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The digital revolution of

humanitarian action
CCGL 9061
HKU, Common Core
In this lecture as in others, we will consider humanitarian
action in a broad sense, with innovations that go far
beyond the domain of emergency aid
Summarizing the previous lectures
A wide diversity of humanitarian
organizations: size, field of intervention,
moral stance, structure etc.

Limits and challenges intrinsically connected

to humanitarianism itself

A political and ideological background

• Pervading global ideologies have also reached
humanitarian action Alternative libertaire (Belgique) - ASBL 22-Mars (Bruxelles) [CC
BY-SA 3.0 (]
Digital innovations are disrupting whole
domains of human activity
• Block chains, e.g. crypto-currencies
• Facebook’s upcoming crypto-currency, Libra, will
mark the first time in history when states are no
longer the only ones who issue money
• Predictive medicine
• From curing diseases to preventing them

How does digitization impact the

humanitarian world?
Intended Learning Outcomes of the lecture
1. To enumerate a wide range of digital innovations in the
humanitarian sector

2. To describe some major global impacts of digitization in

the field of humanitarian action

3. To explain the positions and roles of different communities

(professionals, digital volunteers, recipients etc.)

1. Digital innovations: Pervading the humanitarian world

2. Breaking the walls of organizations

3. The “(smart) phone tsunami”

4. Digital lives (storage of personal data and digital identity)


1. Digital innovations: Pervading the humanitarian world

2. Breaking the walls of organizations

3. The “(smart) phone tsunami”

4. Digital lives (storage of personal data and digital identity)

Internet or the world of endless connections
The Internet is a very recent thing
• Although most of you have always known it
• One of the initial steps of the digital

Connecting computers and their users

deeply modified communications
• Emails for communication at all levels
Shutterstock • Skype and IP calls
• Shrinking of distances
Connecting at the technical level…
In 2008, Children of the Mekong started to use a
software allowing the synchronization of folders
and files on different computers
• A bit similar to Dropbox
• Used to share reports related to development projects
(dozens/hundreds of projects, with many high-
definition pictures)

An efficient solution to manage information

between the field and the headquarters
• Less emails and heavy attached documents
• Better organized file storage
• Access to project archives for volunteers in Asia
Connecting users
A number of websites aimed at connecting people and institutions

The Digital Humanitarian Network

• Created in 2012, no longer active

The H2H Network

The H2H Network
“We create an enabling environment for humanitarian response by working with
lessons, tools, systems and standards that help the wider system to adopt proven
methodologies. Many of us are small in size, but by working together as a network
we can achieve great things.”

“You can use the site to:

• Search for services provided by network members
• Stay on top of the latest developments from our specialists
• Exchange ideas in our rooms dedicated to key topics
• Ask for help on a particular issue
• Find partners for collaboration
• Sign up to become an H2H member”
Bringing Internet to places in need
Dadaab in Kenya: the largest
refugee camp in the world
(half a million people, mostly
from Somalia)

“A sparse area, Dadaab had little to offer as far as communication, digital access, and education until 2012 when
NetHope, Cisco, Microsoft, Inveneo, and USAID implemented a large-scale high-speed broadband network.
DadaabNet connects refugees to each other and the outside world, and has become the established tool for NGO
collaboration among the 43 agencies in the camp. With a reliable Internet connection, people living and working
inside the Dadaab camp are now able to learn basic ICT skills, utilize email and social media accounts to connect
with friends and loved ones, access online education, and get news updates from their home countries.”
Technological breakthrough (1/3)
A number of technological breakthrough have applications in
humanitarian action (in the broad sense)

Deep learning: deep neural

networks have revolutionized AI.
Some of the tasks they can fulfil
(recognition, classification etc.)
can match humanitarian

Waldrop, M. M. (2019). News Feature: What are the limits of deep learning? PNAS, 116(4): 1074-1077
Automatic tagging of social media messages
AIDR: Artificial Intelligence for Digital

AIDR is a free and open platform to

filter and classify social media messages
related to emergencies, disasters, and
humanitarian crises. AIDR uses human
and machine intelligence to
automatically tag up to thousands of
messages per minute

See lecture #9 on Nov. 6 (From human

analysis to automatic analysis in
humanitarian action)
Technological breakthrough (2/3)
Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drones,
are also increasingly found in humanitarian
• Search and rescue, monitoring and surveillance,
delivery of food, medical supplies and other
small cargo
Photo: UNICEF/UN070227/Chim Chisiza

E.g. WeRobotics: not-for-profit organization

dedicated to providing humanitarian aid,
social development, and environmental
protection through the use of robotics
• Including drones
Drones in action
Technological breakthrough (3/3)
Virtual Reality (VR) is gradually
taking ground
• Technical progress
• For training purposes (sports, medicine),
exposure therapy, gaming, education etc.

