London — Recent innovations have offered a whole new box of tools to the humanitarian community. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) - at the end of a year that has fortunately seen relatively few disasters - is using the latest edition of its annual World Disasters Report to showcase some of the technological advancements being put to use in emergencies, and to start a discussion on their potential benefits and pitfalls.
The report, launched this month, reveals how raw data from phone companies is being used to track sudden population movements, and how satellite imaging is being used to show the physical effects of natural disasters in areas otherwise beyond reach. Doctors from the diaspora are using Skype to guide medical treatment in parts of Syria they cannot travel to, and Google Person Finder is being used to reunite families - a high-tech solution to what was one of the oldest functions of the Red Cross.
Growing mobile phone saturation is also changing humanitarians' relationships with beneficiaries. By next year, there are expected to be as many phone subscriptions as there are people on the planet. Aid agencies use mobile phones to reach people in need, transfer cash, warn of approaching problems, and identify those killed or badly injured in disasters - and increasingly, aid recipients are using their phones to talk back to the aid workers.
In every recent emergency, the airwaves have crackled with data, as people frantically send messages to their loved ones, to the authorities and to the world via platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They pass along news, calls for help and pictures of damage. Now an army of digital volunteers has sprung up, offering to collate, translate and, where necessary, geolocate this torrent of data.
DIY disaster relief
It is an exciting development, but also a scary one, especially for aid workers who are less technically minded, and at a meeting last week at London's Overseas Development Institute (ODI), both enthusiasm and nervousness were on display.
While new technologies have yielded some changes to disaster response, and a lot of rethinking, many in the humanitarian community are simply not early adopters. Today, it is common to arrive at a disaster scene and find that local people are well ahead of humanitarian agencies in using whatever technology is best suited to their situation.
"The way information is moving now is fundamentally different," said Imogen Wall, global coordinator for communications with communities at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). "We are used to what you might call a 'command and control' model, but what Facebook and Twitter do is a many-to-many form of information sharing. People can go into a giant pool and get what they need for themselves."
For example, the IFRC report mentions Jointly, an app that allows people to offer help or ask for help; it matches requests with offers, bypassing traditional responders and offering a kind of do-it-yourself route to disaster relief.
Meanwhile, aid workers often struggle with how to use such new technologies. Liz Hughes of Map Action said, "When we think about the take-up of technology and its use in disaster response, we need to think about the skills base in the humanitarian community itself. We do GPS training, and it's surprising that such a basic thing like being able to geo-position is still a challenge. There is still a gulf between the possibilities out there and where we are now."
Technology sometimes offers useful information that aid agencies do not know what to do with. The report cites a project in the Central African Republic that created a real-time crisis map, fed by a network of local media organizations and community correspondents. "Humanitarians," says the report, "played a mainly passive role. They consulted the reports and maps, but contributed little. The information from the map did not directly influence decisions or actions. This is partly due to their reliance on their own information networks, and to mistrust of media and crowd-sourced data on the grounds of validity and risks."
The issue of trust is a very real one, with the democratization of data bringing in players who are not trained to observe standards of neutrality, impartiality and independence. Digital volunteers are sometimes only identifiable by their internet usernames, and those offering to sift through tweets or map reports in an emergency may be motivated by their commitment to one side in a conflict. Enthusiastic amateurs may not be aware of the possible repercussions informants could face if information sources are public or traceable.
But there are ways of verifying crowd-sourced data. The BBC, for instance, has a unit that has been working on verifying user-generated content since 2005 - before Twitter started. And emergency services have always had to deal with some percentage of calls and alarms being false reports.
Over-reliance on technology can also create problems, the report underlines. Power and phone networks often fail during disasters, for instance. And disasters in Japan and the US have shown that relying on technical solutions for disseminating information and delivering aid help may exclude the elderly, the poorest and the least educated - those who often need help the most.
Even so, the world is changing and humanitarians have to adjust. Paul Conneally of the International Telecommunication Union, told the London meeting, "In the end it's not about technology; it's about people. We have no excuse anymore. The technology is there to ensure that communities themselves take the lead, and that humanitarians are there as facilitators to help them."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]