Tech by Necessity – How Global Crises Accelerate Technology

Data is saving lives via tech evolved in crisis scenarios

It’s a general rule of thumb that unless you understand a situation, your ability to respond is limited. This is why marketing teams, for instance, are so keen to amass huge data sets about consumer behaviours. Aid workers, however, aren’t interested in selling products or services. They’re interested in saving lives, and luckily the development of advanced data collection systems and innovative solutions is helping them to do it. In many cases, this technology doesn’t have to be particularly cutting edge. Simply joining a video call or sending texts has helped crisis teams to communicate with each other and track the development of a situation. In these environments, technology has a vital role to play in alleviating suffering and saving lives. So which technologies have been developed as a result of global crises, and how are they disrupting the delivery of humanitarian aid?

Innovation where it’s needed most
In 2015, two United Nations project workers founded the Dharma Platform. The software gathers data via a mobile device, rapidly sharing, analysing and visualising the information. Global impact investment company the Rise Fund has invested $14.3m in Dharma Humanitarian Solutions (DHS) and Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF), an aid organisation now using Dharma in 22 countries. Instead of charging for the software itself, the price depends on the amount of data gathered.

Dharma is certainly a pioneering platform, but it’s not the first time that humanitarian crises have provided the catalyst for innovative technology. In Jordan, the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) is using biometrics and blockchain so that refugees can purchase food via a simple eye scan. Identification details are stored on a blockchain based database and then matched with biometric information to make it easier for those in need to access supplies. Extensive databases aside, researchers have been able to create prosthetic limbs for amputees using 3D printing and advanced robotics. These designs are likely to influence the production of replacement body parts for patients outside of war and natural disaster zones. Speaking of wider impact, advancements have also been made in response to worldwide trends that threaten sustainability. The obvious example is renewable energy. Another is CRISPR gene editing in edible produce to address fears surrounding world hunger. This may not involve the efforts of humanitarian workers, but will certainly help to prevent potential crisis situations.

How has technology changed humanitarian work?
It might be difficult to view coherent data collection and visualisation as a lifesaving force, but that’s exactly what it is. Streamlining and connecting important metrics about casualties, medicine, physical space and provisions offers an in depth understanding of what is happening in a certain place, and therefore how best to respond. Instead of fumbling through paper records, information can be stored on digital databases that don’t catch fire or go missing. Biometric systems, for example, have obvious utility in medical facilities if patients are unable to say who they are or where they came from. Many of these systems have use in the wider world, contributing to solving ongoing social problems like lack of housing and food. Worryingly, though, if aid workers can find and store so much personal information in digital data sets, they could be infiltrated. Without sufficient cybersecurity measures, they could give malicious influences the perfect tool to enact more suffering. Technology companies should recognise that their expertise is invaluable in making new systems work. As well as providing a benevolent service, they could also make meaningful connections with official organisations and powerful global players. Companies with a background in the Internet of Things and predictive analytics, for example, could help to detect patterns in natural disasters and military tactics.

Across the world, crisis response units have been largely confined to simplistic databases and rudimentary data collection methods. This has caused serious, life threatening delays and friction between response teams. However, thanks to systems like Dharma, this sad reality is beginning to change. Rapid data sharing and visualisation are allowing aid organisations to share and analyse information, benefitting them and the people they help. No matter which technology or project an organisation is working on, data visualisation tools are becoming paramount. This trend is also reflected in business and governance. Ultimately, though, the technological developments encouraged by global crises highlight a largely untapped opportunity. And, if technology firms can partner with international organisations, offer much needed services and profit from them at the same time, then everyone will benefit.

What other innovations have come about as a result of humanitarian crises? Is data visualisation the most important technological tool for crisis teams? Do technology companies have a responsibility to work with aid organisations? Comment below with your thoughts.