Technology Salon

Washington DC

Sponsored by

a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

7 Technologies to Mitigate Humanitarian Crisis and Increase Community Resilience

Humanitarian Crisis

Penny Mordaunt, the UK International Development Secretary, is warning that 2018 will be the worst for humanitarian crises since the Second World War. Simmering conflict is destroying communities in Syria, Congo, Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar… and the list goes on. Then there will be the inevitable natural disasters that will create new crisis-affected communities.

We already have more than 136 million people experiencing humanitarian crisis globally, many in places unreachable by traditional humanitarian aid delivery. This vulnerable population will only grow in 2018.

That is one reason that USAID, DFID, and Grand Challenges Canada have launched the Humanitarian Grand Challenge for Development to find life-saving or life-improving innovations to help the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach people impacted by humanitarian crises caused by conflict.

At the recent Humanitarian Crisis Technology Salon, we looked at this new Grand Challenge and six sets of technologies that can be used to increase resilience and mitigate crisis around the world. Our discussion was guided by thought leaders including:

Fast and Slow Humanitarian Crisis

When we think of humanitarian crisis, we may default to thinking about the big earthquake or major conflict that surprise us, but there is humanitarian crisis, such as South Sudan, that are years, even decades old. We need to be conscious that there are fast and slow crisis and the two should be approached differently and with different technology tools.

In a fast crisis, such as an earthquake, the true first responders are the impacted communities themselves. They will be taking action immediately, while international responders may not arrive onsite for several days, and even then, not know the local landscape for weeks. Neither group will have the time or capacity to learn new tools.

Therefore, the technology approaches in fast crisis should focus on tools that impacted communities already know how to use, and that international responders are trained on, so that the focus can be on quick response, not random experimentation.

At the same time, long-simmering crisis, such as conflict that’s created refugee camps years-old, have the time to test out new tools and approaches. However, even then, be aware of power dynamics and personal agency. Or more to the point, the lack of power or personal agency, which of course a much larger problem than can be solved by technology innovation alone.

Technology Options for Humanitarian Crisis


For any humanitarian crisis, the first challenge can be getting resources to the effected site. Relief agencies can look to different logistics and information partners for support, particularly private sector actors such as commercial logistics firms, and those with logistics capacity.

For example, after hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, Amazon flew two humanitarian aid flights through Prime Air to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and Royal Caribbean sent fully staffed cruise ships many islands to help evacuate people.


The ability to recharge mobile phones and power life-saving devices, or even just the lights, is a critical need in any crisis, and the Grand Challenge is looking for bold alternative energy solutions that are possible to set up and maintain in conflict situations.

One potential solution could be scalable small businesses that leverage an anchor tenant, such as a humanitarian relief organization or government entity, to offer affordable solar power to refugee camp residents.


VSATs and BGANs are still the primary satellite connectivity options in many remote humanitarian crisis settings, yet mobile network operators are playing a much larger role in crisis zones, as their services start to reach almost every corner of the world.

Offline services can work too, even big data, with tools like the AWS Snowball Edge, a 100TB data transfer device with on-board storage and computing capabilities that can be a temporary local cloud for relief organizations


With the ubiquity of mobile phones, we can now have a much greater understand of peoples’ location and travel habits through call data records (CDR) – specifically just the radio tower location and usage. From there, we can build out models of where people would go in an emergency, such as a relative’s home, and distribute relief supplies accordingly.

Of course, such data is rightly very sensitive and we must be careful about who has it and how they could use or share it. Who is a “good” or “bad” actor in a specific context can be very fluid, putting already vulnerable people at greater risk.

Geospatial Data

We now have access to amazing, real-time, and inexpensive satellite imagery, which we can use to build highly accurate geospatial maps of effected communities. However, there are still limitations to space-based systems. Clouds may obscure locations for days or weeks, and we are still beholden to major companies to get access to that data.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are another option for quick geospatial data and are they very cheap and easy to operate. FHI 360 found that communities are more accepting of drone usage yet flying a drone can be illegal in many countries.

Digital ID

Is a person who they say that are? And if so, what services should they be entitled to? Or be denied? These and other questions around identity can be difficult to answer when someone has never had an official identity before, or their documentation was lost in the crisis. Digital identities offer one solution to these problems.

Digital identities can be enhanced by technologies like blockchain, where the person has granular control over their data and can share it (or not) with others. Yet there are many reasons why someone might not want an official identity – digital or not – that can include the desire to stay in the informal economy when employment is restricted to other classes of people, such as recognized citizens of that country.

Digital Financial Services

Cash is king, and many organizations give out direct financial assistance in emergencies to speed the recovery process. DFS can be a good solution when making regular payments to crisis constituents.

One interesting consideration for DFS is who has access to the mobile phone. In many societies, the mobile phone is controlled by the men in a household, while the finances can be held by the women. Moving payments from cash to digital can disrupt previous family norms, increasing household stress.

Comments are closed.