Selected Readings on Data and Humanitarian Response

By Prianka Srinivasan and Stefaan G. Verhulst *

The Living Library’s Selected Readings series seeks to build a knowledge base on innovative approaches for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of governance. This curated and annotated collection of recommended works on the topic of data and humanitarian response was originally published in 2016.

Data, when used well in a trusted manner, allows humanitarian organizations to innovate how to respond to emergency events, including better coordination of post-disaster relief efforts, the ability to harness local knowledge to create more targeted relief strategies, and tools to predict and monitor disasters in real time. Consequently, in recent years both multinational groups and community-based advocates have begun to integrate data collection and evaluation strategies into their humanitarian operations, to better and more quickly respond to emergencies. However, this movement poses a number of challenges. Compared to the private sector, humanitarian organizations are often less equipped to successfully analyze and manage big data, which pose a number of risks related to the security of victims’ data. Furthermore, complex power dynamics which exist within humanitarian spaces may be further exacerbated through the introduction of new technologies and big data collection mechanisms. In the below we share:

  • Selected Reading List (summaries and hyperlinks)
  • Annotated Selected Reading List
  • Additional Readings

Selected Reading List  (summaries in alphabetical order)

Data and Humanitarian Response

Risks of Using Big Data in Humanitarian Context

Annotated Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Karlsrud, John. “Peacekeeping 4.0: Harnessing the Potential of Big Data, Social Media, and Cyber Technologies.” Cyberspace and International Relations, 2013.

  • This chapter from the book “Cyberspace and International Relations” suggests that advances in big data give humanitarian organizations unprecedented opportunities to prevent and mitigate natural disasters and humanitarian crises. However, the sheer amount of unstructured data necessitates effective “data mining” strategies for multinational organizations to make the most use of this data.
  • By profiling some civil-society organizations who use big data in their peacekeeping efforts, Karlsrud suggests that these community-focused initiatives are leading the movement toward analyzing and using big data in countries vulnerable to crisis.
  • The chapter concludes by offering ten recommendations to UN peacekeeping forces to best realize the potential of big data and new technology in supporting their operations.

Mancini, Fancesco. “New Technology and the prevention of Violence and Conflict.” International Peace Institute, 2013.

  • This report from the International Peace Institute looks at five case studies to assess how information and communications technologies (ICTs) can help prevent humanitarian conflicts and violence. Their findings suggest that context has a significant impact on the ability for these ICTs for conflict prevention, and any strategies must take into account the specific contingencies of the region to be successful.
  • The report suggests seven lessons gleaned from the five case studies:
    • New technologies are just one in a variety of tools to combat violence. Consequently, organizations must investigate a variety of complementary strategies to prevent conflicts, and not simply rely on ICTs.
    • Not every community or social group will have the same relationship to technology, and their ability to adopt new technologies are similarly influenced by their context. Therefore, a detailed needs assessment must take place before any new technologies are implemented.
    • New technologies may be co-opted by violent groups seeking to maintain conflict in the region. Consequently, humanitarian groups must be sensitive to existing political actors and be aware of possible negative consequences these new technologies may spark.
    • Local input is integral to support conflict prevention measures, and there exists need for collaboration and awareness-raising with communities to ensure new technologies are sustainable and effective.
    • Information shared between civil-society has more potential to develop early-warning systems. This horizontal distribution of information can also allow communities to maintain the accountability of local leaders.

Meier, Patrick. “Digital humanitarians: how big data is changing the face of humanitarian response.” Crc Press, 2015.

  • This book traces the emergence of “Digital Humanitarians”—people who harness new digital tools and technologies to support humanitarian action. Meier suggests that this has created a “nervous system” to connect people from disparate parts of the world, revolutionizing the way we respond to humanitarian crises.
  • Meier argues that such technology is reconfiguring the structure of the humanitarian space, where victims are not simply passive recipients of aid but can contribute with other global citizens. This in turn makes us more humane and engaged people.

Robertson, Andrew and Olson, Steve. “Using Data Sharing to Improve Coordination in Peacebuilding.” United States Institute for Peace, 2012.

  • This report functions as an overview of a roundtable workshop on Technology, Science and Peace Building held at the United States Institute of Peace. The workshop aimed to investigate how data-sharing techniques can be developed for use in peace building or conflict management.
  • Four main themes emerged from discussions during the workshop:
    • “Data sharing requires working across a technology-culture divide”—Data sharing needs the foundation of a strong relationship, which can depend on sociocultural, rather than technological, factors.
    • “Information sharing requires building and maintaining trust”—These relationships are often built on trust, which can include both technological and social perspectives.
    • “Information sharing requires linking civilian-military policy discussions to technology”—Even when sophisticated data-sharing technologies exist, continuous engagement between different stakeholders is necessary. Therefore, procedures used to maintain civil-military engagement should be broadened to include technology.
    • “Collaboration software needs to be aligned with user needs”—technology providers need to keep in mind the needs of its users, in this case peacebuilders, in order to ensure sustainability.

