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Digital humanitarians

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More than 25 million people are displaced every year by natural disasters, and millions more due to conflict. How can we help? Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at Qatar Computing Research Institute, has written a timely book on the subject. In "Digital Humanitarians," Meier argues that we must realize the potential of the digital revolution to address the most pressing humanitarian needs—from earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal to the refugee crisis in Europe.

The “digital humanitarian” movement took off in 2010, when thousands of volunteers used social media, text messages, and satellite imagery to support search-and-rescue efforts and human relief operations in Haiti. The data they gathered was used to create unique digital crisis maps that reflected the situation on the ground in near real-time. Their efforts motivated additional crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.

Even more interesting is the emergence of artificial intelligence for disaster response. Using the latest data mining and machine-learning techniques, researchers can pinpoint the areas that are most vulnerable to disaster and focus on the most efficient and cost-effective ways to deploy resources. In describing how unmanned aerial vehicles were used after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, Meier shows that the sky is the limit. Another initiative that caught my attention is the Planetary Response Network under construction to “understand our planet.”

How can IFC take advantage of fast evolving technologies? I hope the following preliminary thoughts will trigger better and more concrete ideas:

First, as pointed out in Kevin Kelly’s 2010 book, “What Technology Wants”, technology as a whole (what Kevin calls Technium) is becoming “alive” and more autonomous—like the ecosystem, but evolving at warp speed. That means the way we raise and deploy capital could eventually be done in a more hands-off (i.e. near-zero marginal cost) fashion. It also means the ways we can reach those most in need are multiplying quickly, especially in the non-public domain, like a healthy ecosystem.

Second, humanitarian crises demand that we seize opportunities to construct new infrastructure, renew urban planning, retool social fabrics, and redeploy capital and human resources. Destruction causes tremendous suffering and losses, which must be addressed immediately. But it also often enlarges the impetus for positive change.

Third, while humanitarian crises get the headlines on the “demand side,” we also need to constantly work on the “supply side” of capital and human resources to aid and reconstruct. As the world continues to get richer, the desire and the means to help the less fortunate will continue to rise. Even at times when there is no urgent need, it is critical to build up supply reserves and get ready for opportunities.

Finally, we can be proactive in crisis prevention and containment. One recent example that IFC has been closely monitoring is the work of Flowminder Foundation, an innovative practitioner of digital humanitarianism in global health. Flowminder has been modeling the spread of Ebola using call-detail records from millions of mobile phones. IFC made an arrangement with a mobile network operator in Ghana to quickly monitor and contain Ebola should it start to appear in that country.

Luckily, it hasn’t happened, but using these new technologies, the world can be better prepared when new threats and natural disasters do emerge.


Ted Chu

Chief Economist, International Finance Corporation

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