The gollum-syndrome: humanitarian assistance in the networked age…

Articles I’ve been reading roughly on the topic of  humanitarianism in the networked age include:

Humanitarianism in the Network Age

The scramble for Africa’s data

Africa’s big brother lives in Beijing

Launching: SMS code of conduct for Disaster Response

Why social network surveys don’t necessarily reflect the views of the SA youth

Here’s what I’ve got so far… Increasing amounts of information can be sent and collected by anyone. Technologies are becoming more accessible, more people are plugged in and the potential for demanding and supplying live-data is increasing exponentially. A UN OCHA report states there are 735 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa in 2012, about 70% of the total population. Granted the top slice probably have the lions share, information is becoming democratised. Communication information technology is only going to increase exponentially, hardware is increasingly affordable, the infrastructure is being put in by companies eager to reach untapped markets. I am looking at Africa because that is my interest but the same can be held for every other continent (except maybe Antarctica?).. Where fibre-optic networks cannot reach inland, communications providers are launching low-orbiting satellites to bring broadband access to the other three billion customers who have yet to have access. The potential of this in providing humanitarian aid is revolutionary, both in terms of input and output.

Democratising communication technologies is changing the demand and supply of emergency assistance because it can increasingly respond directly to demand rather than hypothesised scenarios made by international non-governmental organisations. Voluntary and private actors are getting in on the scene and improving service delivery. In the case of the Tsunami in the Philippines mobile phones and social networking sites such as Twitter supplied information directly to emergency responders, and tech companies, such as Tweetup Manila, were organising and channeling this information. This is a great example of where information communication technologies work well. But there are also going to be big downsides to voluntary and private entities getting in on emergency relief (not everybody is competent and altruistically motivated). Not to be a nay-sayer but seems like some rules of engagement are going to be needed to avoid this democratised (socialist?) information revolution creating havoc. Development assistance on the other-hand seems to be somewhat reticent to engage in this new networked world and is failing to engage with information communication technologies. I cannot figure out if it is intentional or just incompetency, probably a bit of both… Emergency assistance seems to benefit from having fixed parameters and it draws on focused responses which are dependent on short-term, live information. Development suffers from a medium to long-term time frames.

Why has humanitarian assistance so far not harnessed real-time information like private companies? Or why has it not allowed private and voluntary actors to bring in new blood? This seems to be a good example of public goods suffering from inertia (I am putting development assistance into the barrel with public goods). Just as the National Health Service in the UK is a quagmire of failed IT projects. Having said that, health development projects seem to be one of the few areas that effectively uses communication technologies.

The same UN OCHA report that details the successes of harnessing real-time information in emergency relief also says humanitarian assistance is not effectively harnessing real-time data because it operates under different motives and rules.

What are these motives and rules and is it justifiable? The benefits of live-data linking beneficiaries directly to assistance providers, both in terms of demand and supply is undeniable, but sure, I see there are pitfalls. My question is how can these motives and rules be adapted so that humanitarian assistance can benefit from the network age and overcome the pitfalls.

Possible reasons for the failure to engage….

Verification – it is difficult, almost impossible to verify the veracity of increased levels of information.

Datafication – How do you datafy responses – not everything comes in easy to quantify, especially when handling massive influxes of data. Overwhelming, undermining response time? 

Privacy – An article written by Linnet Taylor, ‘Scramble for Africa’s data.’ Talks about routes for Afrcian countries in handling this new flow of private information – either in it being a public good or it becoming a resource grab… Any which way there is the question around handling this data,

“There are three main questions: what can incentivise African countries’ citizens and policymakers to address privacy in parallel with the collection of massive amounts of personal data, rather than after abuses occur? What are the models that might be useful in devising privacy frameworks for groups with restricted technological access and sophistication? And finally, how can such a system be participatory enough to be relevant to the needs of particular countries or populations?”

Arguably, unlike corporations, development agencies have a responsibility to protect… ‘Personally identifiable information’ what information are we collecting about people and are we protecting it? One of the primary rules is the responsibility to protect and all the regulations around personal information. The potential of not using this data to improve people’s lives, or of collecting individual data and it not being completely protected is working to stop any effort to engage.

Which beneficiaries? – A big issue is equal access to information – both in inputting and provision… Communication technologies are leaping forward, people are increasingly able to access the internet and all that it offers. But who’s information is being collected and who is accessing the information?

Decision-making – A trait of this increased information communication technology is decentralised decision-making and I don’t think the ‘decision-makers’ in many humanitarian assistance programmes are willing to do just that. In their defence, multiple actors, public and private, professional and home-grown, making decisions is a recipe for disaster (sorry, couldn’t help myself). There would be wrong-decisions, repetition and general havoc i.e. not saving people in an emergency. However there is also the argument that this new democratised information networking would relegate international aid providers to the side-lines. With private and home-grown initiatives more effective collecting data, the international aid organisations would be useful in providing resources… in responding to the need rather than deciding it. The international emergency assistance industry is just that and people have a tendency to want to hold onto both their jobs and their power.

Transparency, the key word in so many lessons learned papers is a double-edged sword in this world of rampant information. With increased access, the majority of people can demand and supply information, it’s shown that information is there for the exploiting. Intelligence services are using it to spy and collect personal information for nefarious affairs. I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that google, facebook among others are implicated in providing intelligence to the US government and run massive disaster relief initiatives collecting people’s personal data. People in general seem to be surprisingly calm about the fact that their governments no longer entitle them privacy. Personal information to provide targeted assistance can be used by anyone who has access to it (anybody with a ounce of technical know-how).

The voices have always been there, it is a question of whether they are being listened to. There are more voices and they are getting louder and easier to hear, but what are those with the power and money doing with them? Are they being listened to? Are they being manipulated for greed and profit? Do we trust that people can make decisions for themselves? As discussed, I think the key reason why we haven’t seen more engagement with information communication technology by the development assistance world is that people do not want to loose power, they are quite happy to continue making hypothetical scenarios and responding to them. The UN OCHA report comes to the conclusion that the lack of effective interaction with communities remains a key problem, “Governments recognise the need to take advantage of new data sources, there is still a tendency for people removed from a crisis to decide what is best for the people living through the crisis.”

The question in this age is ‘how’ to harness technology. Who’s harnessing it, who’s feeding into it, what information is being collected and how is it being treated? At the moment it is a hodgepodge of efforts run by international and national actors. Ideally the information would be owned by the people. Would it be stored nationally? Internationally?  Obstacles to a collective response includes; different cultures, a lack of shared standards, the absence of operational protocols and competition for resources (and refusal to share ‘power’).

A conscious and collective look at how this information is handled might benefit both service providers and people they are trying to help. The idea of a knowledge-bank of evidence-based practice underwriting live-data, detailing specific needs seems utopian but increasingly we have the tools to achieve this. Initiatives like Nethope are the nest steps in this process.

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