United Nations Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development. “A World That Counts, Mobilizing the Data Revolution.” 2014.

  • This report focuses on the potential benefits and risks data holds for sustainable development. Included in this is a strategic framework for using and managing data for humanitarian purposes. It describes a need for a multinational consensus to be developed to ensure data is shared effectively and efficiently.
  • It suggests that “people who are counted”—i.e., those who are included in data collection processes—have better development outcomes and a better chance for humanitarian response in emergency or conflict situations.

Katie Whipkey and Andrej Verity. “Guidance for Incorporating Big Data into Humanitarian Operations.” Digital Humanitarian Network, 2015.

  • This report produced by the Digital Humanitarian Network provides an overview of big data, and how humanitarian organizations can integrate this technology into their humanitarian response. It primarily functions as a guide for organizations, and provides concise, brief outlines of what big data is, and how it can benefit humanitarian groups.
  • The report puts forward four main benefits acquired through the use of big data by humanitarian organizations: 1) the ability to leverage real-time information; 2) the ability to make more informed decisions; 3) the ability to learn new insights; 4) the ability for organizations to be more prepared.
  • It goes on to assess seven challenges big data poses for humanitarian organizations: 1) geography, and the unequal access to technology across regions; 2) the potential for user error when processing data; 3) limited technology; 4) questionable validity of data; 5) underdeveloped policies and ethics relating to data management; 6) limitations relating to staff knowledge.

Risks of Using Big Data in Humanitarian Context
Crawford, Kate, and Megan Finn. “The limits of crisis data: analytical and ethical challenges of using social and mobile data to understand disasters.” GeoJournal 80.4, 2015.

  • Crawford & Finn present a critical analysis of the use of big data in disaster management, taking a more skeptical tone to the data revolution facing humanitarian response.
  • They argue that though social and mobile data analysis can yield important insights and tools in crisis events, it also presents a number of limitations which can lead to oversights being made by researchers or humanitarian response teams.
  • Crawford & Finn explore the ethical concerns the use of big data in disaster events introduces, including issues of power, privacy, and consent.
  • The paper concludes by recommending that critical data studies, such as those presented in the paper, be integrated into crisis event research in order to analyze some of the assumptions which underlie mobile and social data.

Jacobsen, Katja Lindskov (2010) Making design safe for citizens: A hidden history of humanitarian experimentation. Citizenship Studies 14.1: 89-103.

  • This paper explores the phenomenon of “humanitarian experimentation,” where victims of disaster or conflict are the subjects of experiments to test the application of technologies before they are administered in greater civilian populations.
  • By analyzing the particular use of iris recognition technology during the repatriation of Afghan refugees to Pakistan in 2002 to 2007, Jacobsen suggests that this “humanitarian experimentation” compromises the security of already vulnerable refugees in order to better deliver biometric product to the rest of the world.

Responsible Data Forum. “Responsible Data Reflection Stories: An Overview.”

  • This piece from the Responsible Data forum is primarily a compilation of “war stories” which follow some of the challenges in using big data for social good. By drawing on these crowdsourced cases, the Forum also presents an overview which makes key recommendations to overcome some of the challenges associated with big data in humanitarian organizations.
  • It finds that most of these challenges occur when organizations are ill-equipped to manage data and new technologies, or are unaware about how different groups interact in digital spaces in different ways.

Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “The humanitarian cyberspace: shrinking space or an expanding frontier?” Third World Quarterly 37:1, 17-32, 2016.

  • This paper analyzes the shift toward more technology-driven humanitarian work, where humanitarian work increasingly takes place online in cyberspace, reshaping the definition and application of aid. This has occurred along with what many suggest is a shrinking of the humanitarian space.
  • Sandvik provides three interpretations of this phenomena:
    • First, traditional threats remain in the humanitarian space, which are both modified and reinforced by technology.
    • Second, new threats are introduced by the increasing use of technology in humanitarianism, and consequently the humanitarian space may be broadening, not shrinking.
    • Finally, if the shrinking humanitarian space theory holds, cyberspace offers one example of this, where the increasing use of digital technology to manage disasters leads to a contraction of space through the proliferation of remote services.

Additional Readings on Data and Humanitarian Response

* Thanks to: Kristen B. Sandvik; Zara Rahman; Jennifer Schulte; Sean McDonald; Paul Currion; Dinorah Cantú-Pedraza and the Responsible Data Listserve for valuable input.