From wars to natural disasters, humanitarian crises in 2023 were numerous and extreme. More than ever, digital technologies are becoming key elements of response and recovery.
In South Sudan, for example, war and economic turmoil have displaced 2.2 million people from their homes and left 7.7 million threatened by hunger, according to Human Rights Watch. The humanitarian aid group International Medical Corps is on the ground there — and it’s leveraging technology in order to help. With an app to track pharmaceutical supplies, it has lowered out-of-stock rates for medicines from 32% to just 3% while cutting wait times in its clinic from 85 minutes to 15 minutes.
With the right technologies, “services can become more efficient and of a higher quality,” said Dr. Yazeed Ayasrah, director of health systems applications at International Medical Corps. “The potential is limitless.”
While technology in humanitarian aid holds great promise, some also see a potential downside. They worry that IT solutions could be misused — and that digitizing humanitarian missions could make the very human work of delivering aid a lot less humane. But by working together to develop responsible use cases and mitigate risks, humanitarians and technologists can unlock new solutions that help people in crisis turn their darkest days into new dawns.
The Promise of Technology in Humanitarian Aid
Nonprofits are looking to IT modernization to make their backend operations more efficient and cost-effective. Those same advances have the potential to make humanitarian aid far more effective.
Those in related fields already benefit: Digital transformation helps doctors deliver healthcare more effectively; enables environmental activists to fight climate change; and empowers conservation efforts.
The use cases for technology in humanitarian work are as plentiful as they are powerful, suggests Pierrick Devidal, senior policy adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross. For example, telemedicine can bring “advanced medical care to war-wounded victims in remote areas,” Devidal wrote in a February 2023 blog post.
“Digital cash transfers enable faster economic assistance and increased autonomy for those who receive it. Facial recognition helps separated families find their loved ones.”
In another recent example, the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Disaster Preparedness and Response team supported response operations after Hurricane Ian knocked out power to over 5 million people. Cloud-based services helped responders build a common operating picture, conduct site assessments, and establish interim connectivity for firehouses and distribution sites.
The potential is vast, according to Piyush Tripathi, a lead engineer at payment platform Square, which supports many nonprofit entities.
“Better data collection methods can come from technology such as drones to assess disaster damage quickly and efficiently,” he said.
“Mobile technology can boost donations, allowing donors from all around the world to contribute financially with a few taps on their phones. [And] satellite technology can be used for better coordination during a crisis, ensuring the right aid reaches the right people at the right time.”
Tripathi has firsthand experience: In a previous role he helped develop an emergency messaging system that supports millions of calls each year.
“If our system isn’t scalable enough to handle this, we could miss out on a chance to help — or even save — a life,” said Tripathi, who has used commercial cloud via AWS and Google Cloud Platform, as well as private cloud leveraging on-premises infrastructure.
“With the help of cloud technology, we were able to handle these calls, even when our resources were stretched.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) similarly utilizes cloud to support its relief efforts and other operations in more than 80 countries. “The cloud has been absolutely critical to our IT operations,” CIO Jason Gray told FedScoop in an October 2023 interview.
In crisis conditions, cloud computing is uniquely suited to support aid delivery.
For emergency relief work, “there will be massive traffic coming into our servers. And when that emergency recedes in a week or two, or a month or two, we then need to scale down very quickly on the infrastructure. Cloud is a perfect fit for this,” said Ayasrah, who has utilized a mix of public and private cloud infrastructures.
Despite the potential benefits, experts say aid groups need to be thoughtful about how they use technology.
Although technology enables robust communication, for example, that’s not always a good thing. The same technology that can enable communications between aid workers and emergency responders can be used to “spread disinformation and misinformation on a mass scale in crises, sowing confusion, increasing instability and undermining trust in humanitarian aid,” according to the United Nations.
Others worry about depersonalization.
“No one wants to feel like they're just an entry in a massive database when they’re in dire need of help,” Tripathi said.
“The pivot to digital can occasionally feel like it’s stripping away the personal touch that is so central to humanitarian aid. It can make processes feel more mechanical and less transparent.”
To avoid these and other hazards, it’s important for aid groups to keep people front and center as they modernize.
“Organizations need to involve actors in the field with their digitization plan,” Ayasrah said. “This creates a sense of ownership for those teams on the ground and helps ensure their compliance. Those tools and systems are only as good as the people using them — you always have to look at it from a ‘systems, people and process’ perspective, making sure that all of those align.”
In Square’s technology initiatives, “we put in a lot of effort to educate both users and organizations,” Tripathi said.
“Even as we innovate, the human aspect has to be maintained. Tech shouldn’t replace human empathy and interaction; it should enhance our ability to offer it, even if it’s from behind a screen.”
As humanitarian groups look to technology, they’re thinking about meeting immediate needs and helping disaster-stricken areas become more resilient to future shocks.
“You always have to have long-term plans figured out,” Ayasrah said.
“How is that country going to improve in the upcoming years … when internet connectivity becomes more widely available? Solutions need to be designed in a way that is functional in the current situation, while also keeping in mind that this needs to scale up in the future.”
Adam Stone is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering technology trends in the public and private sectors.
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