Neo-Humanitarians: Technology and the Future of Humanitarian Aid

The quiet heroes of humanitarian operations rarely make the news. While reports from Japan and Libya flow across the headlines, field staff in South Sudan is now helping survivors of renewed village burnings. Logisticians in Liberia are planning for a major influx of refugees from Cote d'Ivoire. And NGOs and UN agencies in Haiti continue to aid one of the poorest countries on earth.

Their work is more complex than most know. Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes. The complicated interactions of politics, environment, and international aid often create unexpected results. Seasoned professionals therefore rely on wisdom amassed from decades of field operations. But new communication technologies just made that equation more complicated.

While reports from Twitter and SMS make sexy headlines, verifying reports of violence and needs is difficult. One must work across language as well as the intentions of the tweeter and re-tweeters. Because most humanitarians already work 20-hour days, they lack time to analyze thousands of messages or to map them, which is why a new form of humanitarian is becoming so important: the volunteer humanitarian technologist.

From Cairo to Benghazi and Sendai, volunteer humanitarian technologists are connecting the informal realm of social media with the formal systems by which UN agencies and NGOs deliver aid. Some are working from their homes and offices; some are traveling into the field. Almost all are volunteers who operate without official support or funding.

These individuals -- perhaps numbering 5000 -- are members of communities that are bringing the principles from open-source software and open data to humanitarian operations. Composed of experts that specialize in imagery, mapping, crowd-sourcing, they have demonstrated a power to bring change to the humanitarian space.

Connected by a growing global network of cell phones and Internet devices, these neo-humanitarians coordinate through loose hierarchies and rough consensus. Like ants, they swarm around challenges, building on the notion that a collective intelligence can emerge from collective action -- that given any problem and a sufficiently large pool of minds, the solution will be obvious to someone. As a result, they have come to be seen as problem solvers who can work at tempi that bureaucracies cannot muster.

During the past year, they mapped the country of Haiti in 2.5 weeks -- a task that many cartographers think might have taken a more traditional organization more than a year to do. They worked with the Haitian diaspora to translate tens of thousands of pleas for help from Creole to English in near real time, and geo-located these translated messages on maps that search-and-rescue teams could use to plan their operations.

For all the power that these new humanitarian communities bring to crisis response, they are still outside the formal system by which the United Nations coordinates emergency operations. Most volunteer organizations lack resources to do more than provide a surge capacity of two weeks (after that time, volunteers generally must return to spouses, children, and employers.) Many are still building the processes by which they verify reports that arrive from the affected population. And all lack the protections afforded to organizations that work under the official humanitarian system, including the shield of neutrality enshrined in the laws of armed conflict.

The United Nations just took a step to tackle these issues. Working with the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs commissioned the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to reflect on the operations of 2010 and devise a framework by which stakeholders could approach their differences as a design challenge. The report proposes an initial interface between the formal humanitarian system and these new volunteer communities. It suggests creating a neutral space where the neo-humanitarians might align their efforts with existing international protocols governing humanitarian operations. And it creates frameworks to push venerable response systems to make needed adaptations. The report will be released by Baroness Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator on 28 March.

For humanitarians, it is a time of great hope and great challenge. If this new interface succeeds, a new generation will work within a more open system where it is normal for affected populations to communicate with donors, NGOs, and the United Nations through Facebook, OpenStreetMap, YouTube, Ushahidi, Twitter, and their successors. Humanitarians will still be quiet heroes, but they will be giving voice to the vulnerable in more effective ways.