Out on the eastern tip of the city of Copenhagen, amid block after block of waterfront construction, sits a gleaming white fortress. At the heavy iron gates, with their redundant security systems, a line of powder blue flags fly in the breeze. This is United Nations City, home to Copenhagen-based UN agencies from WHO EMRO to UNICEF and UNOPS.
I’ve been invited to this globalism citadel by the organizers of the 2015 NetHope Summit, an annual gathering of technology corporations and NGOs to discuss the roles of information technology, network connectivity, data and analytics in the work of global non-profits for relief, development, health and conservation. Direct Relief has been a member of NetHope since 2012. I founded the NetHope working group on humanitarian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) back in mid-2014.
A Gathering of the Humanitarian Informatics Tribes
When I arrive on Monday, the first session is already underway on the bottom floor of UN City. Gisli Olafsson, NetHope’s peripatetic emergency response director, is recounting an astonishing year of technologically informed crisis response.
Let’s think back to January 2015: the world – West Africa most centrally – appeared poised on the precipice of almost unimaginable horror. The Ebola virus was spreading ferociously through a landscape of remote villages, sprawling African metropoles and distant hospitals in the US and EU, which received a small but steady influx of deadly contagions. NetHope’s role was primarily to work with member NGOs, the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) and the various host country governments to scale up emergency network bandwidth access. (Direct Relief at the time was able to secure satellite access for more than one of our partner locations this way.) A couple months later, well before the Ebola crisis was resolved, a category 5 Cyclone Pam hit the island nation of Vanuatu. Shortly thereafter, a massive earthquake struck Nepal. And, throughout it all, the war in Syria generated casualties and refugees at rates not seen since the end of WWII.
All of this upheaval occurred for global humanitarian organizations and their supporters in the midst of yet another year of massive and incessant technological change. From cloud computing to mobile spatial informatics to the ongoing emergence of consumer robotics, the sector was compelled to seriously rethinking of how we leverage networks, information technology and data analysis to relieve suffering, improve conditions for the global poor and promote humanitarian values.
Despite the enormous challenges, major progress has been made in the last year on all of these issues—perhaps with the exception of Syria. Without gatherings like this one to help make sense out of the chaos, the world might actually seem a bit overwhelming.
The Impasse of Crisis Informatics
Over lunch I join a discussion with Jennifer Chan, NetHope’s remarkable director of crisis informatics. Our topical thread picks up pretty much right where Gisli left off. How do we as members of the global humanitarian community effectively share information, resources and perspectives in order to improve the collective outcomes of our work? What prevents us from acting more in unison? Can new technological or analytic solutions help to advance the social potential of collaborative, cross-sectoral mobilization during and after emergencies?
Frankly, despite Jen’s best efforts and her team’s exceptional recent deployments of Tableau and ArcGIS Online, the conversation is as frustrating as it is informative. I feel a creeping sense of deja vu. Precisely this impasse seems to be a kind of strange attractor, pulling us in the NGO world back again and again to the same sort of imaginative cul de sac, where information is produced in the form of organizational “reports” which always arrive too late, with the wrong information, absent relevant context, in a form that makes them difficult for others to derive value.
So I raise my hand and pose a simple question.
“During the Ebola response, we at Direct Relief had a difficult time getting access to information about the operational status of clinics, hospitals and Ebola treatment units. We, like I think many others here, knew where they were, but we didn’t know much else, for quite a while, about what they were doing or whether they were providing services. None of the reports we read, from any organization, contained this information. That made it very hard to gauge our medical logistical response. But c’mon, how many NGO staff were based in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia at that time? Thousands? And we’re all smart people right? What if, instead of writing reports on our own specific projects for our specific organizations we also reported whether the health facilities we drove past that morning appeared open? Maybe we could snap a picture showing medical staff present and post it online? You know, like crowdsourcing, only with aid workers. What if we didn’t care whether our organization was the one to help out any particular facility? In other words, what if WE became the ‘crowd’ which could generate the sort of information spontaneously that none of our organizations seemed to produce, or to share if they did produce it? What more could we have done to stop Ebola as a result?”
I’m met by uncomfortable silence at first, and then some strong words of encouragement from Gisli and Jen about the need to disrupt humanitarianism and to try new ways to address old problems. I also get pushback from someone who rises to the defense of the current UN cluster system as a “viable” means of coordination. Afterwards I have a polite conversation with a man sitting next to me about how although he supports my position personally it will take a new generation of “young people” like myself to produce the kind of change that the current generation hasn’t produced. I don’t have the heart to tell the nice gentleman that I’m actually 44 years old and have multiple advanced degrees.
