ICTs and Humanitarian Response

Information and Communication Technologies, better known by their acronym of ‘ICTs’, have grown to be an important component of humanitarian response in the last two decades. Their application continues to be of great relevance to the field of disaster relief, and thus this post will be dedicated to providing a succinct overview of the history and evolution of ICTs. Additionally, I will share three humanitarian-related technology projects that my brother, a senior in Stanford’s Computer Science program, has been producing in conjunction with leading International Relations scholars and the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNCHR).

To begin with, ICTs can be defined as a range of technologies that are able to provide real-time information through mediums including but not limited to the internet, cell phones, wireless networks, radio, and satellite systems. Unsurprisingly, this post will examine the development of ICTs within the context of humanitarian relief. In particular, I will focus on Early Warning Systems (EWS), which utilize technology to predict conflict and natural disasters, and Crisis Mapping, which endeavors to track and chart instances of violence and catastrophe. A leading founder of the humanitarian ICT field is Patrick Meier, who is described as a “thought leader on the application of new technologies for crisis early warning, humanitarian response and resilience.” More details on his impressive bio can be found here.

Meier recently published a very useful overview of the development of EWS since their introduction in the ‘90s entitled “Early Warning Systems and the Prevention of Violent Conflict.” As Meier explains, ICTs, and EWS in particular, have undergone significant transformation.  The evolution of EWS has been delineated into four generations. First and second generation Early Warning Systems employ technologies that require the presence of costly infrastructure in the country being monitored. They derive data primarily from email and websites, and thus necessitate computers, servers and internet capability in the host state. 1st and 2nd generation technology generally process data at a much slower rate, as the information is often exchanged between private parties before it is more widely distributed. Further, these first two generations are typically ‘extractive’, meaning their main purpose is to ‘extract’ data from remote conflict zones to “satisfy Western interests.”[1] They are also very state-centric and take a more interventionist approach to preventing humanitarian disasters.

In contrast, third and fourth generation EWS utilize open source technologies, most commonly via mobile communication systems. More specifically, third generation systems are often run by local NGOs, while fourth generation are built with the intention of being completely open-sourced without requiring an outside party to run the scheme. Simply put, these newer generations ICTs empower locals on-the-ground to update both their own country and the international community by texting or calling into a service that receives and distributes their information in real time. This system can be utilized both ways, allowing vital information to be sent to those in an at-risk countries as well. In this way, 3rd and 4th generation EWS is more serviced based, allowing communities to access and disperse information as necessary. Through the transition to these later generations, EWS and humanitarian-related ICTs as a whole have experienced a meaningful paradigm shift. While technology was once viewed as a means of Western states telling vulnerable populations what they might be experiencing and how they should react, modern ICTs are now placed in the hands of exposed communities, where individuals are given agency to provide, disseminate, analyze and receive life-saving information.

Two major challenges (among others) that ICTs face in the humanitarian field will also be touched upon here. The first involves repressive regimes and their increasing ability to manipulate, censor and corrupt information being spread through third and fourth generation technologies. As these technologies become more wide-spread, this issue is likely to become a growing concern. A second issue involves the reality that while newer, more effective technologies are available, many initiatives are still relying on top-down, 1st and 2nd generation EWS, which have been largely inadequate in preventing conflict and large-scale disaster.  Nevertheless, the continued development of ICTs in the world of humanitarian relief offers several exciting opportunities, which I hope to explore in greater detail as I continue my research.

I also wanted to take the time to describe three exciting projects that my brother, Ben Rudolph, has been working on.

1)      RescueSMS

This is a project Ben created at the request of UNHCR. Essentially, RescueSMS is a text messaging platform to help both UNHCR communicate with refugees and refugees communicate with UNHCR. It’s designed to handle a high volume of text messages so that UNHCR can respond to large groupings of refugees at once. Another interesting aspect of Rescue SMS is automatic registration.  When a refugee texts their name to the UNCHR-provided number, they are registered and that begins a series of questions via text to help profile refugees. Ben will be traveling to Ethiopia next month to test out RescueSMS in a refugee camp.

2)      Visualization of Refugee Flows

This is still in the works, but Ben explains that:

“This will basically be a 3D interactive globe of refugee movements and patterns over time. It’s hard to explain  without see a drawing or entering my head, but I promise,  it will be very cool once it comes together”

3)      Intelligently Determining Supplies

Once again in Ben’s words:

“This has yet to be built, but it’s something I think both UNHCR and I are very interested in. It’s based on a bunch of input parameters,  uch as political climate, weather climate, conflict zones etc. I’ll build an algorithm to estimate what type and amount of supplies will be needed.”

Ben can be reached at brudolph@stanford.edu.


[1] P. 12 of Patrick Meier’s Early Warning Systems and the Prevention of Violent Conflict

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