Three trends tech companies should consider in supporting humanitarian response

by The Technical Blogs


Dataminr is a Business Reporter client.

On 6 February 2023, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, leaving at least 56,000 dead and more than 20 million impacted. Since April, renewed conflict in Sudan has left hundreds of thousands displaced. Ukraine. COVID. Contemplating an increasingly complex and besieged humanitarian landscape, I asked our partners: how can the technology sector better meet these growing needs?

To mark World Humanitarian Day last month, here are three trends with which tech companies can align to ensure our work is doing the most good.

Designing for Climate Change

Climate change has been in the public narrative for decades. For much of that time it was the territory of environmental nonprofits. Today, it is recognised as an intersectional issue impacting the work of every humanitarian organisation. The effects of climate change on food security, livelihoods, migration and conflict requires organisations such as Mercy Corps and the International Committee of the Red Cross to incorporate mitigation, resilience and climate-savvy response across their programs.

Early warning systems (EWS) are a promising development in this area, and one well-aligned with the expertise of the tech sector. An effective climate early warning system addresses the complex network of factors contributing to and resulting from climate change. It provides event detection, analysis, prediction, communication and decision-making tools. An effective EWS includes the communities and sectors most at risk, incorporating all relevant risk factors, from geography to social vulnerabilities.

There are many ways for tech firms to engage with this work. Companies working on remote sensing technologies improve risk detection, as well as provide predictive modeling. Dataminr’s own AI platform detects the earliest signals of high-impact events and emerging risks from within publicly available data, including environmental sensors. Market insight platforms can lend their strengths to participatory mapping and data collection for climate risk analysis. And two-way, geolocated messaging can help with targeted dissemination of warnings to impacted communities, as well as with coordinating response efforts.

The key to success is integration. No single tech company can address all parts of a robust EWS, but working together and with partners like MIT’s CREWSnet we can build seamless systems that help humanitarian partners protect the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable.

A move to localisation

A shift is taking place in humanitarian response towards more inclusive, locally-led efforts. Historically, local organisations have done most of the work and carried much of the risk during humanitarian crises, with limited agency and access to critical tools and resources. Funders now recognise that sustainable impact depends on placing decision-making power with local people and institutions. USAID recently renewed its commitment to investing in local systems, with an ambitious goal of driving 25 per cent of funding to local organisations by 2025. WeRobotics has taken a fresh approach with Flying Labs, supporting locally-led organisations with professional development, knowledge exchange and leadership opportunities, expanding their influence and autonomy. But a development system as large and well-established as today’s can be a difficult ship to turn.

The tech sector has a reputation for being disruptive. We can take a page from this new localisation agenda while taking a lead in its implementation. First, remember that building strategies that empower local communities includes partnering directly with smaller organisations. It means using our own brands and influence to elevate those of local actors. A story of genuine impact, no matter how small, will speak volumes.

Embracing this attitude, possibilities abound. Google Impact Challenges build localisation into their approach, engaging and seeking feedback from local institutions. Where tech firms choose to work with larger humanitarian organisations, we should develop a clear plan for including local partners. Dataminr has adopted this approach with our Social Innovation Lab and Crisis Response Program, which provides local non-profits with free access to real-time alerting in the moments that matter most. We are currently piloting our Crisis Response program with partners Direct Relief and the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, whose network of local clinics provide care to the medically underserved in those communities most vulnerable when disaster strikes.

Designing technologies for local use has its challenges: limited bandwidth (human and technical), the need for appropriate UIs (language and culture), data privacy practices and the potential to, albeit unintentionally, accelerate inequalities. Tech companies should consider best practices in co-design – a process that uses creative and participatory methods – when developing solutions.

Doing more with less

Given current macroeconomic conditions and the increasing intensity and frequency of humanitarian crises, the need to do more with fewer resources is more pressing than ever.

The tech sector is uniquely positioned to answer this call. Managing information and resources in times of crisis is both time-intensive and expensive. A powerful EWS aligned with inventory control and supply chain technologies allows for efficient allocation and delivery of aid based on rapidly changing needs and circumstances on the ground. Groups such as Crisis Ready use mobility data to advise responders on building resilient infrastructures, understand rates and directions of evacuation and, ultimately, enable targeted, timely and effective aid.

Artificial intelligence will be an increasingly important tool in driving efficiency in humanitarian response. In 2022, Dataminr worked with UN Human Rights to develop an AI model to improve detection and classification of attacks on human rights defenders. Prior to this, UN Human Rights relied on painstaking, manual efforts to gather the necessary data to create accurate reports on these attacks. Using AI to automate the process has improved detection of attacks a hundredfold, shining a stronger light on the issue and hopefully creating a safer space for human rights advocacy.

Even with said tools in hand, humanitarian organisations face another resource burden. In January 2022, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s servers were hacked, exposing the personal data of over 500,000 individuals, including missing people and their families. Such attacks are accelerating, and solutions are required to ensure humanitarian groups can focus their time, energy and financial resources where they are needed, without risk to those they serve. Collaboratives such as the Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISEC) will be critical to this end.

Final thoughts

These trends do not exist independently. Effective early warning systems embed local stakeholders in their design and communications. They also provide a more holistic understanding of a given humanitarian crisis, allowing for more efficient distribution of limited resources. Localisation supports efficiency by directing more resources to the communities in need, and ensuring lasting impact through locally led decision making.

Collaboration is pivotal to making this all work. Whether in the form of technical integrations or information sharing, co-design or public-private partnerships, effective and open cooperation is critical to scaling solutions that match the humanitarian challenges of the day. Joining forces to design for the realities of the sector is the best and only way to meet these growing needs.


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