Two usages of VR
• As a way to educate the general public
• For psychological support
“Home After War”, a 20’ VR experience

The experience takes

the viewer into the
tragic, real-life story
of an Iraqi family’s
return to Fallujah after
being displaced from
their home by war.

VR For Good Creators Lab
therapy with
(Big) data creation, processing and storage
Data are accumulating at unprecedented speed
• Satellite imagery
• Compilation of events of all types: sales on the stock market, earthquakes…
• User data of all types (commercial websites)

Large databases are used to store and query these data

Databases in the aid and development sectors

• Databases of donors: can be analysed to identify the “best” donor profiles
• Databases of recipients
• Databases of projects: can be analysed to understand success or failure etc.
A lot of data
Storage size on a computer Bytes (1 byte
= 0 or 1)
Text file containing The Iliad
and The Odyssey 11 millions
by Homer (around 800 BCE)
Approximate amount of
incoming data at Facebook 660 trillions
in one day

Ratio: 5,81x107

Volume of the Moon: 2.1958×1010 km3

Volume of the Sun: 1.41×1018 km3
Ratio: 6,42x107
Where the data come from
Not only from scholars or professionals, but by
everyday people…

… who may not actually realize they are generating all

these data

Quantitatively and qualitatively different data

• In larger quantities, messier, possibly manipulated / fake etc.

Raises some ethical issues

The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX)

A repository for

E.g. Global droughts

events from 1980 to
• Datasheets and shapefiles
(to manipulate drought
areas with a GIS)
Learning activity – Looking for data on HDX
Go to HDX website ( and look for datasets related
to Hong Kong

How is information categorized?

How easy is it to navigate it?
How easy is it to download datasets?
Innovations and their users
Aid recipients as the primary users OR

Humanitarian workers as the primary users OR

Journalists or the public as primary users

Aid recipients as data?

• In some databases, yes

Some “pure players” = humanitarian actors active only in the digital world

1. Digital innovations: Pervading the humanitarian world

2. Breaking the walls of organizations

3. The “(smart) phone tsunami”

4. Digital lives (storage of personal data and digital identity)

One of the consequences of the digital
revolution in the humanitarian sector
is the “decompartmentalization” of
Sharing of data
Collaborations with the private sector
A new generation of volunteers and modes of action
Sharing data
Through platforms as H2H or HDX, more or more data are made available
to the whole community
• Sharing data and thus analyses and expertise

Example: Sharing video

• A ReliefWeb Lab Project to make available a large number of humanitarian videos
• Started testing: January 2015 - Decommissioned: December 2017
• “To keep track of humanitarian information conveyed by video, ReliefWeb experimented
with a dedicated section. As an experimental feature, it was not strongly marketed, but
country, disaster and organization playlists were prominently displayed, and there was a
dedicated videos app. As videos are expensive to make and most humanitarian videos
were not very popular on ReliefWeb, there was little return on the editorial effort to
curate them. The playlists still exist but are not being updated”
Increased collaborations between organizations
Many smaller size NGOs do not have the possibility to develop digital
solutions on their own

Collaborations with specialized organizations

• WeRobotics, The Pulse Labs (see after) etc.

Increased collaborations with the private sector

• Provision of tools and analytical skills
The example of the Pulse Labs
“Pulse Labs bring together government experts, UN agencies, academia
and the private sector to pioneer new methods and frameworks for
using Big Data to support development goals. Pulse Labs tap into local
knowledge and innovation, establish key partnerships, test and pilot
real-time monitoring approaches at the country level, and support the
adoption of proven approaches.”

“Pulse Labs design, scope, and co-create projects with UN Agencies and
public sector institutions who provide sectoral expertise, and with
private sector or academic partners who often provide access to data or
analytical and engineering tools.”

Some projects of the Pulse Labs

Reaching new volunteers
Digital volunteers are a new type of volunteers
• No field work, but rather an involvement mediated by technology

Large number of people ready to give time to help a cause

However, usually not experts in humanitarian action (but sometimes

expert in data science / machine learning)

How to take advantage of such a “workforce"?

