Innovations to Watch in the Humanitarian Sphere

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Innovations to Watch in the Humanitarian Sphere

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As development communications professionals, we try to keep our finger on the pulse for new ways of working and sector-specific advances. In the vast majority of cases, the poor are left out of new innovations for some time, at least until they become dramatically more affordable for them. So the sooner development-minded organisations and businesses can get to grips with rapidly changing technologies and ways of doing business, the better. We hope this short list of recent innovations will help you know what to look out and plan for during 2017 and beyond.

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1. Blockchain: revolutionising global finance

First of all, if you’re wondering whether we’re talking about trading with Lego blocks and have not heard of blockchains, then there’s an explainer just for you at the end. Otherwise, let’s continue.

Although there are fears that blockchain technology will remove the need for many jobs and thereby lead to big increases in unemployment, analysts also recognise that the potential for facilitating more efficient and frequent trade anywhere in the world could boost weak, localised economies. In addition, this innovation eliminates expensive transfer fees, which is good news for international non-profits and for refugees and migrants whose families depend on the remittances they send back home. The cryptocurrencies that blockchains facilitate are also gradually leading to the elimination of contracts, replacing them with ‘smart contracts’, which are self-executing.

2. Insurance brokerage for emergency aid

A recent article by BOND predicts that 2017 will see humanitarian professionals learning from risk financing and insurance frameworks. Its authors point to the problem of fundraisers waiting until there’s a disaster to launch an appeal and seek emergency funds, rather than forward planning and predicting when capital might be required. It’s an interesting read, mentioning a couple of examples in Africa and the Caribbean. We might soon see training courses on how to rein in the funds pre-emptively and forecast expenditure or ‘payouts’ like the insurance industry does.

3. Drones for aid

Getting emergency provisions into hard-to-reach, conflict-ridden, volatile territories has been an area of trial and research since the pioneering Biafran Airlift at the end of the 1960s. 2016 saw the Australian Red Cross and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) investigating the potential of drones in gathering key data in the aftermath of natural disasters and conflict-related crises. Drones can fly lower than helicopters and light aircraft. They can garner GPS coordinates and capture live footage, informing pilots about what has happened, where.

Drones can also be used for micro-transportation, as in Rwanda, where a project by Zipline has orchestrated the delivery of blood supplies to remote areas. Drone usage provides for a less top-down approach to disaster response, as grassroots organisations and local communities get trained to operate them themselves and engage in participatory mapping (they’re also more affordable than, say, a helicopter!). You can download the FSD’s in-depth analysis, ‘Drones for Humanitarian Action’, to learn more.

4. Mapping poverty by satellite

While night-time satellite transmissions have already been providing a window into how well-connected areas are electrically, through observing how illuminated they appear, last year researchers began looking into the possibility of combining this with daytime satellite images as a means of mapping poverty. In an effort to improve upon the shortfalls of poverty measurements gathered from census data and clumsy household surveys, a team from Stanford University analysed images from five African countries. They used the roads, farmland and waterways visible from above as indicators of economic standing. Critics say that policymaking demands far more accuracy in terms of data and evidence than satellite imagery can provide. We say, ‘watch this space’; the research teams are continuing to refine this innovation.

5. The Internet of Things: sensors and hooked-up devices

A report published last year by the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union and Cisco, entitled ‘Harnessing the Internet of Things for Global Development’, predicts that by 2020 we’ll be using 25 billion networked devices around the world. This is easily fathomable. The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to interconnected (usually ‘smart’) devices, embedded with sensors and identifiers that allow them to connect to the Internet. This goes far beyond being able to Bluetooth a YouTube video to your TV set. The technology is used for anything from life-saving links between smoke alarms and local fire stations, to the trivially luxuriant, like programming your alarm clock to power up your coffeemaker. Sensors are not expensive, so this has allowed for the roaming of imaginations and abundant experimentation.

It should be cautioned that there are security concerns surrounding the IoT and cybersecurity experts are still trying to figure out how best to keep these systems secure. By virtue of having more devices connected to the Internet, we’re opening up more potential entry points for hackers and widespread chaos, as demonstrated by a recent massive attack on US and European Internet structures. Some are unsurprisingly calling for governments to regulate the IoT.

As the world awaits further security developments, linked device applications continue to emerge, including many that commendably service the humanitarian and development sphere. So far, we’ve seen water quality being monitored remotely (even internationally), the temperature of medicines being regulated during transportation from afar, the use of mobile phone-operated irrigation pumps by busy or unwell farmers and the deployment of fire alarm networks within urban slums. The possibilities seem to be endless! To read about more great applications, head here. Just imagine the scope for revolutionary change across the humanitarian and development sector when a secure IoT is combined with drones and blockchain technology!

Blockchain: A brief explanation

Blockchain technology has been infiltrating society during the past couple of years, starting with finance and digital assets. It can be tricky to understand its workings. However, if you’ve heard of Bitcoin – a payment system that allows monetary transactions to take place peer-to-peer instead of through an intermediary – then you can think of blockchain technology as the underlying mechanism that permits this to happen (just like the Internet is the mechanism that allows e-mail to function). Blockchains are resistant to any modification, making them more hacker-proof and secure. Essentially, they allow us to cut out the middleman or the need for human verification, and to automate and record transactions between parties.