22 July 2014

Africa: Highlights From Humanitarian Innovation Conference

Photo: K.Mahoney/UNHCR
File photo.

Oxford — Around 200 academics and humanitarian experts gathered in the United Kingdom at Keble College, University of Oxford, last weekend (19-20 July) for the Humanitarian Innovation Conference, where heated discussion took place on everything from how we define innovation to what role it could really play in the sector.

This was one of the debates happening in the run up to the UN's World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2016, where one of the main themes will be "transformation through innovation".

The meeting brimmed with ideas and recent examples of fascinating innovation and initiatives. Here are some of the highlights for me.

Medicine and library 'boxes'

International agencies and scientific institutions have joined forces on an online library called MEDBOX that is aimed at improving the quality of healthcare in humanitarian action.

MEDBOX collates professional guidelines, textbooks and practical documents on a range of issues, such as drug safety, quality assurance and traditional treatments. It also has 'toolbox' resources focused on diseases such as ebola and polio, and countries such as Syria and South Sudan.

Libraries Without Borders has produced a library in a weather-proof box that can be shipped and unpacked in 20 minutes to provide vulnerable people in humanitarian situations with access to education, culture and information. Its IdeasBox is a portable media centre created for refugees and vulnerable populations by renowned French designer Philippe Starck with the UN Refugee Agency.

The IdeasBox pack includes 15 tablet computers and four laptops with a satellite internet connection, 250 paper books and 50 e-readers loaded with thousands of e-books, MOOC (massive online open course) and other digital learning content, a cinema module with a film collection, five high-definition cameras for filmmaking and journalism, board and video games, and a theatre workshop.

So far, the boxes have been shipped to Burundi, Jordan, Lebanon and Rwanda, with plans to send them to the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines and South Darfur in Sudan.

Disasters and crowdfunding

DisasterReady.org is a free online training resource designed to help aid workers to share resources and information, and access customised online learning anytime, anywhere.

A smart toilet that is cheap, lightweight yet robust, the emergency Sanitation Operation System (eSOS), has been developed by the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and is due to be field tested in September in the Philippines.

The smart features, such as remote-sensing monitoring and occupancy sensors, will allow for remote data collection and the data should allow the toilets, as well as the entire sanitation management chain, to be improved.

Beehive is a "new, non-profit, crowdfunding platform serving the humanitarian community supporting operations and operational innovation being collaboratively developed by former United Nations staff, veteran humanitarian actors, private sector companies and individuals".

The aim is to eventually build a professional quality crowdfunding platform for humanitarian campaigns, and it can be filtered by project category, including science and technology (though so far there has been only one project in that category, on refugee data sharing, which failed to raise anything towards the US$1,000 it needed).

Academics join the fray

The University of Denver's Humanitarian Assistance Applied Research Group, launched in March, brings together academic researchers with humanitarian organisations, providing students with experience and organisations with needed research. Other interesting academic schemes include the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the International Development Innovation Network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Humanitarian Innovation Project at the University of Oxford and the Singularity University.

Still not wowed? Keep checking SciDev.Net's news pages, because I kept some of the most intriguing ideas for upcoming stories.

See a video about IdeasBox.

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