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Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda

  • Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert, John Karlsrud and Mareile Kaufmann


New technology may offer many opportunities for humanitarian action, but it also presents a number of challenges. Currently, most of the critical analysis of these potential challenges takes place in the blogosphere, on tweets and on listservs. There is a strong need for more scholarly engagement on the subject. This article offers an agenda for critical inquiry into the emergent field of humanitarian technology as applied to a broadly defined context of crises, encompassing both natural disasters and conflict zones, by identifying what technology does to the humanitarian enterprise, and by reflecting on the key challenges that emerge.

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1 Acknowledging that the notion of technology is very broad and that humanitarian action has always been facilitated by some kind of technology – even as basic as pen and paper – we focus in this article on the influence of novel, mostly digital and web-based information and communication technologies on the humanitarian enterprise.

2 Meier, Patrick, “New Information Technologies and Their Impact on the Humanitarian Sector”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 884, 2011, pp. 12391263.

3 See e.g. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies, UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, Washington DC and Berkshire, 2011; Mancini, Francesco (ed.), New Technology and the Prevention of Violence and Conflict, International Peace Institute, New York, April 2013.

4 See, for example, Patrick Meier's blog, available at:; the Wilson Centre's Science and Technology Innovation Program blog, available at:; the Advanced Training on Humanitarian Action blog, available at:; The Diary of a Crisis Mapper blog, available at:; and the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, accessible through the following email address: .

5 Burns, Ryan, “Moments of Closure in the Knowledge Politics of Digital Humanitarianism”, Geoforum, Vol. 53, 2014, pp. 5162.

6 Gus Hosein, personal communication, the Critical Humanitarian Technology Project Seminar, PRIO, 28 November 2013; similarly discussed in critical security studies, e.g. in Amoore, Louise, “Algorithmic War: Everyday Geographies on the War on Terror”, Antipode, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2009, pp. 4969.

7 Mark Duffield, “Disaster-Resilience in the Network Age: Access-Denial and the Rise of Cyber-Humanitarianism”, DIIS Working Paper No. 23, 2013, available at:

8 For a discussion, see Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora and Lohne, Kjersti, “The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone”, Millennium Journal of International Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2014. See also Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora and Gabrielsen Jumbert, Maria (eds), The Good Drone, Ashgate, Surrey, forthcoming 2015.

9 Encoded in the Statutes of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements, and encoded in various UN General Assembly resolutions, notably UN GA Res. 46/182, 19 December 1991.

10 Anderson, Mary B., Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace or War, Lynne Rienner, Boulder CO, 1999.

11 Business Wire, “IDC Predicts 2012 Will Be the Year of Mobile and Cloud Platform Wars as IT Vendors Vie for Leadership While the Industry Redefines Itself”, 1 December 2011, available at:

12 Gulveen Aulakh, “Smartphone Rates May Slip Below 2.5k by Year-End”, Economic Times, 19 March 2014, available at:

13 Bengtsson, Linus et al. “Improved Response to Disasters and Outbreaks by Tracking Population Movements with Mobile Phone Network Data: A Post-Earthquake Geospatial Study in Haiti”, PLoS Med, No. 8, Vol. 8, 2011; UN Global Pulse, Characterizing Human Behavior During Floods Through the Lens of Mobile Phone Activity, 2014, available at:

14 Anne Nelson and Ivan Sigal with Dean Zambrano, “Media, Information Systems and Communities: Lessons From Haiti”, (published 21 January 2011), available at:

15 Mark Duffield, personal communication; Critical Humanitarian Technology Seminar, PRIO, 28 November 2014.

16 Bijker, Wiebe E. and Law, John, Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Socio-Technical Change, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1992; MacKenzie, Donald and Wajcman, Judy, The Social Shaping of Technology, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1999; Herrera, Geoffrey L., “Technology and International Systems”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3, 2003, pp. 559593; Fritsch, Stefan, “Technology and Global Affairs”, International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2011, pp. 2745; McCarthy, Daniel R., “Technology and ‘the International’ or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Determinism”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 41, No. 3, 2013, pp. 470490.