Refugees, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Humanitarian Robotics
On Tuesday morning, I’m genuinely moved by the keynote address of Jan Egelund, the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Some time ago, he says, he was living in Colombia. He made a number of friends in a fairly remote village. Then he left Colombia and went on with his life. For a long time he lost touch with those people because he had little way short of in-person travel to communicate with them. He learned to his shock and dismay years later that many of the friends he had made were massacred in a brutal battle at the hands of the FARC rebels. Their story wasn’t told. In part due to lack of connectivity, their lives were lost in the mists of history. It is stories like this, he says, which the world needs to recall now in the midst of the Syrian vortex. Communications cannot by themselves stop the misery, but without better communicative capacity we find ourselves lost in a disorienting field of absences, gaps, rumors, half-truths and a paralysis of incomplete information. Bearing witness is one way to stop massacres. And today that requires bandwidth. It’s one of the most deeply felt pleas I’ve heard for the power of humanitarian networking.
Somewhat less powerful is the case being made for the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). NetHope has just produced a new report on the implications of information and communications technologies for achieving the SDGs. They’re joined on stage by a group of folks who review various aspects of the goals. Perhaps most notable, there are a heck of a lot of SDGs—17 total, with 169 sub-goals. Of course, I agree with a great many of these goals, from reducing global inequality to universalizing access to health care. But having so many goals up feels disorienting to most of the people at the Summit who I talk to. The one interesting, if not exactly convincing, case made on their behalf comes from the Oxfam representative who describes the SDGs not as a single exhaustive list but rather as building blocks for multiple theories of social change, like Lego bricks for global development. Depending on who’s using them for which purpose one can selectively emphasize different aspects and relationships to make a case for the kinds of change that needs to happen. I like Legos for sure, but it does still seem like more prioritization could have gone into the formation of the SDGs.
By the end of Thursday, we arrive at my own 45-minute session on UAVs for humanitarian response. I prefer to describe the field as “humanitarian robotics” these days, in part to prepare for the explosion of new robotics technologies now brewing in research labs and corporations across the globe. UAVs are the first of these robotics technologies to have a tangible impact on humanitarian response, global development and conservation. I detail the work which went into a recently completed project in Nepal with the UAViators humanitarian UAV network, DJI, the world’s leading producer of small commercial drones, and Pix4D, one of the leaders in photogrammetry software. Over the course of five days in September, they trained local Nepalis on UAV mapping and then actually went out and mapped the highly impacted town of Panga just outside Kathmandu in three-dimensions. The imagery will contribute to detailed rebuilding and reconstruction efforts, helping the local people prioritize how to respond to the effects of the earthquake on their built environment. Framing this effort in terms of emergent forms of collaboration, I tie the Nepal work back to the UAV training event that directly preceded this year’s Summit.
With the workday hours counting down on an overcast Friday afternoon, I bid goodbye to the fair city of Copenhagen and board yet another airplane – this time for Helsinki, Finland and UNICEF’s Innovations for Children Summit.
To the Postmodern Finland Station: UNICEF’s Innovations for Children Summit
Helsinki is not Copenhagen, that’s for sure. On Monday morning, it’s darker outside than it has any right to be given the time of day. I’m not sure I’m entirely awake as I fill my second cup of coffee in the lobby of the building where UNICEF’s first global summit on innovations for children is being held. In slow motion I manage to mingle with the crowd. At one point my friend Chris Fabian, the director of UNICEF Innovation Labs, pulls me over and says he has to introduce me to someone. Standing there at one of the round standing tables is a European gentleman with a half smile who responds to my question about who he is and what he does by saying, “Most recently? I helped land a spaceship on a comet.” “Oh really … that’s it huh? Spaceship on a comet?” It’s going to be that kind of morning.
What does space travel have to do with UNICEF, with children, with poverty or with conflict? As it turns out, my coffee companion from the morning is also the first of the main plenary speakers, a member of the multinational team which recently concluded a 10-year long project to land the Rosetta spacecraft on the enigmatically named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet.
Full confession—I’m nerd starstruck.
While the assembled crowd, myself included, seems to know very little about astrophysics and space travel, the topic of his talk on the challenge of long-term planning strikes a nerve. We in the humanitarian and development communities seem to have real difficulties responding to crises that are just around the corner, let alone planning and executing consistent 10-year projects with high budgets and reasonably significant failure risk. From that point of view, maybe space travel actually was an excellent launching point for the next couple of days.
