Mapping conference brought these two communities together and the added value to both was immense:

I’m planning to repeat this with the 2010 Crisis Mapping conference, which is also why we’ve decided to host it in Boston—the city with the most universities in the world. We need more students, both undergraduates and graduates, to realize there are career opportunities in this field and help them select appropriate courses and internships so they can become future bridge builders.  Recall that the Ushahidi deployments in Haiti and Chile were both student-run. We also need to find ways to send techies to the field, like Ethan’s Geek Corps idea. Better yet, humanitarian organizations should actively seek such interns.

Those are my two cents but I’d love to get more ideas from readers on what to do about this divide.

Patrick Philippe Meier

10 responses to “On The Humanitarian-Technology Divide and What To Do About It

  1. Just like porn and VHS, the killer app will always drive technology adoption.

    As part of an emergency unit in Addis Ababa in the early 1990s we started getting interested in this new e-mail thingy only as it could deliver 10-day NDVI satellite data of vegetation cover (and by extension, information on rainfall and food security).

    Before then there were mainframe online humanitarian systems in Geneva we were told to participate in but they had no apparent value.

    The need for the sat data made us an energetic supporter of a local store-and-forward email FIDOnet node which in turn stimulated others to try e-mail. (While I am in old fart mode, greetings, PADIS users!).

    Again, we launched IRIN in Nairobi before e-mail was even widespread in the region. The best – possibly only – live internet connection was the UN’s leased line to Norway.

    So we got our heads around Yggdrasil Linux in 1995 so that we could set up a UUCP/FIDOnet/mail/fax gateway (hairy) on IRIN’s box in Nairobi to interface with the UN’s Sun-based systems. We picked the platform for the need, not for its sexiness.

    Gradually, the popularity of online humanitarian and human rights content drove e-mail adoption in the international and domestic communities working on the Great Lakes crises. The product drove technology adoption.

    So I don’t think there’s a divide at the working level – people will use what works for them.

    Allow me now to stereotype:

    There is without doubt inertia, skepticism and conservatism on the aid side. On the tech side enthusiasm and good intentions don’t always override impressions of naivete, inexperience and arrogance.


  2. Pingback: On The Humanitarian-Technology Divide and What To Do About It … | Links

  3. Pingback: On The Humanitarian-Technology Divide and What To Do About It … | Links

  4. Hi Patrick, indeed topic that is relevant today more than ever…
    I came across this quote from Craig Fugate, head of FEMA: “’Am I basing my response and organization around the capabilities of the technology I’m using? Or do I have a well established process and I use technology to augment that?’ If I’m using it to augment my team, then I am pretty flexible and can adjust as new technologies come on board. But whenever I have to conform my process and organization to what the technology allows, that makes it very difficult.”
    I think we saw it with Ushahidi Haiti. It proved to be very effective especially for small flexible teams on the ground – you get report, you take action; you are deciding where to deploy your team and you have no other source of data, you look at Ushahidi map, see where the needs are and you go. Unlike the traditional humanitarian actors. They have well established processes and needs assessments and data stream from Ushahidi is just another source of info that they still don’t know how to handle and how to make it compatible with their systems. But this is more a question of time and intense discussion, cooperation and training than question of whether it is possible or not. So I believe the way to go is to introduce all these tools and try to find a way how they can be most effectively integrated into the hum agencies’ structure and workflows that already exist. It will work, cos it already worked in Haiti – this time primarily with US military which is probably way more flexible in integrating new intelligence data streams then other humanitarian actors. But those are two different things – using the data stream provided by external actor or using the tools to create the data streams you want. Anyway, there’s a lot of work to be done…

    • Thanks Jaro, Craig’s comment is virtually the same one I keep on making with respect to digital activism. Focus first on the tactics and strategies of direct non-violent action and then identify the technologies that can help you further those tactics/strategies.

  5. Patricia Camilien

    How about taking a page of Apple’s play book and make the Humanitarian equivalent of the iPad? We could focus less on how the technology works and more on what it does, which in turn would make it easier for activists to, as you say, identify the best technology for their chosen strategy. By knowing, just what they need to know about a technology, they cut on the time they’d spent at mastering it to focus on what can be done.

    Ushahidi, Code for America, MySociety.org (in the UK) are doing a great job of keeping technology simple stupid. Here’s to hoping more and more people follow their steps.

  6. I agree with Patricia in many ways. At the HHI-LAC Disaster Recovery Center in Haiti, we were using iPhones and a wifi network to pull up, review, and add to our 500 patients’ electronic medical records. Though we had quite high staff turnover (as volunteer doctors and nurses would finish off their 2 or 3 week volunteer stint), the usage of the technology was simple. So, the next group could pick it up and run with it. They didn’t need to know about database design and/or management, Java programming, or anything else that went into the technology, just how to open the iPhone app, find their patient, and review/update the information. It was a very simple interface for the doctors and nurses to use, but made a huge difference to our ability to provide well-managed care for our patients.

    But I’d like to raise an aspect that comes back to one of the themes of your post: building bridges, or, as I think you put it better, being “bilingual”. I would definitely say I’m more on the humanitarian side of the humanitarian-technology divide. However, the work that I’ve been doing over the past few months has required me to learn A LOT about just a couple of technologies. It’s been a steep learning curve. And unlike most people working for humanitarian organizations, I’ve had the time to dedicate to it, as it’s been one of the focuses of my work.

    You’re involved in many different projects that apply novel technologies (or, at least, are novel applications of technologies) to the humanitarian sphere. Though it’s probably more of a full blog post than a comment response, I wanted to ask what technological skills you think humanitarians should learn as a first step towards becoming “bilingual”. Also, are there any specific courses or training modules you would recommend to gain these or other useful technological skills?

    Thanks for your blog, and keep up the great work.

  7. Pingback: A Research Framework for Next Generation Humanitarian Technology and Innovation | iRevolution

  8. Pingback: A Research Framework for Next Generation Humanitarian Technology and Innovation | iRevolution

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