17 D. R. McCarthy, above note 16, pp. 471 and 489.

18 Scholars have long been interested in the use of technology for humanitarian purposes: see Stephenson, Robin and Anderson, Peter S., “Disasters and the Information Technology Revolution”, Disasters, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1997, pp. 305334.

19 D. MacKenzie and J.Wajcman, above note 16.

20 G. L. Herrera, above note 16, p. 560; see also W. E. Bijker and J. Law, above note 16.

21 Patrick Vinck, “Humanitarian Technology”, World Disasters Report 2013, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2013, p. 20, available at:

22 Because of space constraints, the ways in which humanitarianism shapes technology – for example, by providing “doing good” legitimacy – will not be discussed further here.

23 De Laet, Marianne and Mol, Annemarie, “The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology”, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2000, pp. 225263.

24 Garcia, Angela Cora et al. , “Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication”, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 38, No. 1, 2009, pp. 5284.

25 Deibert, Ronald and Rohozinski, Rafal, “Liberation vs. Control: The Future of Cyberspace”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 21, No. 4, 2010, pp. 4356.

26 This section builds on Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, “The Humanitarian Cyber Space: Expanding Frontiers or Shrinking Space?”, 2014, unpublished manuscript on file with the author.

27 Metcalfe, Victoria, Alison Giffen and Samir Elhawary, UN Integration and Humanitarian Space, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2011; Collinson, Sarah, Elhawary, Samir, “Humanitarian Space: A Review of Trends and Issues”, HPG Reports, No. 32, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2012.

28 Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2013: The New Normal: Coping with the Kidnapping Threat, October 2013, available at:

29 IFRC, World Disasters Report 2013, Chapter 7: “Innovation, Evaluation and Diffusion of Humanitarian Technology”.

30 For examples, see Gus Hosein and Carly Nyst, Aiding Surveillance, Privacy International, October 2013, available at:

31 Hilhorst, Dorothea and Jansen, Bram J., “Humanitarian Space as Arena: A Perspective on the Everyday Politics of Aid”, Development and Change, Vol. 41, No. 6, 2010, pp. 11171139.

32 Donini, Antonio (ed.), The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action, Kumarian Press, Sterling VA, 2012.

33 Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, “The Risks of Technological Innovation”, in IFRC, above note 29.

34 For an interesting case of a humanitarian organization addressing its own internal digital divide, see the IFRC's digital divide initiative, “Technology in the Service of the Most Vulnerable”, 6 July 2011, available at:

35 P. Vinck, above note 21, p. 30.

36 eMarketer, “Social Networking Reaches Nearly One in Four Around the World”, 18 June 2013, available at:

37 Pew Research Center, Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology, 13 February 2014, available at:; Neil Dufty, “A Review of the Value of Social Media in Countrywide Disaster Risk Reduction Public Awareness Strategies”, paper developed for the HFA Thematic Review and as an input to the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 (GAR15), available at:

38 International Telecommunication Union, ICT Facts and Figures: The World in 2013, February 2013, available at:; Alison Gillwald, Anne Milek and Christoph Stork, “Gender Assessment of ICT Access and Usage in Africa”,Towards Evidence-Based ICT Policy and Regulation, Vol. 1, Policy Paper 2, 2009; Murphy, Laura L. and Priebe, Alexandra E., “‘My Co-Wife Can Borrow My Mobile Phone!’ Gendered Geographies of Cell Phone Usage and Significance for Rural Kenyans”, Gender, Technology and Development, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2011, pp. 123.

