Humanitarian Technology: New Innovations, Familiar Challenges, and Difficult Balances
Searle, Martin | December 2017
Many new technologies hold significant promise to improve aid delivery. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are beaming data directly to software programmes to produce real-time maps of disaster-affected areas and populations in extremis. Artificial intelligence is combing social media posted from conflict and disaster zones to improve responders’ decision-making, and analysing mobile phone data to predict key demographic variables related to vulnerability. The irises and fingerprints of displaced people are being digitised in the name of distributional effectiveness and accountability, as well as refugee governance. The Internet of Things is improving the transportation of temperature-sensitive vaccines, the treatment of patients with highly infectious diseases, and emergency supply chain management. Additive manufacturing is producing required items on-site, reducing the need to transport them over long distances, and, with computer-aided design, increasing the adaptability of those items. These technologies enter an environment with pre-existing practices and competing obligations. This paper uses several of these examples to explore four resulting tensions: (i) between the humanitarian imperative and other public goods; (ii) between short- and long-term interests of those affected by disaster; (iii) between the needs of disaster-responders and disaster-affected; and (iv) between centralised coordination and individual autonomy. Based on an examination of existing literature and cases found therein, it identifies significant similarities between the challenges stemming from these tensions and broader critiques of humanitarianism, and suggests several related policy considerations. These considerations have particular relevance to Singapore as it seeks to adapt its technological expertise and design capabilities to achieve humanitarian benefits both regionally and beyond.
CitationSearle, Martin. 2017. Humanitarian Technology: New Innovations, Familiar Challenges, and Difficult Balances. © S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. http://hdl.handle.net/11540/8708.
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