Publication Date
April 25, 2013

"...[N]ew communications technologies are already changing the face of disaster response..."

This report from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) imagines how a world of increasingly informed, connected, and self-reliant communities will affect the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It lays out some of the most pertinent features of these new technologies, such as SMS (text messaging), social media, and others, identifying the opportunities and difficulties in applying them. The report explores how new ways of interacting are bringing people in need closer to people who can help. It tells the story of agencies listening to their demands for change and responding creatively.

The report describes how aid agencies are adapting to a more open, participatory way of interacting with people in crisis, such as through crowdsourcing and volunteer networks, and how that is affecting their activities. It argues that:

  • Information needs to be seen as a basic need in humanitarian response.
  • The ways in which humanitarian information is collected, shared, and analysed need to change fundamentally.
  • There is a need to create new capacities and ways of thinking in aid organisations and governments to understand and use new information sources.
  • New technologies bring new risks; humanitarians will need to develop guidelines to ensure that information is used in an ethical and secure manner.

Specifically, the first section is divided into 4 chapters:

  • The first chapter charts how new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are affecting people's behaviour in emergencies. "The spread of mobile phones, the growth of the Internet and the rise of digital social media are enabling people to reach out to each other across previously impenetrable divides. For example, in February 2012, citizens from across crisis-wracked Somalia communicated via SMS with high-ranking Government officials who had gathered at a summit in London [United Kingdom] to determine their future."
  • The second chapter lays out some of the most pertinent features of these new technologies and identifies the opportunities and difficulties in applying them. For instance, crowdsourcing and crisis mapping "enable the rapid, low-cost and accurate analysis of complex situations, and offer new ways of visualizing that information for decision makers." However, "[t]he use of large open-data sets increases the possibility of compound errors. Information generated by crowdsourcing can be manipulated. Differing levels of access to technology can inject bias into data collected via mobile phones. The sheer amount of data generated can also have a cost. Unless systems are designed to use it, they can become bogged down. Simply asking for information about needs might raise expectations beyond agencies' capacity to deliver. Spreading information about highly sensitive situations can put people in danger."
  • The third chapter describes how many aid agencies are adapting to a more open, participatory way of interacting with people in crisis, and how that is affecting their activities. It is noted that aid agencies need to adapt to the new information environment in 3 ways:
    1. find ways to work with new data sources, which "may require listening to people who may previously have been ignored. Using new forms of data may also require empowering technical experts to overrule the decisions of their less informed superiors."
    2. collaborate with a wider range of partners, which "may mean working with local councils to make intuitive maps, as in the Philippines, or working with small businesses to fund community-driven early warning systems, as in Malawi."
    3. understand that information in itself is a life-saving need, which "must be understood as a product, or service, to help affected communities determine their own priorities. This means understanding how information flows in their particular context. For example, posting flood warnings on the Internet may be less useful than erecting a large siren."
  • The fourth chapter lays out a series of objectives, proposes criteria by which to measure progress, and suggests a number of steps, broken down by sector, to achieve them. These include enshrining the necessity for 2-way communications into common funding pools, such as the Central Emergency Response Fund and consolidated appeals.

The second section of this report presents country-level data and trend analysis relevant to humanitarian assistance. (That said, trends are shared throughout the entire report. For example, it is reported here that the Philippines has a mobile phone penetration rate of 103%; Filipinos sent an average of 2 billion SMS messages every day in early 2012, and over 92% of Filipinos who have been online have used Facebook. "The penetration of new technology has changed the relationship of the average Filipino to information. They are not simply consumers of information; they are also producers, distributing information freely and widely, to be acted on and responded to by others.") A number of different visual representations of humanitarian data and trends are featured in the report. There is also some limited narrative text, which is intended to provide basic orientation to the reader and guide individual interpretation.


OCHA website, August 26 2013.