Technological innovations to tackle humanitarian crisis

by WIEF Foundation

Responses to humanitarian crises have to date been reactionary which leads to huge financial wastage and inefficiencies. Can technological innovation be utilised to improve the management of humanitarian crises? What are the technologies available?

Responses to humanitarian crises are drawn-out and complicated affairs. It can take between seven to 15 days for a given agency to get relief efforts up and running, while the real impact of a disaster is felt within the first 100 to 150 hours. Often, relief teams arriving on location find that they do not have the most updated and accurate information on what is needed.

Registration at refugee centres can take a long time to process when done on paper. This, in turn, results in children being separated from their parents for weeks or months,

Advancing humanitarian needs through technology
The World Food Programme estimates that by the end of 2014 as much as 60 per cent of its assistance would be provided in the form of digital aid consisting of electronic money using a virtual cash or voucher system. The era of shipping food across the world in large quantities is over; instead, funds can be provided to those who needed it and organisations can then tap into local economies. This is one example of how advancing technology is changing humanitarian efforts. Other examples include:

Communications technology
Mobile phones and the internet have helped enable communities to update humanitarian organisations of what they actually need. An example was the use of Ushahidi, a global open-source communications platform. In Uganda, 270,000 young people used Ushahidi to keep in touch with humanitarian organisations so that when an emergency occurred they were able to report it in seconds and give latest updates on what they needed. Other communications projects such as FrontlineSMS and CrowdFlower have also been successful.

Mobile phone towers
Mobile phone towers allow authorities to monitor general data flows on tens of thousands of calls. Sudden unexpected surges in mobile phone usage can indicate a crisis, and the towers can be used to transmit data to indicate the movement of people, providing humanitarian organisations time to prepare (for example by establishing better-built and better-equipped refugee centres in advance).

Geographic information systems (GIS)
Geographic information systems (GIS) that help to analyse, manage and present geographical data are instrumental in effective disaster planning. GIS is especially important in places that experience natural disasters like Bandar Aceh, Indonesia, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, particularly in creating early warning systems. Satellites and drones have also proven useful by allowing scouting and real-time reporting.

Registration at refugee centres can take a long time to process when done on paper. This, in turn, results in children being separated from their parents for weeks or months, increasing their exposure to dangers such as abuse or trafficking. In a recent effort in Uganda, however, the use of electronic systems meant that within six days, 99 per cent of children were reunited with their families—a process that previously took two months to conclude.

Internal communications
Currently, much time is spent on teleconferencing with different groups in coordination efforts. However, if a dedicated system is set up to allow data and reports to be uploaded centrally, groups will have easy access to real-time updates and monitoring, which in turn will improve efficiency.

Social media
Social media is an incredible tool that can empower entire communities. The trick is to develop systems that can aggregate the information and deliver it to the right people.

Challenges ahead

Resistance to change
Many of these technologies already exist. Unfortunately, aid workers are reluctant to break from long-established patterns to do things differently, including adopting new technology.

Sustainable funding
Grants are finite in amount and time. When they run out, aid organisations need to look for funds again, which is an unsustainable practice. There is a need for innovative funding, such as venture funds set up specifically to fund innovation and development in the humanitarian space.

Information overload
Increasing sources of data can lead to information overload. There is a need to focus on the data that humanitarian organisations can use—as opposed to what information donors want.

The ‘CNN effect’
The media’s focus on particular areas can sometimes mean that aid doesn’t reach less-reported but harder-hit areas. It is important for aid workers to keep in touch with on-the-ground realities.

Proprietary data
Shared statistics will enable relief workers to make better and more informed decisions. However, many parties are reluctant to make information publicly available.

Accountability and transparency
Current accountability processes can be time-consuming and can detract from relief operations. A balance must be found.

End Game
Audits do not identify whether services have reached intended recipients and whether the recipients were happy with the service.


This report is based on a session from the 10th WIEF in Dubai.

Photo Credit:
Gilles Lambert

13 Oct 2017
Last modified: 17 Oct 2017
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