#humtech - a brief introduction

By Balint Hudecz
Balint Hudecz is the CHS Alliance's Communications Officer.

#Tech, a buzzword which stands for our recent ongoing technological revolution, steadily finds its way to the humanitarian sector. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as technological innovation does have a huge impact on our daily lives and transforms the way we go about, creating the impression that we are more efficient at what we do.

I strongly believe that this is an encouraging trend because if technology is well used, it can really make a difference in how ‘we’ - the sector - are operating. Being more efficient and effective would mean saving more lives and being better at relieving the suffering of crisis-affected people and communities. In this regard, for the CHS Alliance and its members, what is particularly interesting is how tech can be used to work towards the Commitments of the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS). Our plan is to launch a blog series to take stock of innovations, new technologies and best practices that can - or could be - called upon to live up to the Nine Commitments of the CHS. But, before diving in, I would like to give a general overview of the state of #humtech or humanitarian technologies.

The humanitarian sector (re)discovers technology and innovation

In 2013 the World Disaster Report published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) chose technology as its main theme, reflecting on the ‘rapid spread of technologies, especially information and communication technologies, which is changing humanitarian action and humanitarians’. At the time, many humanitarian actors had started using and adopting new technologies in their work with successes and failures, thus it became timely to review these practices and develop a set of guiding principles to maximise the impact and limit protentional risks. In the report, Patrick Vinck introduced the umbrella term ‘humanitarian technology’ for technologies that are specifically aimed at improving the quality of prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery and rebuilding efforts. Naturally, the humanitarian sector, since its existence, has always used new technologies. The difference here is the realisation that humanitarians can proactively shape, develop, modify and use tech for their specific needs and involve the wider public (e.g. crowdsourcing) while doing so. This realisation didn’t happen overnight, but surprisingly it wasn’t a long process either. Nowadays it might even seem that the sector will actually give meaning to technologies that were once celebrated and anticipated, but so far haven’t lived up to the expectation (blockchain, VR, drones, etc.). 

How it all begun

Scholarly literature mentions 1994 as the year in which the humanitarian sector joined the so-called ICT revolution (Information and Communications Technology). This was the year when the Rwandan genocide shook the world, and we realised how an ‘old’ technology, radio communication, could inflame a conflict, as some of the killings were facilitated and coordinated via radio. But 1994 also marks the year when IASC’s Sub-Working Group on Emergency Telecommunications (WGET) was formed in order to facilitate the operational use of telecommunications in the service of humanitarian assistance. WGET is a place to exchange information, develop policies and reach out to the private sector. For example, it was within the framework of the WGET, that the IFRC, as early as 1995, realised the importance of the internet by noting at a meeting that “the internet should not be under-estimated, and that it provides lots of information and user-data”. Jumping in time time, the next step in the gradual acknowledgement of the role of communications technologies in humanitarian response came with the creation of the Inter-Agency Emergency Telecommunications in 2004, which was taken over by the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ECT) in 2006. Ever since, the role of ECT has been to provide inter-agency communications services in humanitarian emergencies.

Besides institutionalising the need to discuss, facilitate and coordinate the use of new technologies in the humanitarian sector, an increasing number of conferences, meetings, studies and policy papers focused on the topic. Here are some examples from the early years (the list is far from being conclusive):

The next level: 'digital humanitarianism'

The humanitarian response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake really showed how much the technological landscape had changed over the years. The literature refers to the tragic event as a “game changer in the chronicles of humanitarian technology” or “a watershed moment for humanitarian information management”. The reason for this is the noticable change in how victims reached out for help and how the sector obtained vital information when baseline data were either destroyed or unavailable. As mobile phones and access to social media were widely available, Haitians tried to get in touch through these channels, creating an unprecedented flow and volume of information that became challenging to process. Help came from the wider public, and thus ‘digital humanitarianism’ was born. Thousands of volunteers across the globe ‘tuned in’ via the internet to process and share information (e.g. crisis-mapping), with the aim of making humanitarian efforts more efficient and effective. Although this unexpected support was highly welcomed, the humanitarian system had no formal protocol to handle these contributions.

The response to the Haiti earthquake generated a lot of interest for humanitarian technologies and many papers were written to analyse the new landscape. While Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies report (2011) mainly focused on the aftermath of Haiti, the previously mentioned World Disaster Report (2013) sought to give a comprehensive picture on the technologies used in humanitarian response by highlighting the successes and challenges. In the same year, unfortunately, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, providing an opportunity to see whether the optimism around these new communications technologies was justified. Within the framework of the Humanitarian Technologies Project academics conducted research in the Philippines for 18 months. They concluded that in the case of Typhoon Haiyan “digital technologies do not necessarily improve humanitarian action nor do they automatically make humanitarian organisations more accountable to beneficiaries.” Meanwhile, another group of researchers, as part of the Critical Humanitarian Technology Projects, flagged that “the question of how technological innovation affects humanitarian action is in need of more critical enquiry”, as despite the optimism, there are threats as well. These include concerns about the internet being used as a tool for propaganda, how to reach the affected if they are off the grid, the fact that technology is owned by the private sector, data protection and the right to privacy – just to name a few.

A new momentum?

In recent year, I believe that the way we relate to technologies has changed. Although there is still optimism around innovation, we have a healthy scepticism towards pax technologica. Nowadays, we see the products of the ITC revolution as they are, not as they appear to be, namely tools that have strengths and weaknesses. This applies to humanitarian technologies as well, which allow us to actually tackle issues in humanitarian aid. A testament to this are the commitments and takeaways of the Humanitarian ICT Forum 2017 – some of them being indeed very practical. My favourite is the pledge to develop a best practices guide for the use of social media in humanitarian emergencies. As social media have been with us for quite a few years now, the initative is more than timely (one recently published by ICRC, IFRC and OCHA). Another important take-away is the need to update humanitarian standards so that they consider the ethical dimensions of  'new' technologies in the humanitarian context. 

In addition to these important reflections, a new wave of exciting innovation is being explored by the sector. For instance, most of us connect blockchain with bitcoin - rightfully so - but it is actually an impressive technology that can be used to deliver humanitarian financial aid in a transparent way. The Start Network is pioneering this new approach in the sector and has recently successfully tested the method. Just to give one more example: the world had huge expectations for VR and 3-D technologies but, so far, they were a let-down, except for the ICRC’s Virtual Reality Unit and for Save the Children, who are experimenting with these technologies for training and awareness-raising.

As the sector’s relation to #tech matures, an increasing number of reports, policy papers, blogs and alike refer to their use. Lately,  the ICRC and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative's (HHI) discussion paper entitled Engaging with people affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence reflects on technology, for example, by saying "While technology will not be a silver bullet, “digitally prepared” humanitarian organizations will be able to deliver better quality and more accountable services to people affected by crises. This includes deploying relevant technological solutions as a means to an end, rather than an end in its own right.” But what are these technologies and how can they be used?

In the following months, hopefully with your help and going through the Nine Commitments of the CHS, we can map out some of the most useful technologies. Please note that this is a purely exploratory initiative, so contributions and comments are highly welcome. You can get in touch at bhudecz@chsalliance.org.

Further readings: