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In this age of climate crisis, humanitarians need to learn to love tech

‘As a sector, we have long been suspicious of tech, wary of the risks it poses and sceptical of the opportunities it brings.’

(Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

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The emergency aid sector has been far too slow to seize on the technological tools that could revolutionise how it manages disasters. As the climate crisis further strains an already stretched humanitarian system, it must urgently wake up and scale up. 

In some places, local actors are already taking advantage of 21st century advances that have yielded new ways to help predict climate events before they become crises, or that have transformed when, how, and where humanitarian aid can be delivered.

In Chad, one of TIME’s Next Generation Leaders, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of the nomadic Mbororo people, has been working with meteorologists to deliver alerts via text message to both city-dwellers and herders. An Indonesian nonprofit, AtmaConnect, is collecting community-generated data, allowing users to share real-time information about local hazards and enable action. And in Kenya and Tanzania, DARAJA – a collaboration between national meteorological departments and community-based organisations – is using a combination of data analytics, AI, and wireless networking to provide highly local predictions and warnings in advance of extreme weather events, allowing the most vulnerable in informal settlements to save their livelihoods and protect their incomes.

But these locally led innovations are small and need scaling. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) estimates that upgrading early warning systems to be reliable and accurate could save $66 billion in loss and damages around the globe each year. This is significant, particularly when compared to global humanitarian aid budgets, which were less than half this amount – $30.9 billion – in 2020. 

Read more → It’s time to pivot from war aid to climate aid

So why isn’t harnessing the power of technology – and working with tech providers to find solutions – a standard part of the humanitarian toolkit?

Some of the fault lies with humanitarians.

As a sector, we have long been suspicious of tech, wary of the risks it poses and sceptical of the opportunities it brings. There can be good reasons for this – the recent Red Cross hack brought to light the dangers of storing vulnerable people’s identities online. Limited ethical frameworks and metrics for success have also fostered an understandable reticence. 

Some of the fault lies with the tech providers, too.

When humanitarians have taken the plunge and leaned into using tech, they have faced a host of barriers. The technologies that enable the collection and analysis of data, for example, can require large-scale and expensive infrastructure, most of which is developed – and priced – for high-income countries (and the requirements of the highest-paying customer), not for those who need it the most. 

Facing a looming climate crisis where disasters will only increase in strength and frequency – worsening food scarcity and doubling the number of people who need assistance to an estimated 200 million people a year by 2030 – we must do everything we can to embrace new solutions.

Here are four practical ways humanitarians can get started to get the right technologies into the right hands to save lives and livelihoods: 

1.     Facilitate problem-solving closer to the ground. Many tech companies – often driven by corporate social responsibility values – strive to support disaster management efforts. However, these same companies, and particularly those that supply data collection and analysis tools, develop solutions thousands of miles away from the climate-vulnerable communities who use them. Tech companies are often eager for more information on the local context and needs, and the humanitarian community can help provide it. Humanitarians should make themselves more accessible to tech companies, and collaborate directly with them to ensure that products, solutions, and programmes are needs-based, user-centred, and adhere to humanitarian principles. For example, if a local community largely relies on WhatsApp messaging, humanitarians can help make sure a flood-prediction model that issues alerts uses that preferred platform. 

2.     Work with tech companies to develop open-source tools. From weather and climate information to socio-economic and population figures, data is fundamental to making better and smarter decisions. Yet some of the most useful data is considered proprietary and is therefore out of reach. Humanitarians can work with tech companies to encourage open-source, open data, and open API-based tools to ensure closer integration and collaboration across various technological solutions. The Convergence Initiative offers a useful example for developing an interoperable, integrated ecosystem that enables countries and humanitarians to mix and match digital solutions, reducing programme fragmentation and waste. And research projects from Indonesia and India show how open source platforms like Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response can use open-APIs to build sophisticated tools where information from social media companies is tracked to deepen understanding about crisis-related behaviour.

3.    Truly integrate innovation and technology throughout organisational structures and culture. Often, humanitarians don’t even know what technology is available to them, or how it can be applied. While a number of organisations have established innovation teams in recent years, NGOs and donors must take more proactive approaches by integrating innovation and technology into their organisational structure, including through performance metrics. Donors and funders must also adopt more flexible procurement mechanisms that allow for greater piloting and scaling of new approaches with new partners – including with tech companies big and small. Donors have a significant opportunity to facilitate the integration of technology into disaster management by including it in requests for proposals and by providing initial capital to de-risk private sector investment.   

4.     Use technology and data to take risk-informed action. Developing and using a technology simply for its own sake will not lead to more effective disaster risk management. The emergency aid sector must determine how it will act differently once armed with the technologies that can help it achieve better outcomes. Technology can enhance decision-making by providing more risk- and data-driven information before a disaster strikes; yet, this information is only useful if decision-makers are willing and ready to prepare communities – be it through the development of more robust early warning systems, anticipatory action, or disaster risk reduction and social protection programmes. This will require sustained engagement and political will, all the way from programme assistants and field managers to UN agency and donor leaders. But it is essential if we want to transform how the sector prepares and responds to the disasters of the climate crisis age that is upon us.

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