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Can you hear me now? Digital empowerment of local actors

Technology is transforming the ability of people and communities to plan for emergencies and to organize their own responses. Although this is true of all technologies, the most significant technological shift has been the rise of digital communications. Mobile phones in particular have seen extraordinary growth. The stats are astonishing:

An additional 130 million people in low and middle-income countries will become mobile service users over the next 3 years

In Africa and South Asia alone, the number of people who own a mobile phone grows by 20% every year

More people in low and middle income countries now have access to mobile phones than basic sanitation or reliable electricity

This rapid uptake of technology by local actors and vulnerable communities sees a shift in the reliance on humanitarian actors. The truest innovation in communications technology is coming from disaster and crises affected communities, who are using communications technology to meet daily needs, join global networks, transfer money and transform their daily lives. And in doing so, they are creating entirely new models of disaster response and bringing in major new actors, particularly the private sector and diaspora networks.

Chapter 7 explores these emerging trends in technology and how local actors and communities are adapting technology to become the most important agents in their own resilience. This chapter also aims to bring some nuance to current discussions on the role of technology in disaster risk reduction and crises management, which tend to polarize between those who see technology as a transformative force for good and those who see it as a dangerous red herring.

The diversification of humanitarian actors

Throughout the World Disasters Report 2015, the diversification of actors responding to disasters and crises is a common theme. In the realm of technology, this expands to include international and local tech companies and associated service providers. Some of the largest global companies, including Google and Facebook, are now firmly embedded into the humanitarian space.  The emerging markets in low and middle-income countries have led to the development of digital tools and services designed specifically for use by disaster or crises affected communities. For instance, following the Nepal earthquake, Facebook activated its “I’m Safe” feature for the first time, a tool enabling those in affected areas to send automatic messages to all their contacts.

A new sector of small businesses is also emerging to facilitate the expansion of digital technology. Roadside mobile repair shops have become a familiar sight in low- and middle-income nations, the local technicians who run them are also recycling old handsets, and building new hybrid phones specific to user needs. A basic Nokia phone, for example, can be rebuilt with parts from a smartphone with capabilities that are precisely tailored to the requirements of the user, creating a device unlike those sold on the global market. Local and international humanitarian actors will increasingly need to engage these technicians to adapt to local technologies.

The third significant group in this technology centric list is diaspora networks that are mobilizing, connecting with and supporting crises affected communities through digital technology.

How are communities adapting technology?

Poor and vulnerable people have been much quicker to understand and invest in the importance of technology to their lives than international aid agencies. In doing so, they are finding ways to make life easier and safer.

The latest data suggest that the poorer people get, the more they prioritize phones. In Kenya, one in five of the poorest regularly goes without food or a bus journey in order to afford phone credit. In addition to the very practical functions mobile technology affords, communities are also now more empowered to speak on their own behalf and hold authorities and aid agencies to account.

Despite the increasing centrality of communications technology for households in low- and middle-income countries, the digital divide is still very real. Studies show that 48% of the global population will still have no access to the Internet in 2018. The offline population has some clear characteristics: 64% of them are rural, the majority are women, and they also tend to be those who are older and less educated. Literacy remains a huge barrier.

As communities increasingly need and seek connectivity as a vital tool, particularly in the days after a crisis, the path to effective partnership will include aid agencies mainstreaming these services into the suite of humanitarian assistance already provided, and building connectivity into both preparedness and response planning.

What’s the downside to the expansion of digital technology?

Despite the truly beneficial aspects of digital technology for crises affected and vulnerable communities, there are also concerning trends in the use of technology to provoke division and abuse people at risk. Methods to verify information and manage issues of protection, particularly of children, are critical as the use of digital communications technology in crises response and management expands.

Worryingly, the use of digital communications to amplify or incite polarizing views through misleading or fabricated information is taking on a dangerous role in conflict environments.  For instance, hackers on both sides of the Syrian conflict have shared fake videos and documentation of attacks, stolen details of humanitarian operations, including affected population distribution lists, and used social media platforms to spread false information. 

Additionally, the rise of digital technology creates an added dimension of risk for vulnerable people during crises, who may be targeted by traffickers and cyber-crime. This has happened in Myanmar among the displaced Rohingya populations, where video-conferencing technology has been used by people traffickers to develop new forms of exploitation.

What is the future?

As ownership and technological knowledge increase, communities will become increasingly more adept at using technology to prepare for and respond to disasters themselves, building tools to meet localized needs and using technology to enhance and expand existing social networks and ways of working.  The challenge for international aid agencies is to learn how to support, add value and work alongside community-based models. If tools and platforms are rooted in local mores and constraints, then they should not be expected to transfer elsewhere. Aid agencies need to focus on understanding and building on community led models rather than bringing in external technology, especially in a crisis.

‘Reverse Innovation’ - What can international actors learn from local actors’ ingenuity?

‘Reverse innovation’ is defined as bringing low-end products created for emerging markets low and middle income countries to wealthy markets. Three cases illustrate the concept:

A missed call is a mobile call that ends after one ring. It shows on the receiver’s mobile, usually with the number of the caller, and in many countries is free. People use the missed call to signal a prearranged action, like “When I send you a missed call, meet me in front of the market.” A user can send a missed call to a shop to be included in text messages containing discount coupons. An entire economy has grown up around missed calls, mostly in South Asia, and it is spreading.

Scaling down a western product was not an option in China without losing most of its features, so developing a low-cost ultrasound unit based on powerful software and a laptop met the need. In 2007, this unit sold for nearly ten times less than its western counterpart. Reverse Innovation becomes really interesting when western markets need a compact, portable unit for use at accident sites. 

Ushahidi (‘testimony’ in Swahili) began in 2008, mapping reports of post-election violence in Kenya, when ‘citizen journalists’ used mobile phones to gather and upload information. Volunteer technology workers created mapping software to visually summarize the areas of violence. The website soon had 45,000 users and interest in using it in other countries grew.

The “Discover and Harvest” approach, meanwhile, uncovers ‘positive exceptions’ – the opposite of traditional assessment and delivery. It is about finding applications and technology in the furthest reaches of an organization that are already working and harvesting them for wider application. This approach has a number of benefits: it is already working somewhere; it does not need to be sold; and it is being field-tested. For international NGOs working in challenging rural settings, it can work where technology is rare.

Also available in: French, Spanish, Arabic

World Disasters Report - Chapter 7