Digital driving social change

A belief in the power of digital to boost innovation is behind much of the tech-driven transformation of business, government and non-profits alike. Its deployment is also creating new solutions to some of the world’s most serious humanitarian problems. Francesca Woodhouse reports.

Nepal earthquakeThe rise of digital technology and its pervasive use has such potential in terms of impact on some of the world’s biggest humanitarian challenges.

But, although changing the wider world for the better isn’t just about humanitarian issues, it’s a good place to start.

The ability of technology to ameliorate responses to disasters and therefore to improve the lives of people around the world in developing countries, on the refugee and migrant trail and beyond, is palpable.

One of the most exciting developments in this space is open source data recording and exchange of information. Open data as a concept has been around for a long time, but perhaps the humanitarian sector has been slow to take this up and to drive innovation in this space – no longer.

There is a number of projects that work to predict responses to situations by interpreting data, but has the weight of the United Nations and global recognition behind it. It is the brainchild of UN OCHA and sets a standard for understanding “messy data”. Data emerging from crisis situations is often messy.

Hum data uses an open platform that records data about humanitarian disasters (so far, the Ebola virus, earthquake in Nepal and Yemen food security situation). It is soon to launch a centre to encourage greater collaboration and a more data-driven humanitarian system based in the Netherlands.

A consistent humanitarian issue is lack of access to clean water. Nearly one billion people around the world do not have access to clean water and here again, big data and open access to it show their problem-solving potential. MWater provides a free, open-access system to monitor water sources.

It offers a global map, mobile phone app for recording sources and test results and inexpensive water-testing kits costing around $5. MWater works with a global network of NGOs, local governments and other organisations.

Opening data drives both economic efficiencies and transparency. It leads to greater understanding and from this, learning. This is vitally important on a generic level, but particularly useful in high-stress, fast-moving situations. Understanding and learning from previous situations as per Humdata or accessing real-time information as per MWater enables appropriate responses and surely a reduction of error. This will continue to be hugely valuable as natural disasters increase, and migration flows more fluidly.

If data helps to learn and act more quickly in humanitarian situations, so does the power of the individual and the ability to influence in real-time through social media. The power of social has been used to spread the word about events and safety check-ins. It’s another way to empower people.

On Our Radar encourages citizen journalism overseas and in the UK to give voices to those who have experienced a variety of different issues as diverse as the Ebola crisis to leaving social care and dementia. Using both on- and offline technology it creates rich and valuable stories that are true and have resonance.

Crowd-sourced data, user-generated content and real-time are the themes emerging to forecast, manage and mitigate the worst effects of humanitarian crises.

un foreign aidHelping people using data and traceability is at the core of AID:Tech’s offer. A world first, it uses blockchain technology to make aid traceable at the point of use – be it financial, medical or food-based. The large spreadsheet that is essentially the blockchain means every movement of a good or a service is traceable, in real-time.

Monies can be distributed – and whilst at the moment the focus is the NGO world and humanitarian aid, blockchain technology offers real potential to eliminate fraud for good in the distribution chain of aid and beyond. It will work across other verticals too – including within the benefits and health systems in the fullness of time.

The possibilities are endless. It also generates real-time data as to how aid is distributed and used (in the case of cash in the form of a digital voucher).

It would be remiss not to mention the potential of AI and machine-learning in interpreting humanitarian data.  The sheer quantity of data generated must be managed, and AI appears to be the best way to do this. Google DeepMind has enabled Google to manage and interpret data generated that it has reduced total energy usage from its data centres by 15%.

We are on the cusp of something transformative, using open data, with the embedding technologies of blockchain and AI. Amongst other possibilities, it will mean that responses to crises will improve, clean water will be more readily available because it is identifiable and fraud will be eliminated in the aid supply chain.

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