24 September, 2019

The industrialized world is becoming more reliant on data, mobility and cloud solutions. Humanitarian aid also can benefit from these ever-developing technological possibilities.

From drones and 3D printing to digital identity and virtual reality, here are seven trends that are already transforming humanitarian assistance around the world.

1. Innovations in internet access and connectivity

The internet has become so vital to our daily lives that in 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Council declared it a basic human right. Internet access is especially crucial for displaced people, who depend on it to contact loved ones as well as plan their futures.

2. Digital identity

The World Bank estimates that over 1 billion people worldwide are unable to provide identification proving who they are. Digital identity is essentially a person’s electronic fingerprint—their birth registration, vaccinations, educational certifications, and legal status, all stored online where it can’t get lost. In Liberia, national biometric ID cards are already in use. Citizens are required to use their biometric identification (in form of retina scans, fingerprints, or facial recognition) to open a bank account, register to vote, and obtain a driver's license.

3. Distributed ledger technology

Distributed ledger technology (DLT) is a collection of data that is synchronized and shared across multiple locations. Unlike systems that rely on one centralized administrator or organization housing all of the data, this technology allows for more transparency, saves time, and creates a more resilient system of data sharing.

Blockchain, which keeps track of cryptocurrency exchanges, is the most recognizable example of this. However, DLT is a broader category than just blockchain. In Tunisia, the e-Dinar became the first ever nationally used digital currency. Since 2015 the Tunisian government has been working on expanding the technology. It is now being used for bill payments, money transfers and managing identification.

4. Improved data analytics

Data sources and processing software are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and provide humanitarians with valuable insights into people’s most critical needs. Data analytics take complex data sets and consolidate them into comprehensive dashboards that can better inform where and when aid is needed most.

These dashboards can help identify safe delivery paths for aid in conflict zones, for instance, or help find better locations to store warehouse goods.

In Niger, Mercy Corps is partnering with NASA to harness satellite imagery to help find underground water resources and build sustainable water access plans with the government to fight ongoing droughts affecting the lives of millions of farmers in the country.

In the Central Java province of Indonesia, Android tablets were used to assess data gathered from 408 small farms, which mostly grow potatoes and chilies. The tablet’s Agri-Fin data processing application helped determine the farmer’s needs and the most effective targets. In this isolated community, road conditions were poor and traveling on foot was the only option. This technology produced real-time information concerning the mobility and agricultural needs of the farmers. 

5. Virtual Reality

Children around the world are growing up surrounded by war and violent conflict, leaving many with additional challenges like mental health disorders, PTSD, anxiety and chronic stress. One new solution may come via virtual reality.

In Iraq, a program is being implemented to help young people who have undergone trauma by creating a digital safe space using virtual reality to create a calming environment. This immersive technology can reach more people for less cost and can help renew the chance for a normal childhood.

6. Drone applications

In places like Nepal and Timor Leste, drones are providing valuable imagery from infrared cameras to help monitor agriculture and identify things like crop growth and leaf blight.

But drones can also play an important role in an emergency. In Puerto Rico, a drone training program was launched to assist with emergency response efforts. Those who complete the training program will become certified drone pilots and receive their own drones. Once certified, they will be on-call to help the local authorities assess damage and get a better view of the landscape during emergencies. Drones help them to respond smarter and faster in an emergency with an eagle-eye view.

7. 3D Printing

3D printing provides opportunities for innovation in multiple fields. For the humanitarian sector, it’s a chance to bring much needed equipment to vulnerable communities.

In Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, children with disabilities are helped through customization workshops that use skilled Syrian volunteers to build custom equipment like wheelchairs, walkers and desks. This workshop will eventually expand into using 3D printers, allowing volunteers in Zaatari to build things like prosthetics and assistive tools and parts.

Technological advancements have the ability to profoundly change the lives of individuals, families and communities for the better.