The rise of the cyber-humanitarians

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Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters

The rise of the cyber-humanitarians

Will delivery drones really bring aid to the people who need it most? Aid-by-drone, why not? Nick Dowson writes about the problems with using new technology in disasters.

Now military technologies have given us the ‘humanitarian drone’. It’s not a joke. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for delivery of emergency aid is one of the ideas for a new ‘cyber humanitarianism’. There is also artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and others.

Of course, new technology will, and already does, bring many benefits. In 2017 direct cash transfers to Somalis were said to avoid a famine threatening over six million people. Many cash transfers were made by mobiles, or electronic vouchers.

But many of these new technologies come with problems. Supporters say drones will soon be a good way to deliver goods. Kristin Sandvik is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. He says that they also ‘often risk becoming a form of experimentation on populations in the Global South.’

There is more regulation of air space and personal data in the Global North. And so using drones in crisis zones gives companies a way to test their technology and to look good at the same time.

But even with ‘humanitarian’ uses, these technologies can bring problems. It can be difficult to see the difference between humanitarian and military action and they sometimes crash into civilians. UAVs can also disconnect aid workers from those they want to help.

Humanitarian AI should understand the people it is helping and their emotional needs, eg the desire to live close to family. But it may replace them with numbers. One algorithm found that in Switzerland French-speaking refugees did better in French areas. But this is not difficult to understand!

With Ebola in West Africa in 2014, public and private organizations wanted access to mobile records to see where Ebola was going. But reserachers Sandvik and Lohne say this did not work and was illegal. And Ebola spreads through body fluids not through mobile call records.

This gave very sensitive personal information like place and the call history of millions of people and also wasted time and resources that could have been used to save lives.Technology also gives a way for private companies to make money.

Technology alone will not solve our problems. Nick Guttmann is Head of Humanitarian Response at Christian Aid. He says that cash technologies were useful in Somalia and other places but there is an important need to involve the people in communities. Nick Dowson is a writer and journalist who writes about health, technology and power, housing, transport and the environment.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).