Technology has the potential to create transformative impact on lives, not only in the way we work and study, but also in humanitarian relief and assistance activities carried out in crisis-afflicted and disaster-affected regions in the world.
According to a research by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance has increased by about threefold from 78 million in 2015, to 235 million in 2021. In the Asia Pacific, a region which accounts for about half of global natural disasters, millions have to cope with eroded lifestyles and hardship that compound from being displaced owing to conflicts and violence. Add to this the woes of COVID-19, extreme weather, and poverty, the region is home to a growing group of vulnerable in urgent need of humanitarian relief and assistance.
As humanitarian crises become more debilitating and complicated, there is a need for the world to take on more effective humanitarian efforts, leveraging innovative technology to assist the vulnerable.
Mobile applications, chatbots, and social media
There is no doubt that technology serves as an enabler for improved humanitarian actions. The pandemic has highlighted the role of technology in response, recovery, and coordination, where efforts towards outbreak mapping and contact tracing helped countries reduce the spread of the virus. Similar support can be delivered to help the world’s vulnerable through faster and more effective actions to other crises.
Since connectivity is key to ensuring that critical information is disseminated, digital access allows the affected to call out for help. Especially in the current pandemic, when assess to affected populations can be limited, communication through mobile applications and social media is critical for crisis information to be disseminated to humanitarian bodies in the shortest time. This information is useful in securing the right resources to respond and extend a lifeline to those affected. With the proliferation of mobile applications and social media, more people can provide information to provide relief workers a better picture of what is going on. Similarly, chatbots provide an effective channel for two-way communication. The WHO and UNICEF are some international organizations that have turned to chatbots via messaging platforms to connect people and government in the wake of COVID-19.
Blockchain is now being used by the United Nations in humanitarian response to facilitate information management, manage crowdfunding, and coordinate aid delivery. It can be used to effectively close funding gaps, as funds can be distributed directly to the recipients without having to go through banks or other financial services. Blockchain can also be used in creating digital IDs for vulnerable groups such as refugees. However, the use of blockchain in humanitarian efforts is still relatively new. There is also a need to address concerns about potential data breaches.
Drones are used widely in emergency management and disaster risk prevention. Fitted with sensors and cameras, drones are used as an inexpensive way to collect aerial images to offer relief workers real-time information of emergencies. They can also be used to deliver medical supplies to crisis areas, restore temporary connectivity, and assist search and rescue operations. UNICEF launched its first drone corridor in 2017 to support humanitarian use, in particular delivery of vaccines. However, many countries still lack regulations on the use of drones or have set limitations regarding altitudes and proximity to urban areas or facilities such as airports.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning
Artificial intelligence (AI) is also used in addressing humanitarian crises. To accurately predict an impending food crisis, for instance, data collected from various sources such as satellite imagery, weather forecasts, and food prices are analyzed using machine learning (ML) models to help relief workers identify and assess needs, raise emergency preparedness, monitor situations, and review relief effort. AI is also used to predict the spread of vector-borne diseases through geolocation breakdowns. It can be used together with other technologies such as mobile applications, chatbots and social media to enhance relief efforts. In India, which accounts for 20% of global flood fatalities every year, Google uses AI and ML to help predict the time, location and severity of impending floods. Warnings are sent promptly via Google Maps and Search to reduce fatality rates.
Internet of Things
During this pandemic, the Internet of Things (IoT) has helped to bring healthcare relief to overwhelmed hospitals and reduced in-person consultations via teleconsultations. It is also used in vaccine cold chain monitoring where IoT sensors are placed on vaccines, and cold chain data information are sent to the cloud to support real-time logistics management for vaccines. Applications that track vaccine location, temperature, and stock levels are connected to the IoT sensors to provide reliable information on vaccine supplies.
Humanitarian crises undermine growth and stability. Using tech-driven digital solutions, the world can better intervene and respond to humanitarian crises to positively serve affected populations. Supportive policies and frameworks, with governments playing a central role must be complemented with partnerships in the private sector to advance the use of technology to achieve humanitarian objectives for the common good. Especially in times when humanitarian efforts are hampered by the overarching responses to COVID-19, countries need to work together safeguard countries and lives to reduce death and destruction.