Realities Both Virtual and Physical—Proximate and Remote
Next to the entrance of one of the mini plenary sessions, I’m scheduled to attend on “The Future of Emergencies” a group is sitting quiet, meditative contemplation. Large plastic devices are strapped to their faces. I almost burst out laughing as the participants reach to touch invisible scenes before them like ghostly apparitions. But I resist spoiling the mood. I get the rundown from the curator of this exhibit Barry Pousman, a film director who’s been creating virtual reality films recently for UN agencies. The one this group is watching was filmed in Syria. The idea is to immerse viewers in the remote “reality” of the lives of Syrians fleeing the conflict in order to promote feelings of empathy and hopefully spark personal investment in helping to assist those in need, if not necessarily to end the conflict itself, which of course requires a political solution. While I’m a bit skeptical of the premise, I decide to take a quick look for myself.
I settle into one of the comfortable modernist chairs, strap the device to my head and place the earbuds in my ears. At once I’m transported to the room of an adolescent Syrian girl, and then to a small restaurant where bread is cooking in a refugee camp. It’s difficult to focus on the narrative because I’m constantly being distracted by small visual details, like the plastic fan which sits on the girl’s shelf, or the gaze of the children back at what feels now like my body floating in space. Then again, in the back of my mind I think, maybe that’s what empathy is built from—small details that you’d miss in a different story medium. I’m not sure how long I’ve been sitting here when all at once I’m wrenched back into Helsinki as someone bangs into my legs. It’s a very odd sensation—in the few minutes I was sitting there I lost track of where exactly I was located in physical space. The effect is far more immersive than I was expecting, and the possibilities for this type of narrative seem far more intriguing than I gave credit for initially. For just a few minutes the remote reality of the Syrian crisis really did seem almost proximately juxtaposed with the dark chill of the Finnish morning.
Unstrapping the device from my head, I wander back to the more conventional conference reality. In the room to my right is a discussion of the types and scales of emergencies that now seem to be afflicting communities in crisis around the planet, along with the types and scales of responses that might change how the international community approaches their resolution. My friend Abi Weaver from the American Red Cross makes an impassioned plea that all of us in this room, right here and now, to immediately quit our jobs. The crowd audibly gasps. Well, not exactly quit our jobs, but make a commitment to reaffirm that our true accountability ought to lie with communities in crisis, and that the possibilities and necessities of global emergency response would look quite different to us if we did so. Next to her, a top UNHCR representative from Lebanon describes the almost impossible scale of the refugee problem, in which the total number of Syrian children who need to be enrolled in school in Lebanon this year exceeds the number of Lebanese children by almost 100%. Even in virtual reality the magnitude of the challenge is hard to get one’s head around. It’s not clear that anyone in this room actually has a “solution,” although at least they’re trying.
By the end of the day I’m gathered in a small conference area with about a dozen people from different organizations, including the comms director of UNICEF Finland and my newfound friends from UNICEF Malawi, who are on the verge of launching a remarkable new pilot project to transport dried blood samples via drone in order to cut the time-to-diagnosis for children potentially infected with HIV down from weeks to mere days. Their work is part of a global movement to begin implementing novel robotics solutions, such as automated aerial payload delivery systems, within the most challenging environments and complex problems the world has to offer.
My colleague Judith Sherman from UNICEF Malawi makes an eloquent case for the UAV as today’s direct counterpart to SMS for rural clinics and public health labs. SMS has made a huge impact already in the ability to return test results in a timely manner even to the most remote settings. I talk again to the assembled group about the work in Nepal and urge during a free-ranging, deep-diving discussion to those present to get involved in the global movement to collaborate on the most challenging social good issues with the new wave of smart machines now emerging from all corners of the globe.
In all, it’s been a fascinating 10 days on my innovation summit European tour. While there are some clear misses, both on the programmatic and the technological sides, I find even the sight of my colleagues pawing at virtual Syrian phantoms to be strangely touching in retrospect. The world is right now divided in drastic ways—at once brimming over with creativity and energy around the new conceptual, narrative and analytic possibilities of information and communications technology, yet at the same time best by profound, interlocking crises from Syria to the impact of global climate change. At least some of that creativity and energy, probably not nearly enough, and definitely not always well prioritized, is being channeled towards the people that need it most.