Q&A on Digital Humanitarians with Researcher Wendy Norris

New technologies have enabled virtual volunteers to collect and share situational information during natural and human-caused disasters. We spoke to Wendy Norris, author of the paper Digital Humanitarians – Citizen journalists on the virtual front line of natural and human caused disasters, about finding the balance between sharing information in real time and securing audiences’ trust. 

By Carolina Are

Wendy Norris has a past in digital journalism and is now working with the University of Colorado’s TMI Lab, in collaboration with Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information in Crisis). She is currently researching the correct handling of real-time crisis data and information shared through social media. Her research blends humanitarian reporting with information science and social media, stressing the importance of finding new systems to verify and share crisis data. With these new systems, she says, digital humanitarianism can fundamentally alter how we view humanitarian crises and the ways in which we respond to emergencies.

Picture by: @courtneycorlew via Unsplash

In her paper, Norris defines digital humanitarianism as “decentralised, self-organised, volunteer-based and virtual.” Although the practice is seen as a potential solution to “technical and communications barriers” faced by aid workers, it is still a work-in-progress and it raises many ethical, political and legal issues. In the below Q&A, Wendy Norris shines a light on her paper and on the potentials and pitfalls of digital humanitarianism.

Q: What are the potential benefits of digital humanitarianism?

A: Digital humanitarianism, at its core, is a collaborative process of information gathering and sense-making about the human aftermath of a crisis. Like other forms of online crowd-sourcing, diversity is a crucial ingredient for producing trustworthy collective knowledge. People who volunteer as digital humanitarians come from all walks of life, across the world, and with different talents, cultures, and backgrounds. This creates a great test bed for innovative thinking, sense-making, and problem-solving to complement professional humanitarian response.

In addition to the broad range of skills, the scale of hundreds of people coming together to rapidly gather, verify, and analyse information creates a helpful self-correction mechanism so responders can have a high degree of trust in the information analysis, maps, and graphs. It’s really amazing to watch the activation process unfold and ramp up to a worldwide, 24-hour-per-day operation with volunteers signing in continuously across time zones. We hope, as digital humanitarian processes mature, that the depth and speed by which they can assemble trusted, verified situational awareness will improve on-the-ground crisis response, logistics, and resource deployment.

Digital humanitarianism is also very grounded in empathy and a sense of community among the volunteers, in contrast to other forms of distributed work that often pay piecemeal wages. Though I have no empirical data to support my claim, I’d like to think that the kindness that drives people to volunteer long hours at a moment’s notice to collect and curate crisis information to ease the pain of others they don’t know helps to make the world a more compassionate place. In such a topsy-turvy political environment today, we could all enjoy a little more charity toward one another.

Q: How can we make sure UGC and digital journalism add to the humanitarian reporting space?

A: Establishing a sense of trust with the public is a critical challenge for all forms of journalism. This demand is especially true for humanitarian reporting which is often situated in very complex geopolitical, social, and cultural contexts far outside the news audience’s own experiences. Worthy humanitarian reporting introduces frames of reference, new facts, and contested ideas that can sometimes be at odds with establishing trust.

I’ve found in my previous work as a digital journalist and now as an information science researcher that thoughtful community engagement can help bridge the trust gap. One approach I’m interested in is integrating user-generated content as a way to add street-level context to reporting, that augments official, expert, and other types of sources. Humanitarian news relies too heavily on single source reporting, like a lot of news these days, which can misrepresent a complex situation. Recasting the role of eyewitness accounts, personal perspectives, and insider experiences to advance the primary reporting about humanitarian concerns is a powerful method to knit together an authentic and compelling narrative that appeals to hearts and minds. Ultimately, our charge is to rethink, in both large and small ways, how user-generated content and digital journalism can help spur much needed dialogue and trust between experts, affected people, and the public about humanitarian concerns.

Picture by @alejandroescamilla via Unsplash

Q: How can digital humanitarians use big data without harming the people affected by humanitarian crises?

