There have been an ever-increasing number of articles about how technology is changing “humanitarian work”, which actually is a phrase that to me seems to indicate the opposite of what’s at the heart of these stories. Meaning, yes, Google can “atrocity map” Darfur, but what’s really going on here is that people who are starving and need help are getting their hands on tech and helping themselves — with the help of dedicated tech geeks. We ought to pay attention to this, because it’s how a lot of people survived Hurricane Katrina. At any rate, there’s a really interesting article about it in The Economist right now, snip from Flood, famine and mobile phones:
“Technology completely alters the way humanitarian work is done,” says Caroline Hurford of the World Food Programme (WFP), a United Nations body that is the single largest distributor of food aid. Once upon a time, when disaster struck, big agencies would roll up with grain, blankets and medicine and start handing them out. Victims would struggle to the relief camps, if they could. For aid workers (let alone recipients) there was no easy way to talk to head office.
Now, when an emergency occurs, the first people on the ground are often computer geeks, setting up telephone networks so other aid agencies can do their stuff. Donors keep track of supplies on spreadsheets and send each other SMS messages: this road has been attacked by bandits, that village cut off by floods. Transport agencies announce helicopter flights by e-mail. Aid providers can find out where exactly on an incoming ship their medical supplies are, saving hours hanging round the docks. Aid donors find it easier to locate the victims of disaster; and victims queue as eagerly for mobile-phone access as they do for food.
As a result, the organisation of aid is changing. On the ground, all big relief operations have communications centres where aid workers go to send e-mails, read the latest security updates and study satellite maps of the affected area. The UN’s humanitarian-affairs office runs a portal called ReliefWeb, containing every map and document that might help aid donors; it got 3m hits a day after the Asian tsunami.
It seems counterintuitive – why bring cell phones when people don’t have food, right?
However, if it helps the relief workers get the job done, or more importantly, helps the people help themselves, I’m all for it. I’ve definitely considered doing a stint in the Geek Corps myself.