Humanitarianism in the Network Age: 4 things you need to know

24 April, 2013
Student, Jean Louis Thomas, writes a text message to a friend in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Haiti earthquake in 2010 generated massive amounts of information using old and new technologies. Information management systems were overwhelmed. Credit: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Natasha Fillion
Student, Jean Louis Thomas, writes a text message to a friend in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Haiti earthquake in 2010 generated massive amounts of information using old and new technologies. Information management systems were overwhelmed. Credit: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Natasha Fillion

On Thursday 25 April, OCHA will launch its report on Humanitarianism in the Network Age. What is it about? Below are the four things you need to know about the report. 

1. The networked age is changing the way people respond to disasters.

In 2012, global phone subscriptions topped 6 billion, with more than 1 billion smartphones. There are now more phone subscriptions than there are people. By 2015, half of all people in the developing world are predicted to have internet access.

People are no longer mere recipients of information; they are active producers and analysts. The report points out that this amounts to a shift in power away from institutions and towards affected communities.

In the Philippines, for example, the authorities use Google crisis maps on official websites and share government information via social media. Affected communities themselves use online networks to organize help.

Here the report offers a warning to aid agencies: “Whereas political leaders and aid agencies, often far away from an emergency, once made assumptions about the needs of people in crisis, those people now have the tools to communicate their own expectations.”

Humanitarian organizations must adapt to the challenges and opportunities of new technologies or risk losing touch with the people they seek to serve.

2. Information is a basic, life-saving need.

Earlier this year, UNHCR published a series of photos marking the grim milestone of the one-millionth refugee to flee Syria. People were asked to pose with their most important possession. Yusuf (pictured right) offered his mobile phone. “With this, I’m able to call my father. We’re close enough to Syria here that I can catch signal from the Syrian towers sometimes.” The phone also holds photographs of his family members who are still in Syria.

For people affected by a disaster or conflict, information is as important as water, food or shelter. Communication services should be seen as an essential humanitarian need, and re-establishing them in the wake of a disaster must be a priority. The ability to access information and to communicate  - that is, the ability to connect - is the ability to express needs, find loved ones and organize help.

3. The ways in which humanitarian information is collected, shared and analyzed needs to change fundamentally.

A July 2012 study demonstrated that real-time monitoring of Twitter in Haiti could have revealed that country’s devastating 2010 cholera outbreak two weeks earlier than it was detected. (see page 41)

Information is not just critical for those affected by disasters. “The networked age offers humanitarian organizations the opportunity for better forms of interaction,’” says the report.

New techniques allow for the collection of ever more data, which allows analysts to identify patterns in huge data sets more quickly, and to track information in real time. Aid agencies need to seize these opportunities. The way these agencies collect, share and analyze data needs to change to recognize the role of big data, respect the importance of open data, and seek the engagement of non-traditional partners such as telecommunication companies, through initiatives like the Digital Humanitarian Network.

4. Guidelines on the ethical use of information are urgently needed.

All this new information and data must be used cautiously. New information-sharing systems create new risks, particularly for public-facing and transparent organizations. “New data sources may make it easier for data points to be traced to their origin,” warns the report.

For humanitarian agencies working with people affected by conflict, this need to ensure anonymity is of particular concern. Humanitarians must work with partners, including the private sector, to develop protocols for the ethical and secure use of data.

Click here to download the full report and for more information on the launch.