39 OCHA, Humanitarianism in the Network Age (HINA) 2011.

40 Jonas Lerman, “Big Data and its Exclusions”, Stanford Law Review Online, 3 September 2013, available at:

41 Andrea Binder and Jan Martin Witte, “Business Engagement in Humanitarian Relief: Key Trends and Policy Implications”, Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) Background Paper, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London, June 2007; Jim Drummond and Nicholas Crawford, “Humanitarian Crises, Emergency Preparedness and Response: The Role of Business and the Private Sector”, HPG Report, ODI, London, January 2014.

43 ICT Humanitarian Emergency Platform, Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, available at: (emphasis added).

44 MasterCard, “MasterCard and the United Nations World Food Programme in Partnership to Deliver ‘Digital Food’”, Press Release, 13 September 2012, available at:

46 Thokozani Xaba, “From Public–Private Partnerships to Private–Public Stick ‘Em Ups! NGOism, Neoliberalism, and Social Development in Post-Apartheid South Africa”, International Social Work, 27 January 2014 (published online before print).

47 Paul Conneally, “What Technologists and Humanitarians Can Achieve Together”, box. 1.1, in IFRC, above note 29, p. 19.

48 See van Wassenhove, Luk N., academic director of INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group, in How Applied Research Can Contribute to Improvements in Future Humanitarian Supply Chains, CONTRIBUTE workshop, BI Norwegian Business School, 2014, available at:,%20210114,%20slides.pdf.

49 Leah Campbell, “Cross-Sector Cash Assistance for Syrian Refugees and Host Communities in Lebanon: An IRC Programme”, The Cash Learning Partnership, 1 April 2014, available at:

50 Deibert, Ronald J., Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2013.

51 See notably the revelations that the NSA bugged humanitarian organizations: “GCHQ and NSA Targeted Charities, Germans, Israeli PM and EU Chief”, The Guardian, 20 December 2013, available at:

52 See the Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports website, available at:

53 Interview with OCHA official, New York, 11 October 2013.

54 GSMA, “Key Takeaways from the UN Working Group on Emergency Telecommunications”, 17 April 2014, available at:

55 See IFRC, above note 29, Chapter 3, p. 73.

56 This section builds on K. B. Sandvik, above note 26.

57 The World Food Program, Building resilience through asset creation, November 2013, available at:

58 Daniel Radcliffe and Rodger Voorhies, “A Digital Pathway to Financial Inclusion”, 11 December 2012, available at:

59 Tom Groenfeld, “MasterCard Promotes Financial Inclusion with Electronic Payments”, Forbes, 9 September 2013, available at:

60 By 2015, WFP expects almost a third of its assistance to be delivered in the form of cash, vouchers and “digital food” through smart cards and e-vouchers delivered by short text messages.

61 Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), World Bank, Cash for Assets: World Food Programme's Exploration of the In-Kind to E-Payments Shift for Food Assistance in Kenya, September 2013, available at:

62 Jamie Zimmerman and Kristy Bohling, “E-Payments in Low-Income Settings: Cutting-Edge or High Risk?”, CGAP, 12 March 2014, available at:

63 CGAP, above note 61.

64 L. Campbell, above note 49.

65 CGAP, above note 61.

66 This section builds on K. B. Sandvik, above note 26.

67 OCHA, To Stay and Deliver: Good Practice for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments, OCHA, New York, 28 February 2011, available at:

68 Collinson, Sarah and Duffield, Mark, Paradoxes of Presence: Risk Management and Aid Culture in Challenging Environments, HPG, ODI, London, March 2013, available at:

69 Joe Belliveau, “‘Remote management’ in Somalia”, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, No. 56, January 2013, available at:

70 S. Collinson and M. Duffield, above note 68.

72 M. Duffield, above note 7.

74 S. Collinson and M. Duffield, above note 68.

75 K.B. Sandvik, above note 33.

76 A. Nelson and I. Sigal with D. Zambrano, above note 14.

77 Daniel Gilman, “Humanitarianism in the Age of Cyber-Warfare”, presentation, 26 October 2013, Human Security: Humanitarian Perspectives and Responses Conference, Istanbul, 24–27 October 2013.