A: Upholding the personal agency, privacy, and dignity of crisis-affected people is a moral imperative whether one is analyzing large, aggregated data sets or monitoring user-generated content. In my experience, digital humanitarian organisations closely curate relatively small samples of publicly posted social media to assess situational awareness for on-the-ground responders but do not collect what’s considered “big data” nor do they assemble non-public information.

However, I’ve noticed recently a new and rather troubling use of social media as a de facto emergency call network when government systems are overwhelmed during a natural disaster. Quite desperate people are publicly posting private information online to pass along to official search and rescue teams and ad hoc volunteer groups that form to help evacuate trapped residents. The information lingers on search engines and insecure websites created by the grassroots rescue groups with little to no privacy protections against identity theft. I’m very concerned that folks who are trying to piece their lives back together are now at risk of data exploitation, too.

It is incumbent on digital humanitarians and our institutional partners to revise their organisational data policies to secure and/or mask personally identifiable information in light of this emerging trend. Crisis informatics researchers also have an enormous responsibility to ensure that we work closely with our institutional review boards to implement security protocols for storing and hashing social media data that may contain personally-identifiable information from crisis-affected people.

Q: Should citizen journalists’ work in humanitarian crises and war zones be rewarded?

A: As a former pseudonymous blogger who became a journalist and editor, I have wrestled mightily with my colleagues about compensation for user-generated content and citizen journalism. The typical offer of non-compensated credit for eyewitness images/video is unfair and particularly exploitative of people in high risk situations, such as crisis/conflict zones. I believe that if the work of non-credentialed people is worthy of inclusion in professional news reporting, then it’s worthy of fair payment in accordance with freelance scales.

Some argue that citizen journalists are more motivated by social change, political advocacy, and/or personal interests, not unlike those who take part in Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap, and other co-creation/peer production venues, and who don’t expect tangible rewards. That is likely true for some people. It’s also true that some professionals are similarly motivated by personal values over money. Yet, they receive payment for work that is valued by society or has commercial purpose.

The voices and historical/cultural perspectives of crisis-affected people are woefully underrepresented as both sources of news and in the making of news. Local people who are able to provide depth and context to field reporting should be welcomed and rewarded as newsroom colleagues.

Q: What are you currently researching?

A: My current research with the TMI Lab, in collaboration with Project EPIC, at the University of Colorado Boulder, is grounded in the radical notion of information as humanitarian aid. Facts about what happened, news about where to get help, and reports about the fate of one’s community are as vital as food, shelter or medical care.

However, parsing the enormous streams of user-generated content on social media to derive timely, helpful, and actionable information remains a big challenge. Traditional ways of assessing the age/timeliness of information through datestamps and timelines are up-ended by social media platforms due to content throttling, algorithmic ordering, etc., that are out of the users’ control.

Together with the digital humanitarian group Standby Task Force, I’m exploring qualitative representations, or the different ways people think about, talk about, and make sense of time, during high tempo, fluid, and time-critical crisis scenarios. The aim is to unpack how time is embedded in social media data and the humanitarian crowd-sourcing process which can help us overcome platform timeline constraints to produce near real-time situational awareness. It’s an exciting opportunity to explore computer-mediated communication, social computing, human-computer interaction, and system design within the humanitarian space.

I’ve also recently launched a side project that originated from an unexpected finding in a previous study describing how digital humanitarian crowd work is a form of data-driven citizen journalism. One of the case studies described an especially challenging digital humanitarian deployment to document the information flow between refugees and aid organizations in Europe. My investigation also revealed some troubling ways that refugees are depicted in traditional news reporting. This research asks: Do media factors, such as audience market, news organization type, etc., influence news frames/agendas that underscore power and privilege in refugee crisis reporting? Is there a relationship between the news frames/agendas and posts about refugees during the same time period on Twitter? What role might digital humanitarianism as a form of citizen journalism play in improving public dialogue about refugee concerns?

Read Digital Humanitarians – Citizen journalists on the virtual front line of natural and human caused disasters here on Journalism Practice.