Humanitarian Cyberspace: Threats and opportunities of new technology for humanitarian practice

Many hope that big data will revolutionise humanitarian practice. Our latest post looks at two research articles exploring the potential and perils of information and communication technology in the humanitarian sector.

By Carolina Are

Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology by Róisín Read, Bertrand Taithe & Roger Mac Ginty, Third World Quarterly  -Volume 37, 2016 – Issue 8 

Picture by Third World Quarterly

This article scrutinises three key claims made by techno-optimists about the potential of technology to revolutionise humanitarian action: that it will allow people to access data more quickly, more accurately, and that it will alter power relations in emancipatory ways.

Taking an historical perspective, the authors argue that claims around the power and potential of bid data are often exaggerated. Information technology has been part of the humanitarian sector since its infancy. Moreover, the mere presence or ability to collect data is counterproductive unless the information it contains is meaningful:

“Many of the developments in digital humanitarianism seem to be driven by what is possible rather than what is needed, to the extent that, as Trevor Barnes noted with regard to the data revolution in geography: ‘computational techniques and the avalanche of numbers become ends in themselves, disconnected from what is important’. He poses an important question: are we generating useful knowledge or are we collecting ‘data for data’s sake’?”

The humanitarian cyberspace: shrinking space or an expanding frontier? by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Third World Quarterly Volume 37, 2016 – Issue 1

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik provides a more positive assessment of the potential of information technology to enhance humanitarian practice, in an article also published in Third World Quarterly in 2016.

Sandvik argues that information technology is helping to smash logistical barriers, and altering the means of intervention and food and aid distribution. The move to a “humanitarian cyberspace” also means that new technologies are giving more people a voice, while also making humanitarian organisations more approachable. The author also makes the case for the importance of distribution of life-saving information amongst communities during a crisis, which shows the positive impact technology is having on the humanitarian space.

However, Sandvik’s article cautions that technology cannot simply solve existing problems in the humanitarian sector, such as the politicisation of humanitarian funding. In addition, as with cyberspace more generally, humanitarian cyberspace is subject to security risks, threats and the spreading of rumours or of information that might put aid workers at risk, as a recent report by the International Broadcasting Trust has also outlined.

Technology and practice: a delicate balance

Both articles suggest that our hopes and expectations for technology in the humanitarian space need to be recalibrated and reconsidered. This must be done to make the most out of new technologies and new communications, but also in a way that, in Sandvik’s words, keeps the humanitarian sector humanitarian, without endangering practitioners, removing contact between them and populations in crises, or simplifying the issues at play. Stakeholders in the humanitarian sector need to make sure that new technology does not become a missed opportunity – a wealth of data left unanalysed.