Crisis-mapping and new technologies harnessing the potential and mitigating unintended consequences

July 12, 2013
Amra Lee, Senior Adviser, Humanitarian Protection, World Vision Australia
Ushahidi app, Nairobi, Kenya

Crisis-mapping, and new technologies [1] in particular, present both significant opportunities and risks in the humanitarian sphere. The real-time presentation of events, needs, and stories has significant potential to increase the understanding of evolving situations and facilitate a rapid response to those needs. While there are clear benefits to be harnessed through the application of new technologies in the humanitarian space, experience has demonstrated concerns related to the safe collection and management of data, security risks, and subsequent corresponding ethical responsibilities for both new technology and humanitarian actors. Such risks multiply in relation to protection information in armed conflict and other situations of violence settings.[2]

Following the 2008 Ushahidi [3] crowd sourced pilot to monitor post-election violence in Kenya, excitement grew over the potential for such tools in the humanitarian space. As new technologies continue to evolve and are field-tested in a diverse range of contexts, an increased understanding of the risks and unintended consequences in complex contexts has also developed in parallel. While their use in early warning and natural disasters seem less controversial, though not always, the unintended consequences in armed conflict and other situations of violence highlighted the need for caution and the consideration of risk mitigation tools. In 2011 [4], WV facilitated a discussion with key interlocutors to discuss these risks and concluded that professional standards for both humanitarian actors and new technology specialists remained a critical gap.

The potential of new technologies and crisis-mapping in remote and restrictive contexts, particularly in relation to protection, is great. The testing of these new tools reached a peak during the ‘Arab Spring’ and were particularly helpful where the international community had limited access to independent information of the situation on the ground. In 2012, the UN Secretary-General’s Protection of Civilians report concluded: “… technology is providing civilians with the ability to report on ongoing violence in real time. The United Nations and the humanitarian community more generally are only beginning to grasp the associated opportunities, as well as the risks.” [5] As the knowledge on the potential has increased so too have the practical challenges, including verification and methodology concerns and the vastly different knowledge and skillsets between humanitarian and new technology actors. With the continuous push for ‘innovation’ in the humanitarian sector and increasing literacy with new technologies among humanitarian workers, timely operational guidance and standards that meet the needs of both actors will be critical.

The unprecedented growth in new technologies has only been exceeded by the increase in the number of new technology actors engaging in the humanitarian space. The humanitarian sector is a notoriously grey one, the complexity of which requires time, experience, reflection, and an ability to acknowledge individual and agency limitations. This is something the humanitarian sector is still grappling with internally and not necessarily something that can be taught but rather is a lived experience. Recognising the challenges with realising ‘do no harm’, there remains a responsibility of all professionals engaging in humanitarian work to understand the context, analyse the associated risks and take proactive measures to mitigate these. At the same time humanitarian actors need to enhance their literacy on new technologies.

While the recently revised ICRC Professional Standards for Protection [6] includes important updates which can assist in mitigating some of the above concerns, further comprehensive standards are needed to engage the broader new technology and humanitarian community on how to better utilise these tools within a do no harm framework.

WV in collaboration with experts from both sectors will facilitate a discussion on the opportunities, concerns and recommendations on how to move forward at the joint World Conference on Humanitarian Studies- Human Security conference from 24 to 27 October 2013 in Istanbul Turkey. For more information, including how to submit a paper please click here.

[1] Refers to various means of collecting crowd-sourced humanitarian information eg. mobile information technology which supports social media, including Facebook, Twitter etc, open sourced tools such as Ushahidi. Please note this list is non-exhaustive.

[2] ‘Other situations of violence’ refers to armed violence which does not meet armed conflict thresholds under international humanitarian law including civil unrest, electoral violence, urban violence etc.

[3] Which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili


[5] Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, S/2012/376, 22 May 2012, p30.



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