Mapping humanitarian action on Instagram

Report by Anthony McCosker, Jane Farmer, Tracy De Cotta, Peter Kamstra, Natalie Jovanovski, Arezou Soltani Panah, Zoe Teh, and Sam Wilson: “Every day, people undertake many different kinds of voluntary service and humanitarian action. This might involve fundraising and charity work, giving time, helping or inspiring others, or promoting causes. However, because so much of the research on volunteering and humanitarian action focuses on formal activities along with large-scale campaigns and global crisis events, we know very little about what people are doing informally and in their local community.

Humanitarianism is changing with the digital age and with new modes of networked communication and interaction. The research presented in this report offers new insights into the way people engage with humanitarian activities in their local contexts and everyday lives. We turned to Instagram as a novel data source that can offer insights into everyday humanitarian action. As a popular visual social media platform, Instagram provides a certain kind of intimate access to the humanitarian acts and the social good values that people want to capture, share and promote to others.

We sought to develop a typology of everyday humanitarian actions, the targets of those actions and situations and contexts they happen in through an analysis of Instagram data. Our research methodology and findings unlock a new approach to understanding humanitarian action in situ, and opens opportunities for organisation-led campaigns to improve and support self-mobilisation.

By using geographical information provided by Instagram users when they post, we demonstrate the relationships between humanitarian activities and locations across Victoria, Australia, illustrating the heavy concentration of activity within Melbourne’s CBD and inner suburbs. The data shows patterns in the kinds of actions, the situations in which they occur, and the humanitarian targets and values shared. On the basis of the findings, the report points to next steps in how humanitarian and charity organisations can innovate using social data to build a digitally active humanitarian movement by mapping and amplifying and better understanding humanitarian deeds where and when they happen. While the analysis offers many nuanced insights into everyday humanitarian activity, we highlight three key findings.

  • When people post to Instagram about humanitarian action they are most often promoting causes and activities, fundraising and giving time
  • Groups give time (volunteering, giving), individuals give or raise money (charity, fundraising)
  • Humanitarian action posted to Instagram is heavily concentrated around Melbourne CBD and inner suburbs, with a focus on public spaces, restaurant and entertainment precincts along the Yarra River and Swanston Street…(More)”.