Communication as aid: Key takeaways from the Humanitarian ICT Forum

A session at the Humanitarian ICT Forum. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

When disaster strikes, communication networks are often lost, at a time when humanitarian workers and community members need them most.

Last week’s Humanitarian ICT Forum, which drew nearly 200 representatives from the technology and humanitarian communities to Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, looked at how to keep people connected during emergencies.

Previously, the focus of the forum has been on ways humanitarian organizations can leverage technology to respond more effectively, but this year the theme was “The Participation Revolution: Empowering Affected People.”

In the past, only those organizations focused on access to information made the case that communication is aid. This year, humanitarians who have traditionally focused on providing water, food, shelter and health care agreed that communication is among those most basic needs.

Here are some of Devex’s top takeaways from two days of talks and sessions.

Acting on information

Several sessions highlighted that just as important as developing technological solutions is making sure that those solutions are used to assist and shape humanitarian action.

For example, a breakout session on “eliminating the language barrier in crisis response,” which evaluated how technologies such as machine learning can help humanitarians respond to the translation challenge, emphasized the importance of human-centered design. Some approaches focused on automated translation, while others were designed to facilitate human contributions, but each put the user at the center of its approach, said Steve Schwartz, social impact marketing manager at Tableau Software.

“A translation tool or service is no good if it is not useful immediately for someone working through an issue, and [if] the feedback is [not] immediate,” he said. “The speed with which all of these efforts evolved were a clear example of that.”

Schwartz also said that while a number of tools have allowed for the interoperability of technology in humanitarian response, the challenge now is to get people using those tools in the right way.

“The data itself is only useful if the people at every step of the process are rethinking their own workflows and collaborations to better serve those in crisis,” he said. “I can talk forever about the awesome things our software can do to help people see and understand data, but if we’re not consistently challenging ourselves to find ways of putting the data in the hands of decision makers faster, we’re missing an important opportunity.”

A theme that cut across sessions — ranging from the use of social media in humanitarian response to mobile phones as a platform for aid — was that of not only providing people with the means to communicate but also acting on the information they provide.

“Victims of conflict or humanitarian crises can speak on their own behalf now,” said Charlotte Lindsey-Curtet, director of communications and information management at the International Committee of the Red Cross. “But are we listening, and are we hearing what they’re saying?”

Linking up for scale and impact

In every crisis, Google sees a surge in searches, said Yosi Matias, vice president of engineering at Google, as an example of how humanitarian work intersects with the technology company’s work. He spoke about how his own experience of seeing the smoke from wildfires near Google’s office in Haifa, Israel, and failing to find helpful information online also informed some of their humanitarian response work.

While Matias spoke about the power of “solutions that used to be thought of as science fiction,” he also emphasized the importance of collaboration, for example, by integrating open platforms.

Similarly, Gwi-Yeop Son, director of corporate programs at the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, called for collaboration between the technology and humanitarian communities. “We can only achieve the change we need by harnessing your expertise and knowledge, your tools and innovation,” she said. “We need you to work on this journey together with us.”

She spoke about the new strategy for the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, which is intended to ensure connectivity in crisis contexts by 2020, in partnership with technology companies and local telecommunication firms.

OCHA will do all it can to bring that vision to life, she said. A key focus will be lowering barriers to entry for partnership with the private sector.

Enrica Porcari, chair of the ETC, talked to Devex about existing examples of the humanitarian and private sectors developing shared principles to support communications in emergency response. Documents such as the mobile industry’s “Humanitarian Connectivity Charter” and the satellite community’s “Crisis Connectivity Charter” provide frameworks for future sectors, such as hardware providers, to move from competition to collaboration in order to respond to disasters more effectively, she said. From the Humanitarian ICT Forum to the ETC plenary meeting that followed it, a key message was the need for the private and humanitarian sectors to move beyond talking about partnership and find new ways of working together.

Dakota Gruener — executive director of ID2020, a public-private partnership focused on digital identity — said she was energized by the recognition that ensuring that people have a digital identity before a crisis can enable a faster and digitally-enabled response.

She added that she hopes to see more of a focus in future years on how the community can link up and scale this work however. The forum is a rare opportunity for humanitarian professionals and technology experts to come together under one roof, she said. They need to do more to cross organizational boundaries outside those walls.

Picking up the pace

The event outlined how the goal of delivering on communication as aid will not be realized unless we move from conversation to action — and quickly.

Social media, cell phones and mobile payments have been used widely during emergencies since the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010, but despite the publication of report after report on leveraging technology in humanitarian emergencies, conferences such as this one tend to repeat themselves.

“The biggest takeaway for me has been that the humanitarian community is way behind the status of technology in the field,” said Anahi Ayala Iacucci, senior director of humanitarian programs at Internews. “The reality is that the humanitarian technology landscape is ... advancing really fast and we are late.”

She attended the conference to get a sense of the humanitarian ICT sector today, after three years working away from this community in Liberia and South Sudan, she said. Walking away from the conference, she advised humanitarian professionals to approach the private sector with clear asks; but also to realize that it is not an NGO, and is not there to serve the humanitarian community.

“They have their mandate and we have ours,” she said, adding that the goal of collaborating is to find out how different mandates and missions can be aligned “to achieve the same goal.”

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.