Digital technologies and big data are rapidly transforming humanitarian crisis response. One of the most profound changes has been the ability to involve affected populations themselves in identifying the needs, crisis locations, and other critical information during emergencies. The 2010 Haiti earthquake gave birth to digital humanitarians – online volunteers who collect, verify, and map crisis information across various digital channels from Twitter to SMS to aid the relief efforts. They offer a new, constantly updated digital source of information in a crisis. Their role as emergency response supporters is increasingly recognised, but their data is much less utilised in media reporting of crises.
In a recent article, I explore the potential of digital humanitarians to act as a new information source for both formal emergency responders and the media. I argue that digital humanitarians can offer a unique combination of speed and safe access, while escaping some of the traditional constraints of the aid-media relationship.
First, unlike professional journalists or citizen journalists who describe the crisis from the ground, digital humanitarians process crisis data and provide valuable crowdsourced information while being safely distant from the disaster zone itself. Drawing on this data is faster, safer, and cheaper in the context of shrinking foreign news budgets and limited access to disaster and crisis zones.
Second, digital volunteer communities do not experience the same political or funding pressures that mark the relationship between aid agencies, media, and governments. Formal humanitarian response and media have to navigate the political complexities of any crisis, while aid NGOs largely depend on media exposure for fundraising. Digital humanitarians provide valuable crisis data for free and act from across state borders. They can also act in crises that are overlooked by media and donors.
Third, digital volunteer networks demonstrate the self-organising power of the affected communities and international publics. Digital humanitarian technology also contributes to increasingly direct communication with affected communities by giving them a voice. These developments have the potential to change the dominant and problematic media representations of affected people and whole regions as passive victims and recipients of aid.
For media, digital humanitarians can help construct an overall picture of a disaster, particularly when their access to the field is problematic or delayed. They can be a valuable source, as demonstrated by Tuscaloosa News winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for live crisis mapping of the 2011 Alabama tornado in collaboration with digital volunteers, or by Internews using data provided by Standby Task Force in the coverage of the European refugee crisis. These collaborations, although not regular, can provide highly useful localised information on specific disaster-affected zones.
The promise of digital humanitarian communication, however, is not without limitations. Over-reliance on digital voices in humanitarian response can amplify social inequalities and result in “second order disasters”. The ‘ground truth’ may not be fully captured in individual digital voices, and digital datasets cannot fully replace traditional methods of evaluating crisis needs. As digital humanitarians themselves note, effective mapping of crisis information does not yet guarantee successful action. Data accuracy, privacy and security is another important concern: only a small proportion of social media content during an emergency is relevant and actionable, and the vulnerable position of affected communities poses challenges for collecting, processing, and sharing big crisis data.
Digital transformation of humanitarian response is recent and ongoing. In interviews for my research, humanitarian workers, digital humanitarians, and journalists envisage different humanitarian communication futures. They all agree, however, that these changes will not be limited to humanitarian response alone and can redraw the traditional roles and powers of the media, humanitarian agencies, and the state during crises.