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Accountability in Digital Humanitarianism

The final paper in this AoIR 2016 session is Mirca Madianou, who begins with a clip promoting the "I Sea" app that purports to take a crowdsourcing approach to scanning satellite images for migrant boats in the Mediterranean in order to spot and help boats in distress. However, that app was a scam; it showed static satellite images rather than live feeds.

The app plugs into the growing trend towards disaster crowdsourcing which goes back at least to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and there are a number of other such "apps for refugees"; we are now seeing a considerable change in humanitarian efforts that is driven by technological developments. However, there is little evidence that shows whether these apps – when they are not outright scams – have a tangible impact on how we respond to humanitarian emergencies.

There is now a broad trend towards digital humanitarianism, which connects the design and software development; the collection of large crisis datasets; the practices of volunteers and humanitarian and government workers; and the uses of 'humanitarian technologies' by disaster-affected populations themselves. There are optimistic hopes that drive this enthusiasm for humanitarian technologies, and they are seen as providing an important reform push in humanitarianism, addressing critiques of conventional humanitarian efforts as top-down and neo-colonial activities.

Humanitarianism is also big business, following the outsourcing of humanitarian efforts to NGOs; some US$156 billion were spent on such efforts in 2014 alone. As a result there is also growing demand for the auditing of humanitarian organisations in order to satisfy their funders and provide accountability to disaster-affected populations; the increased generation of big data on humanitarian efforts is seen as one answers to this.

The impact of Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda) on the Philippines provides a useful case study for these questions of digitally mediated accountability. The Philippines are in many ways at the forefront of digital connectivity, due to their very high use of mobile and social media; in the aftermath of the typhoon there were therefore many public notices encouraging locals to provide feedback on the performance of humanitarian organisations – but this was mainly framed around specific aid activities, rather than offering an opportunity to provide overall feedback on the government and NGO response.

Conversely, there were few generic feedback opportunities, even though the concerns of locals were largely around broader issues of support rather than about specific projects; only a handful of affected locals ended up engaging using these feedback mechanisms, therefore. They ended up feeling voiceless: unable to provide effective commentary and criticism through appropriate channels.

Further, even where such feedback was provided, there were generally no responses back to locals from the aid organisations; this is in part because such feedback was packaged and reported back to the organisations' headquarters, rather than dealt with at a local level.

These intersections between digital technologies and humanitarian activities can distort the picture of effectivity that emerges here, then. Despite noble intentions, the intensification of feedback mechanisms through digital technologies does not necessarily make agencies more accountable to their beneficiaries, but may create more gaps. There is further structural change required here.