Resilience, Peace and Security

6 ways tech can transform humanitarian response

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Remember Tom Cruise swiping images across a computer screen using his hands in Minority Report? Or the self-driving taxi that ferried Arnold Schwarzenegger around inTotal Recall? If box office sales are any indication, people love futuristic movies with all the mind-bending gadgets and gizmos that show how our lives will be transformed in the distant future. What’s amazing nowadays is how much real life is starting to mimic these sci-fi stories. We truly live in a Jetson’s world where we can call up nearly everything on our phones, our genes can be analyzed to reveal illnesses, and our cars can be powered by sunlight.

Imagining the world through a futuristic lens is not just fun, it’s important: it helps reveal possibilities that don’t seem obvious today. Take humanitarian crises. With a fast-changing climate and growing instability and conflict, there are more of them than ever before and they’re more severe and protracted. The news on this front is almost universally bad: people dying, refugees fleeing, and never enough funds to address their needs.


Source: Statista/ The Independent

Today’s humanitarian response is largely about the logistics of providing food, medicine, and shelter. What might it be like in the future? Let’s step back for a moment and imagine how a future rich with technology – from wearables, off-grid power, artificial intelligence, drones, robots, and more – might change the way the world responds to crises.

A map of who’s doing what

Talk to humanitarians and you’ll hear a constant refrain that coordination is the hardest part of responding to a crisis. So many well-intentioned aid workers arrive all at once representing different agencies and so many items show up on tarmacs (some needed; some getting in the way) that creating harmony amidst the chaos can seem impossible.

But what if every first aid kit were electronically tagged, what if every aid worker could be automatically identified by their cell phone, and what if drones and satellites could capture imagery of what’s happening – all in real time? Imagine a way for all that data to be stitched together automatically so that humanitarian agencies and governments could instantly see what’s happening and who is doing what. The result could be a more coordinated response and a just-in-time approach to logistics such that only goods that are needed get sent and only to the right locations. Connecting all this data together could happen in the not-so-distant future. In fact, the World Economic Forum council which I chair – the Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Response – is partnering with the Global Agenda Council on Space to develop an API that will allow humanitarian agencies and governments to access satellite imagery and overlay all kinds of datasets on it.

Making everyone an aid worker

When a crisis strikes, people try to help themselves and their families. And those not affected want to help too. Imagine if those in need could tell the world how to help. They might do this by sending a message that gets matched – based on their location and needs – to a humanitarian agency. Or perhaps someone a world away could help by sending mobile money or providing medical advice. This kind of peer-to-peer connection is happening today on lots of commercial platforms and in the micro lending space Kiva connects millions of people with money with those who need a loan. There are many more complexities during a crisis, but it’s possible to imagine that aid work could be done by average citizens not just aid workers.

Saving lives from a distance

Wearables are already taking healthcare by storm. While they are financially beyond the reach of most people today, there may come a time when everyone entering a refugee camp could be issued one and their vital signs tracked continuously. Victims during a weather event could be tracked and triaged a world away. And when aid workers do arrive on the scene to administer healthcare, compact diagnostic tools and medicines that don’t require a cold-chain could make providing modern healthcare possible even under the most difficult circumstances. Today, dozens of startups are trying to take advantage of the possibilities that wearables could offer to humanitarian work. One, Khushi Baby, is in the early stages of launching a culturally-relevant necklace for Northern India that can be given to babies and that, using near-field communications, allows community health workers to track the child’s immunization and health records.

Tapping human potential

Displaced people – today numbering over 60 million – may be forced from their communities and places of work but that doesn’t mean they don’t have employable skills. If it were possible to identify those skills and match them with work, displaced professionals could be employed quickly to do virtual work in refugee camps or anywhere they can get connected. Their labor could help support themselves and the humanitarian effort. And young people and those lacking employable skills could be connected to virtual education and basic online work from data entry to picture tagging. What’s amazing is that this kind of work is already happening, for example by the social enterprise Samasource.

Bringing robots to the rescue

Aid work can be dangerous. But employing robots holds the promise of delivering aid and assessing needs where people can’t go. Robots – including drones – are already being used in a limited way for humanitarian response to great effect. Their ability to extend the reach of humanitarians could mean that future humanitarian responses require fewer aid workers and can be faster and cheaper. And artificial intelligence may become an important part of this revolution, as imagery captured by satellites, drones, and cellphone cameras can be read by machines to conduct real-time needs assessments. This kind of technology exists today: Premise, a Silicon Valley-based company, uses machine learning to make sense of millions of cellphone photos captured daily by their global network of contributors.

Connecting in a crisis 

There’s already lots of technology being used in humanitarian response but basic problems persist after a crisis, from getting access to electricity to connecting to phone and data networks. Rapidly moving technologies in this area suggests that soon aid workers will be able to power-up even where grids are destroyed and quickly connect to the internet. One example: Disaster Mesh, a start-up created by three teenage girls, has designed a tiny network device shaped like a maple-seed that can be gently dropped from the air by the thousands over a disaster zone to create a mesh data network where mobile carriers have gone down.

At a time when the humanitarian system is stretched thin and human tragedy surrounds us, these futuristic ideas might seem fanciful. But if there’s one lesson we can take away from science fiction, it’s that the future can come sooner than we think. It’s up to us to make it so.

Author: Raj Kumar, President and Editor in Chief, Devex. Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Response.

Image: A migrant uses his mobile phone carrying his child as he walks through fields with others next to a collection point near the Serbian Hungarian border in Roszke, Hungary September 13, 2015. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

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