Digital Humanitarianism: Using Big Data


Humanity is currently producing more data annually than in the rest of human history combined. This data is created all throughout our daily lives, from using mobile phones and social media to just shopping. If analyzed correctly, this information can be used to answer many questions and provide new insights. This massive volume of information is known as Big Data. Big Data is increasingly being used in the humanitarian sector, in a growing movement known as digital humanitarianism.

There are several benefits to using Big Data in humanitarian responses. The most prominent benefit is having access to real-time information, which means that organizations can make more informed decisions by adjusting and adapting plans as the environment changes. Additionally, access to multiple sources increases the reliability of the information.

Big Data can likewise be used to anticipate humanitarian crises. By monitoring sources, patterns and trends, potential crises can be detected and averted. These systems can also be used to improve future preparedness by warning people and seeking their direct feedback.

Several prominent humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the U.N. Refugee Agency and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have units working on new technologies in their specific fields.

OCHA, for instance, runs several programs that digitize humanitarian data to make it more readily available. This includes ReliefWeb, a website that provides 24-hour coverage of disasters, conflicts and crises for the international aid community, and the Digital Humanitarian Network, which uses digital networks to support humanitarian response.

This year, OCHA will also open the Centre for Humanitarian Data, the goal of which is to increase the use and impact of data in the humanitarian sector.

However, most humanitarian organizations do not have the staff and resources to cope with the amount of data generated in crisis situations. They thus rely on online activists using crowdsourcing and open source software like Ushahidi and Open Street Maps to map crises. These activists are also part of digital humanitarianism.

Crisis mapping by means of digital humanitarianism is becoming a standard tool in crisis response and has proven useful in several recent events including the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the 2011 uprisings in Libya, the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

One of the suggested ways to use Big Data in the humanitarian sector is to improve the sharing of information between communities in need and those who aim to help them. Big Data and increased connectivity allow humanitarian organizations to better understand where to target humanitarian assistance.

Helena Kamper

Photo: Flickr