Computing Research Institutes as an Innovation Pathway for Humanitarian Technology

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) is an initiative by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to improve humanitarian action. The Summit, which is to be held in 2016, stands to be one of the most important humanitarian conferences in a decade. One key pillar of WHS is humanitarian innovation. “Transformation through Innovation” is the WHS Working Group dedicated to transforming humanitarian action by focusing explicitly on innovation. I have the pleasure of being a member of this working group where my contribution focuses on the role of new technologies, data science and advanced computing. As such, I’m working on an applied study to explore the role of computing research institutes as an innovation pathway for humanitarian technology. The purpose of this blog post is to invite feedback on the ideas presented below.


I first realized that the humanitarian community faced a “Big Data” challenge in 2010, just months after I had joined Ushahidi as Director of Crisis Mapping, and just months after co-founding CrisisMappers: The Humanitarian Technology Network. The devastating Haiti Earthquake resulted in a massive overflow of information generated via mainstream news, social media, text messages and satellite imagery. I launched and spearheaded the Haiti Crisis Map at the time and together with hundreds of digital volunteers from all around the world went head-to head with Big Data. As noted in my forthcoming book, we realized there and then that crowdsourcing and mapping software alone were no match for Big (Crisis) Data.

Digital Humanitarians: The Book

This explains why I decided to join an advanced computing research institute, namely QCRI. It was clear to me after Haiti that humanitarian organizations had to partner directly with advanced computing experts to manage the new Big Data challenge in disaster response. So I “embedded” myself in an institute with leading experts in Big Data Analytics, Data Science and Social Computing. I believe that computing research institutes (CRI’s) can & must play an important role in fostering innovation in next generation humanitarian technology by partnering with humanitarian organizations on research & development (R&D).

There is already some evidence to support this proposition. We (QCRI) teamed up with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to create the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response platform, AIDR as well as MicroMappers. We are now extending AIDR to analyze text messages (SMS) in partnership with UNICEF. We are also spearheading efforts around the use and analysis of aerial imagery (captured via UAVs) for disaster response (see the Humanitarian UAV Network: UAViators). On the subject of UAVs, I believe that this new technology presents us (in the WHS Innovation team) with an ideal opportunity to analyze in “real time” how a new, disruptive technology gets adopted within the humanitarian system. In addition to UAVs, we catalyzed a partnership with Planet Labs and teamed up with Zooniverse to take satellite imagery analysis to the next level with large scale crowd computing. To this end, we are working with humanitarian organizations to enable them to make sense of Big Data generated via social media, SMS, aerial imagery & satellite imagery.

The incentives for humanitarian organizations to collaborate with CRI’s are obvious, especially if the latter (like QCRI) commits to making the resulting prototypes freely accessible and open source. But why should CRI’s collaborate with humanitarian organizations in the first place? Because the latter come with real-world challenges and unique research questions that many computer scientists are very interested in for several reasons. First, carrying out scientific research on real-world problems is of interest to the vast majority of computer scientists I collaborate with, both within QCRI and beyond. These scientists want to apply their skills to make the world a better place. Second, the research questions that humanitarian organizations bring enable computer scientists to differentiate themselves in the publishing world. Third, the resulting research can help advanced the field of computer science and advanced computing.

So why are we see not seeing more collaboration between CRI’s & humanitarian organizations? Because of this cognitive surplus mismatch. It takes a Director of Social Innovation (or related full-time position) to serve as a translational leader between CRI’s and humanitarian organizations. It takes someone (ideally a team) to match the problem owners and problem solvers; to facilitate and manage the collaboration between these two very different types of expertise and organizations. In sum, CRI’s can serve as an innovation pathway if the following three ingredients are in place: 1) Translation Leader; 2) Committed CRI; and 3) Committed Humanitarian Organization. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success.

While research institutes have a comparative advantage in R&D, they are not the best place to scale humanitarian technology prototypes. In order to take these prototypes to the next level, make them sustainable and have them develop into enterprise level software, they need to be taken up by for-profit companies. The majority of CRI’s (QCRI included) actually do have a mandate to incubate start-up companies. As such, we plan to spin-off some of the above platforms as independent companies in order to scale the technologies in a robust manner. Note that the software will remain free to use for humanitarian applications; other uses of the platform will require a paid license. Therein lies the end-to-end innovation path that computing research institutes can offer humanitarian organization vis-a-vis next generation humanitarian technologies.

As noted above, part of my involvement with the WHS Innovation Team entails working on an applied study to document and replicate this innovation pathway. As such, I am looking for feedback on the above as well as on the research methodology described below.

I plan to interview Microsoft Research, IBM Research, Yahoo Research, QCRI and other institutes as part of this research. More specifically, the interview questions will include:

  • Have you already partnered with humanitarian organizations? Why/why not?
  • If you have partnered with humanitarian organizations, what was the outcome? What were the biggest challenges? Was the partnership successful? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • If you have not yet partnered with humanitarian organizations, why not? What factors would be conducive to such partnerships and what factors serve as hurdles?
  • What are your biggest concerns vis-a-vis working with humanitarian groups?
  • What funding models did you explore if any?

I also plan to interview humanitarian organizations to better understand the prospects for this potential innovation pathway. More specifically, I plan to interview ICRC, UNHCR, UNICEF and OCHA using the following questions:

  • Have you already partnered with computing research groups? Why/why not?
  • If you have partnered with computing research groups, what was the outcome? What were the biggest challenges? Was the partnership successful? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • If you have not yet partnered with computing research groups, why not? What factors would be conducive to such partnerships and what factors serve as hurdles?
  • What are your biggest concerns vis-a-vis working with computing research groups?
  • What funding models did you explore if any?

My plan is to carry out the above semi-structured interviews in February-March 2015 along with secondary research. My ultimate aim with this deliverable is to develop a model to facilitate greater collaboration between computing research institutes and humanitarian organizations. To this end, I welcome feedback on all of the above (feel free to email me and/or add comments below). Thank you.


See also:

  • Research Framework for Next Generation Humanitarian Technology and Innovation [link]
  • From Gunfire at Sea to Maps of War: Implications for Humanitarian Innovation [link]

5 responses to “Computing Research Institutes as an Innovation Pathway for Humanitarian Technology

  1. Patrick
    This is a really exciting initiative. Here in Australia at the University of Melbourne we have established a new research centre, the Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety. For more information go to . The CDMPS is focused on training, education and research including developing a Master of Science (Disaster Management) where Master Degree level applied research is a key priority. It is hoped that this type of research will support practitioners including humanitarian organisations. If you have a look at the home page you will see there are 6 key research priorities including, Understanding Natural Disasters, Enhanced Decision Making, Technology, Strengthening Community Resilience, Mission Critical Communications and Policy. We have developed a number of decision support tools and are just finalising the UAV research strategy. Please let me know if you need any more information.
    Regards Ged Griffin

    • Many thanks for sharing, Ged. Was recently in Melbourne for the Triple UAV Summit and would certainly be interested in learning more about your work. Will take a closer look at the webset you kindly shared. Thanks again!

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