Reflections on Digital Humanitarians – The Book

In January 2014, I wrote this blog post announcing my intention to write a book on Digital Humanitarians. Well, it’s done! And launches this week. The book has already been endorsed by scholars at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, etc; by practitioners at the United Nations, World Bank, Red Cross, USAID, DfID, etc; and by others including Twitter and National Geographic. These and many more endorsements are available here. Brief summaries of each book chapter are available here; and the short video below provides an excellent overview of the topics covered in the book. Together, these overviews make it clear that this book is directly relevant to many other fields including journalism, human rights, development, activism, business management, computing, ethics, social science, data science, etc. In short, the lessons that digital humanitarians have learned (often the hard way) over the years and the important insights they have gained are directly applicable to fields well beyond the humanitarian space. To this end, Digital Humanitarians is written in a “narrative and conversational style” rather than with dense, technical language.

The story of digital humanitarians is a multifaceted one. Theirs is not just a story about using new technologies to make sense of “Big Data”. For the most part, digital humanitarians are volunteers; volunteers from all walks of life and who occupy every time zone. Many are very tech-savvy and pull all-nighters, but most simply want to make a difference using the few minutes they have with the digital technologies already at their fingertips. Digital humanitarians also include pro-democracy activists who live in countries ruled by tyrants. This story is thus also about hope and humanity; about how technology can extend our humanity during crises. To be sure, if no one cared, if no one felt compelled to help others in need, or to change the status quo, then no one even would bother to use these new, next generation humanitarian technologies in the first place.

I believe this explains why Professor Leysia Palen included the following in her very kind review of my book: “I dare you to read this book and not have both your heart and mind opened.” As I reflected to my editor while in the midst of book writing, an alternative tag line for the title could very well be “How Big Data and Big Hearts are Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response.” It is personally and deeply important to me that the media, would-be volunteers  and others also understand that the digital humanitarians story is not a romanticized story about a few “lone heroes” who accomplish the impossible thanks to their super human technical powers. There are thousands upon thousands of largely anonymous digital volunteers from all around the world who make this story possible. And while we may not know all their names, we certainly do know about their tireless collective action efforts—they mobilize online from all corners of our Blue Planet to support humanitarian efforts. My book explains how these digital volunteers do this, and yes, how you can too.

Digital humanitarians also include a small (but growing) number of forward-thinking professionals from large and well-known humanitarian organizations. After the tragic, nightmarish earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, these seasoned and open-minded humanitarians quickly realized that making sense of “Big Data” during future disasters would require new thinking, new risk-taking, new partnerships, and next generation humanitarian technologies. This story thus includes the invaluable contributions of those change-agents and explains how these few individuals are enabling innovation within the large bureaucracies they work in. The story would thus be incomplete without these individuals; without their appetite for risk-taking, their strategic understanding of how to change (and at times circumvent) established systems from the inside to make their organizations still relevant in a hyper-connected world. This may explain why Tarun Sarwal of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva included these words (of warning) in his kind review: “For anyone in the Humanitarian sector — ignore this book at your peril.”

bookcover

Today, this growing, cross-disciplinary community of digital humanitarians are crafting and leveraging ingenious crowdsourcing solutions with trail-blazing insights from advanced computing and artificial intelligence in order to make sense of “Big Data” generated during disasters. In virtually real-time, these new solutions (many still in early prototype stages) enable digital volunteers to make sense of vast volumes of social media, SMS and imagery captured from satellites & UAVs to support relief efforts worldwide.

All of this obviously comes with a great many challenges. I certainly don’t shy away from these in the book (despite my being an eternal optimist : ). As Ethan Zuckerman from MIT very kindly wrote in his review of the book,

“[Patrick] is also a careful scholar who thinks deeply about the limits and potential dangers of data-centric approaches. His book offers both inspiration for those around the world who want to improve our disaster response and a set of fertile challenges to ensure we use data wisely and ethically.”

Digital humanitarians are not perfect, they’re human, they make mistakes, they fail; innovation, after all, takes experimenting, risk-taking and failing. But most importantly, these digital pioneers learn, innovate and over time make fewer mistakes. In sum, this book charts the sudden and spectacular rise of these digital humanitarians and their next generation technologies by sharing their remarkable, real-life stories and the many lessons they have learned and hurdles both cleared & still standing. In essence, this book highlights how their humanity coupled with innovative solutions to “Big Data” is changing humanitarian response forever. Digital Humanitarians will make you think differently about what it means to be humanitarian and will invite you to join the journey online. And that is what it’s ultimately all about—action, responsible & effective action.

Why did I write this book? The main reason may perhaps come as a surprise—one word: hope. In a world seemingly overrun by heart-wrenching headlines and daily reminders from the news and social media about all the ugly and cruel ways that technologies are being used to spy on entire populations, to harass, oppress, target and kill each other, I felt the pressing need to share a different narrative; a narrative about how selfless volunteers from all walks of life, from all ages, nationalities, creeds use digital technologies to help complete strangers on the other side of the planet. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing this digital good-will first hand and repeatedly over the years. This goodwill is what continues to restore my faith in humanity and what gives me hope, even when things are tough and not going well. And so, I wrote Digital Humanitarians first and fore-most to share this hope more widely. We each have agency and we can change the world for the better. I’ve seen this and witnessed the impact first hand. So if readers come away with a renewed sense of hope and agency after reading the book, I will have achieved my main objective.

For updates on events, talks, trainings, webinars, etc, please click here. I’ll be organizing a Google Hangout on March 5th for readers who wish to discuss the book in more depth and/or follow up with any questions or ideas. If you’d like additional information on this and future Hangouts, please click on the previous link. If you wish to join ongoing conversations online, feel free to do so with the FB & Twitter hashtag #DigitalJedis. If you’d like to set up a book talk and/or co-organize a training at your organization, university, school, etc., then do get in touch. If you wish to give a talk on the book yourself, then let me know and I’d be happy to share my slides. And if you come across interesting examples of digital humanitarians in action, then please consider sharing these with other readers and myself by using the #DigitalJedis hashtag and/or by sending me an email so I can include your observation in my monthly newsletter and future blog posts. I also welcome guest blog posts on iRevolutions.

Naturally, this book would never have existed were it for digital humanitarians volunteering their time—day and night—during major disasters across the world. This book would also not have seen the light of day without the thoughtful guidance and support I received from these mentors, colleagues, friends and my family. I am thus deeply and profoundly grateful for their spirit, inspiration and friendship. Onwards!

2 responses to “Reflections on Digital Humanitarians – The Book

  1. Pingback: Big data meets humanitarian response | The Enlightened Economist

  2. Pingback: Big data meets humanitarian response | Homines Economici

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