From delivering aid with drones to replacing food parcels with digital payments, the humanitarian sector has experienced more disruption due to technology in the past decade than we have in the past 50 years. Last week UN agencies, NGOs, start-ups, tech and financial services giants gathered in Mountain View, California at the annual Humanitarian ICT Forum, hosted by Google, to discuss how to empower people in crisis through digital connectivity. Participants held important discussions on how to: expand digital payments to people living in crises; bring humanitarian data collection, sharing and analysis to the next level; and ensure two-way communication with crisis-affected people is the operational norm. As Gwi-Yeop Son, Director of Corporate Programmes at OCHA, one of the forum’s conveners, put it: only by connecting people in crisis can vulnerable people access the information and tools they need to make the best decisions to protect themelves and their families. Here are 8 takeaways from the forum:
Leverage local technologies and solutions
Crisis-affected people are best served by digital connections when they are closely involved in developing them, along with other national actors, including governments. Many participants had stories of well-intentioned projects failing because they were flown in from the outside. Daudi Were, the Executive Director of Ushaihidi, a Nairobi-based tech company that pioneered crowdsourcing of technology tools, said: “US$5–6 billion of the 2016 global humanitarian appeal last year was marked for the Horn of Africa?-?our backyard. How can we help in those crises that are personal to us in a long-term meaningful way?” So what does this sustainable look like? It means helping drought-affected farmers to open bank accounts instead of giving them one-off vouchers. And reciprocating data back to individuals rather than just extracting it: for instance, when the American Red Crossmapped trash heaps in Harare, Zimbabwe, it did so alongside community members, giving them the tools to update the maps. In this case, communities used the data to pressure local authorities to clear the trash.
Apply the right technology for the context
WeRobotics, which works with communities to use robotics for social good, sets up innovation hubs, called Flying Labs, around the world. The Peru Flying Lab wanted to solve this problem: when residents of the remote Pampa Hermoza village in the Amazon rainforest are bitten by a snake they need access to anti-venom within hours but the nearest hospital in Contamana is a six-hour boat ride away. WeRobotics bought a $40,000 drone to deliver the venom but after nine months of research and testing, the drone didn’t work, so they resorted to a tiny beaten-up cheap drone instead. It took 35 minutes to successfully deliver the anti-venom. Lesson learned, said the start-up’s co-founder Patrick Meier: “Technology doesn’t have to be sexy, shiny or expensive. It has to work. The type of drone we ended up using can easily be bought from sites like DrDrone at affordable prices, so others looking to emulate what we’ve done shouldn’t find that hard to do.”
Image: Testing a WeRobotics drone. Credit: WeReobotics