Digital humanitarian work [seminar notes]

Pour yourself a cup of coffee. Position yourself on the couch with your laptop.

Save the world.

For three years, time & again, crisis mappers all over the world have helped source vital information for humanitarian workers. Deployed in a crisis situation, humanitarian workers must struggle to gain an overview and maximise impact with limited resources. And it often comes down to having to make choices between bad and worse. Having good information to base one’s prioritizations becomes vital.

You’re not powerless anymore. Faced with a crisis on the other side of the world you can help provide valuable information by organizing information for the people on the ground. Besides donating money you can donate some time be it mapping out some streets on an online map, filter tweets for relevant information, categorizing (properly tagging) images from the crisis and so on. Simple tools that are easy to learn supercharge this effort.

Digital humanitarians are people empowered by digital tools and engaged in making the world better. Knowledge is power, and with the internet people may source information for great impact.

First Norwegian seminar on DH

Here are a couple of my impressions from the seminar I attended yesterday called Digital Humanitarians and Networked Crisis Support (link). The conference organizer wondered whether or not this was in fact the first seminar in Norway on this topic. The talks were all really interesting since they featured people actively engaged with various forms of digital humanitarianism. All the talks were streamed, and you can view the broadcast here.

Got inspired, what now?

After all the talks we sat down in a large ring both speakers and attendees and just voiced our thoughts. People were energized by the talks and very eager to keep in touch on this topic. They had received our e-mails through our registration and we agreed to keep in touch.

While in the circle all the attendees made a short introduction of themselves and their interest for this topic: Designers, techies, artists, businessfolk, enthusiasts and so on. Many were already engaged in projects that leveraged the web’s potential for good. Others were interested in contributing and looking for inspiration.

I was struck by how the speakers kept using the phrase “we activated” when talking about how they acted to digitally help in crisis. There are many crisises in the world and it would be nice if we could activate to not only help in immediate crisises but also in long term crisises of tax fraud, environmental sustainability and similar economical/environmental wrongdoings.

One thing I noted was that there seemed to be an issue with the general tooling. They’re good but they could definitely get better. This concern was echoed by two of the speakers. Of the many open source mapping tools out there Ushahidi is the most popular (github link). Problems included persistent bugs, code that needed restructuring, the overview could use a user experience design makeover and some wished for an easy means to extract data from the solution in xml format. This is something I’ll try and discuss with my friends over at Pils & Programmering.

So, there. That’s the end of a lengthy post. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a programming contribution somehow. That would be really cool.

Further sources

  1. Digital Humanitarian Network, they provide an overview of various DH communities.
  2. Crisis Mappers, one of the oldest groups exemplifying what digital humanitarianism can be.