The Humanitarian “Data” Ecosystem: Intersection of Innovation & Disaster Relief

The Humanitarian “Data” Ecosystem: Intersection of Innovation & Disaster Relief

New digital platforms and innovations streamline the coordination services and situational awareness of humanitarian workers in times of crisis, so they may provide the best possible aid to disaster stricken people.

As we transition into the autumn months of 2016, tropical storms batter Taiwan and southern China with ferocious intensity. Typhoon Malakas is forecast to pass by the northern end of the island by Saturday, tearing past the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, with speeds exceeding 125 miles per hour (200 km/h). Malakas has been designated a category four hurricane and comes just two days after typhoon Meranti, which made landfall on the southern coast of Taiwan and left hundreds of thousands of homes without power.

2016 has seen its fair share of crises and challenges ranging from floods in Pakistan and Malaysia, earthquakes in Ecuador and Northeastern India, the Zika outbreak in South America and the Pacific, a migration crisis in Europe, and ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. There has been no shortage of work to be done by humanitarian workers around the globe. The United Nations has a robust humanitarian arm but its reach is limited and sometimes constrained by political factors. In a sense, it can be said there is a shortage of help at a time when international crises are multiplying.

However, the rise in the demand for humanitarian aid has also grown. A once nascent humanitarian innovation industry has progressed remarkably from previous years. There is no shortage of grassroots technologists, private actors and citizen volunteers seeking to lend their services and expertise to the needs of disaster affected regions and communities. Similarly, humanitarian organizations now seek better ways to collect, store, and use digital data to improve their collective responses to large scale crises. This has led to the growth of new digital platforms and innovations that try to streamline the coordination services and situational awareness of humanitarian workers so they may provide the best possible aid to disaster stricken people.

For example, humanitarian responses to the earthquake in Nepal last year benefited from crowdsourcing and information tools like HumanitarianOpenStreetMap, or HOT, which provides free, up to date Google-like maps with uploaded user-content from social media to generate a real-time situational awareness for crisis responders. Such tools are supported by other innovations such as AIDR, or the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Resilience developed by the Qatar Computing Research Institute. It uses human-machine learning to automatically identify informative content on Twitter during disasters, which can in turn be categorized and uploaded as a parcel of useful information attached to an event or item on HOT.

This however, is a complex environment, and one that is being introduced to new concepts and modes of thinking about organized humanitarian relief. As civil society begins to take on some of the challenges traditionally held by humanitarian stakeholders, at what point is it necessary to reframe the rules and roles regarding comprehensive disaster management? For example, where it once served to have individual organizations set the norms and practices for governing human and financial resources, the digitization of the humanitarian field highlights new emergent interdependencies between civil society and humanitarian institutions.

The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP) frequently publishes reports on the changing environment of humanitarian relief, especially the impacts of information communication technologies both organizationally and practically. Their latest report is aimed at humanitarian organisations interested in using innovative practices to improve their performance, as well as organisations outside the humanitarian sector, such as academic institutions or private companies, seeking to engage in innovation for humanitarian action. The core problem for innovators in the humanitarian field is how to innovate successfully in a humanitarian context and come up with standard analytical frameworks.

The existing humanitarian - 'digital data' - ecosystem is essentially a collection of ungoverned pilot programs (1), and a new lens is needed to understand how we can meet the increasing demand for humanitarian aid in disaster onsets with relevant and ethical humanitarian innovation. As decision making in humanitarian relief becomes more informed by tools like HOT and AIDR, the blending of the innovation industry and traditional humanitarian institutions will become more standard so as to best capitalize on the emergence of new means and best practices for precision relief.

(1) Berens, J., Raymond, N., Shimshon, G., Verhulst, S., Bernholtz, L. (2016). The Humanitarian Data Ecosystem: the Case for Collective Responsibility. Centre for innovation. Insight Paper. Data for Policy 2016 Conference, University of Cambridge, UK.