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The Rise of Digital Humanitarians

The quick digital response to the earthquake in Nepal is a reminder of how far we’ve come with Big Data. It’s also a reminder for many of us that when disasters strike, we want to be a part of the solution. In crisis situations, droves of people rally together to save lives and provide relief, but many can feel ill equipped either because they are not in the direct vicinity, or they are unskilled in emergency procedures. Additionally, one of the main problems in disaster situations is that there is such an onslaught of information, that it can be hard to decipher which claims are relevant or credible. This is overwhelming when help is urgently needed. But  thanks to tech advancements, more people are finding ways to be part of disaster response efforts, and you can join them.

Technology Can Transform Aid Work

In Paul Conneally’s TedTalk, Digital Humanitarianiasm, he mentions that the humanitarian model is still stuck in an early twentieth century structure, and is about to undergo a rapid transformation. He emphasizes that this expected change is due to the transformational power of technology and the success of SMS in crisis situations. Connealy believes that we need to, and will, transition from an analog humanitarian model to one that is digital.


Enter #DigitalJedis. Patrick Meier recently wrote a book, Digital Humanitarians, that details the growing trend of digital humanitarians using big data to change the face of disaster response.


Book: Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data Changes the Face of Humanitarian ResponseThe rise of digital humanitarians started with the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which was a catalyst for technologists. People intuitively used mobile phones and social media to locate relatives, and identify locations that were hit hardest. But even though there were volunteers to sift through messages, many calls for help were overlooked or missed. It was quickly realized that even though people had their phones at the ready, the system of posting without any organized follow-up in place, was insufficient. It wasn’t possible to make sense of the endless stream of alerts. After Hurricane Sandy there were 3 million Tweets in the first 24 hours that included the hashtag #Sandy. Even for the most committed volunteers, this number is just too big to differentiate what’s actually important.  Technologists were at the point where we had tools to render a crisis situation more effectively, but a solution to make these tools work was still needed.

Join The Movement

One much-needed solution to come out of this realization is Micromappers. Created by Patrick Meier, Micromappers is a system that provides a series of microapps around the world to assess the severity of various problems through a system of “clickers.” Working with only a mobile phone, people are asked to judge images and give opinions on the deluge of information piling up in in the midst of a disaster. They do this by categorizing tweets by subject matter or relevancy, evaluating damage in images, or even translating important Tweets. Their views help aid workers concentrate efforts in the right places by qualifying certain areas as severe, mild etc. This system keeps messages from being ignored or overlooked, and means that now anyone with a mobile phone can be a volunteer. And as Conneally has pointed out, this also enables locals hit by a crisis to be more than just passive recipients of aid. Now with mobile phones, locally affected people can be a part of the solution.

Seeing our progress with recent disasters is encouraging. Humans have an innate need to make sense of information, and our ultimate goal is that we not only be hyperconnected, but hyper-efficient with how we use our connectivity to problem-solve.

If you are interested in volunteering as a digital humanitarian, see the following links:

Join the standby taskforce
Humanitarian open street map