CDAC Workshop: What does the future of digital humanitarian response look like?

typhon_social_media_mappingToday I attended the CDAC Workshop Digital Humanitarian Response – What Should the Future Look Like?

Organised by Justine McKinnon from Standby Task Force and Jessica Roland from Translators Without Borders, it was attended by 25 odd (operational) people from various humanitarian organisations (MSF, Red Cross, World Vision, ACAPS, CDAC …) with among them quite a few familiar faces.  The aim of the workshop was quite ambitious and the question was not fully answered but it triggered some good discussion and useful connections were made. (BTW: What will happen to all the post-its? They never got discussed !?)

I managed to scribble down some remarks that stuck with me and these are dumped below. Its only a small, random subset of what was talked about but generally very similar in content to the Rescue Global workshop I wrote about in my last post.

  • Ivan Gayton (MSF): First objective on arrival in an area: build a strong, diverse, bottom-up network that covers a whole cross section of the society. Do not just rely on the World Bank / UN / … people and their connections for you will miss the vulnerable and truly needy. Hire local people with local connections, build up from there and find out where the unmet needs are. Let the needs drive your, not the constraints. Digital humanitarians tend to focus on the constraints (which roads are working, where is comms lacking, …). Information on constraints is important but should not be the starting point. Frankly, if we know where the needs are we will deal with the constraints, whatever they are.
  • Why is so much information not shared between responders, everybody is there for the same reason, no?
    • time problem, so much going on and need to feed your own organisation (“the beast”) first before you worry about who else to give it
    • if you share info, you are accountable for that information
    • you can get labelled as a person to go to for a particular type of information and quickly can get inundated by requests
    • competition element: if you are first to collect certain information and you share it you give away a marketing opportunity to others
  • What is our capacity to actually absorb the information, a lot of information is just not read and a lot of time wasted
    • A lot of people get tunnel vision, get sucked into the response
  • Humanitarian response has no real command & control structure. Debate: should there be an umbrella organization? A central source of truth & data? A couple of cynical remarks about the UN Cluster system and OCHA.
  • Big problem these days: NGOs / responders used to send professional needs assessors to asses the situation on the ground. Now they send professional grant writers attending cluster meetings. The system is such that grants quickly have to be secured to ensure people can stay and money is availble. If not they have to leave again.
  • We are so bad at assessing crises: not honest about how decisions are made
  • Philippines coordination was a huge advance over the Arab spring and Haiti
    • not a complex disaster
    • lessons learnt from last times
    • government not on a particular side of an issue (so relatively good parter)
  • No hard data on the bias from relying on social media
    • Anecdotal evidence: substantial bias towards urban centres and spectacular things. That is ok if that corresponds to where the problem is (which coincidentally was the case in the Philippines)
    • More & better support needed for SMS
  • Very interesting: cell phone coverage has become a primary need (even before drinking water!)
  • Crowd sourced information: useful for general trend & sentiment analysis, identifying hot spots, flagging up things you may have missed
  • Dont show / generate pretty looking but static maps. Need interactive maps and the ability to inspect and download the backing data


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