Adele Waugaman

By Adele Waugaman. It’s no secret that the rapid proliferation of social networks and the global spread of the mobile phone are transforming private and public sectors alike. The humanitarian world is no different.

In the music industry, network-centric technological innovations from Napster to Spotify have transformed the way we learn about, acquire, consume, and share music.  Similarly, in humanitarian crises, the democratization of information through connection technologies is enabling new actors to share and act on publicly available data about the crisis, local population needs, and the humanitarian response.

In an increasingly networked world, aid organizations find themselves having to adapt to these new information flows in order to retain their traditional roles at the center of the humanitarian system. These data streams are coming from groups who traditionally have not been perceived as part of the humanitarian sector — from volunteer mapping networks like the Standby Task Force and the Humanitarian Open Streetmap Team, to the local populations themselves.

Why is crowdsourced information helpful in humanitarian emergencies?

Take, for example, the need to locate health facilities after a major disaster.  In response to the Haiti earthquake, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) asked the crisismapping community to locate and plot on a map 105 health facilities whose precise location was unknown (During the earthquake many buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed, including buildings that housed important government data and their curators).

Within 35 hour of the request from OCHA, 102 of the 105 facilitates had been identified, verified using satellite imagery at 15 cm resolution, mapped, and made available in open data formats.  This crowdsourcing of information condensed the time needed to complete this task from several days to just over one day, making it possible to transport the wounded to available clinics and enabling first responders in Haiti to focus their attention on other important tasks at hand.

This example and numerous others are profiled in a report produced last year by a team that included OCHA, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the United Nations Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation. Entitled Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information-Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies, the report looked at how emerging digital volunteers networks were reshaping information management in humanitarian crises, using the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as a case study.

The report was intended as a catalyst for further dialogue and action, and indeed it provoked an immediate and wide-ranging response, from coverage in the New York Times to a community blog series and other analyses, including those highlighting perceived shortcomings.

That conversation continues, and has contributed to efforts underway to build a new Open Humanitarian Initiative that seeks to improve information sharing and information management between humanitarian organizations, affected communities, and governments in disaster-prone countries.

To advance work in this space, it is clear that this kind of cross-sector collaboration is needed, and it is essential that local populations themselves are an integral part of the discussion.

This spring, at the CDAC Network Media & Technology Fair, together with a group of experts in communications with disaster-affected populations, I discussed some areas of further exploration needed as this exciting and transformative field grows.

Significant work remains to document best practice and establish evidence-based, evolving policy and technologies which will enable new pathways of information sharing, and implement new tools in accordance with a widely accepted ethical framework that upholds fundamental humanitarian principles.

We’ve made huge strides in demonstrating the power of social networks and open data to positively transform information management in humanitarian aid. With further research, collaboration, and investment from the private and donor community, strengthened community resilience and smarter disaster response is within reach.

Adele Waugaman is an independent consultant and fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Previously, she managed the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, one of the first and largest public-private partnerships leveraging wireless ICT to support and strengthen UN health and humanitarian work. Finder her on Twitter at @mobilizing or @Tech4Dev.

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