78 A. Nelson and I. Sigal with D. Zambrano, above note 14.

79 IFRC, above note 29, p. 168.

80 Nathan Morrow et al., Independent Evaluation of the Ushahidi Haiti Project, Development Information Systems International, 8 April 2011, p. 25.

81 Patrick Meier, personal communication on file with authors, July 2014.

82 Luis Capelo, Natalie Chang and Andrej Verity, “Guidance for Collaborating with Volunteer & Technical Communities”, Digital Humanitarian Network, 2013, available at:; Mary E. Milner and Andrej Verity, “Collaborative Innovation in Humanitarian Affairs: Organization and Governance in the Era of Digital Humanitarianism”, Digital Humanitarian Network, 2013, available at:; Annie P. Waldmann, Andrej Verity and Shadrock Roberts, “Guidance for Collaborating with Formal Humanitarian Organizations”, Digital Humanitarian Network, 2013, available at:

83 SBTF, Code of Conduct, available at: For an overview of other codes of conduct, see Digital Humanitarian Network, Code of Conduct, available at:

84 Haley Bowcock and Kokoevi Sossouvi, “Playing by the Code: Laying Down Some Rules of Engagement for the Use of E-transfers in Humanitarian Response”, Human Security: Humanitarian Perspectives and Responses Conference, Istanbul, 24–27 October 2013.

85 Christopher Wilson, “Constructing Consent: Ethical Challenges to Information Innovation in Humanitarianism”, Critical Approaches to Humanitarian Technology: Accountability, Decision-Making and New Actors, academic conference, Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies/Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Oslo, 28–29 November 2013.

86 For controversial perspectives on the crisis mapping effort for Libya, see R. Burns, above note 5; Stottlemyre, Steve and Stottlemyre, Sonia, “Crisis Mapping Intelligence Information During the Libyan Civil War: An Exploratory Case Study”, Policy & Internet, Vol. 4, No. 3–4, 2012; and Munro, Robert, “Crowdsourcing and the Crisis-Affected Community”, Information Retrieval, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2013, pp. 210266.

87 Scott-Railton, John, Revolutionary Risks: Cyber Technology and Threats in the 2011 Libyan Revolution, Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups, US Naval War College, Newport RI, 2013; Scott-Railton, John and Marquis-Boire, Morgan, A Call to Harm: New Malware Attacks Target the Syrian Opposition, The Citizen Lab, University of Toronto, 2013; Carly Nyst, “There's No Good Reason for Spy Agencies to Snoop on Humanitarian Groups”, Slate, June 2014, available at:

88 We are grateful to Chris Wilson of the engine room ( for this insight.

89 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Professional Standards for Protection Work Carried Out by Humanitarian and Human Rights Actors in Armed Conflict and Other Situations of Violence, 2nd ed., ICRC, Geneva, 2013, available at:

90 Der Derian, James, “The Question of Information Technology in International Relations”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3, 2003, pp. 441456; Jumbert, Maria Gabrielsen, “Controlling the Mediterranean Space Through Surveillance: The Politics and Discourse of Surveillance as an All-encompassing Solution to EU Maritime Border Management Issues”, Espace, Populations, Sociétés, No. 3, 2012, pp. 3548.

* This article is based on the 2013 Critical Humanitarian Technology Projects undertaken by PRIO and the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies. The Research has been funded in part by the Training for Peace programme at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. We are grateful to the anonymous reviewers, Vincent Bernard and the ICRC, the Norwegian Red Cross, Patrick Meier, Daniel Gilman, Ryan Burns, Christopher Wilson, Michael Kleinman, Anahi Iaccuci and Nathaniel Raymond. Errors and omissions remain our own.


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Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda

  • Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert, John Karlsrud and Mareile Kaufmann


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