Micro-tasking as an approach to digital
Micro-tasking consists in breaking down a large job in elementary
tasks which can be proposed to a large number of “workers” over the
• E.g. Amazon Mechanical Turk (micro-tasks to be completed online with minimal
financial compensation)
• tagging photos from social media, typing out business card information from a photo,
digitizing receipts and invoices etc.

Various humanitarian task can be turned into micro-tasks which do

not require expertise in the field
• Best-known case: crowd mapping
• See lecture #5 on Oct. 2 (Collaborative mapping of emergency areas)
Humanitarian crowd mapping
Data science for good
To take advantage of some volunteers’ expertise in data science:
propose machine learning challenges on dedicated websites

The best-known site for challenges with money prizes: Kaggle

Equivalents for humanitarian purposes: Data For Good, DataKind

Humanitarian hackathons: gatherings of volunteers to work during

short but intense time periods on challenges similar as those found
Kaggle competitions DataKind
ML projects
ML projects

1. Digital innovations: Pervading the humanitarian world

2. Breaking the walls of organizations

3. The “(smart) phone tsunami”

4. Digital lives (storage of personal data and digital identity)

The penetration of smartphones to
even remote places opens the door
to countless digital “interventions”
Mobile technology in refugee camps in
East Africa

More smartphones inside refugee camps than outside
Humanitarian approaches to smartphones
Analyzing SMS during crises
• See lecture #7 on Oct. 23 (Analyzing social media in crisis situations)

Implementing humanitarian crowd mapping solutions on smartphones

Developing apps for humanitarian workers

Developing apps for aid recipients, or more generally for the public
“You install the app, join a
project, and swipe through
satellite imagery while
tapping the features you
spot. The tiles you mark will
become to the base layer of
detailed maps drawn by
other volunteers.”
Apps for humanitarian workers;
data in the
Yuka, helping people to eat better?
Scanning barcodes on food packages to access the nutritive qualities of the product
The many apps for refugees
Learning activity – Trying an app for refugees
and immigrants
Find the FindHello – Refugee & immigrant Services app

Download it

What content can you find? What are some key aspects you can

How useful do you think it is for actual refugees?


1. Digital innovations: Pervading the humanitarian world

2. Breaking the walls of organizations

3. The “(smart) phone tsunami”

4. Digital lives (storage of personal data and digital identity)

Storing personal data
Various databases can be found in the humanitarian sector which
store personal information

They raise issues of personal rights and privacy

• Standards now exist for such databases

They also point toward the notion of digital identity, i.e. how people
may exist digitally
Databases for memory
The AMPM database
ICRC’s Ante Mortem / Post Mortem Database

“In war, following disasters, or as a result of migration or situations

of internal violence, people may go missing and the identity of
human remains may be unknown. The management of information
plays a crucial role in bringing these two complementary lines of
investigation together in order to identify remains and resolve
missing persons cases. Standardization, centralization and easy
exchange of large quantities of data among numerous actors are key
to an effective data management strategy, and electronic tools can
greatly contribute to a thorough and efficient data management
and analysis process.
Development of the AMPM Database by the ICRC began in 2005…
The AMPM Database was made available for use in 2008.”
Digital identity
The issue: a billion people worldwide cannot prove their identity
• Lack of national identity card or similar documents
• A lack of identity means missed economical and social opportunities: opening a bank
account, register to vote, get a driver license, register at the university etc.

Shifting to digital proofs of identity / digital identities

• Digitized retina scans, fingerprints etc.
• Can be completed with additional personal information: birth registration, vaccinations,
educational certifications, legal status
• Potentially more efficient than non-digital systems of identification

ID2020: an alliance of partners to promote principles of good digital identity
Owning one’s personal digital identity
In some countries, strict rules exist with respect to what can be stored
electronically about someone
• Rights to modify or delete records
• Supervising public institutions

Can be missing in some countries (facing conflicts or severe

development issues)
• Need to promote good protocols and conditions
• Blockchain as a way to prevent fraud by decentralization of information storage
Started in India in 2009
90% adoption rate

A proof of identity, with

no profiling based on
religion, health etc.

Usage: online resident

authentication (e-KYC,
Know your client), bank
transactions, digital
document storage etc.

biometric authentication
as part of broader digital
Conclusions and perspectives
There is an array of digital innovations on the humanitarian sector,
some with strong impacts (although it may not be apparent at first

These innovations often connect to the notion of digital identity and

to management of personal data, but also to interactions between
various human groups (professionals, volunteers, recipients of aid…)

Ethical issues will be investigated more thoroughly in a later lecture