May 20, 2015

Humanitarian Technology 2014 – Trends & Tweets


The first annual Humanitarian Technology: Science, Systems, and Global Impact Conference, better known as #HumTech2014, made a big splash in its first year as a new entrant in the emerging thought leadership circuit for Development Engineering and Disaster Relief. Located in the backyard of Harvard and MIT, May 13-15, the event drew roughly 200 diverse participants and speakers from academic researchers, to private sector innovators, to grassroots practitioners in the areas of disaster relief and humanitarian development.


Development Engineering Comes of Age

The conference organizers partnered with prominent academic publisher, Elsevier, to make the conference proceedings available in a special open-access volume, which will reside in the ScienceDirect platform with over 10 million users across the world. A panel discussion at the event featured Elsevier along with representatives of the Development Impact Lab and NCIIA discussing the launch of a Journal of Development Engineering as a means to amplify and legitimize the emerging non-traditional research and praxis of humanitarian technology. Another publication in this realm, ASME’s Demand also released a new edition concurrent with the conference. Meanwhile major corporations such as Google, IBM, and Microsoft each took turns presenting remarkable (largely unadvertised) ongoing humanitarian commitments and accomplishments.

The Take-Aways

  • “People First, Ideas Second, Hardware Third” – Ted Okada, CTO of FEMA
  • “When the private sector competes, customers benefit; however, when humanitarian sector competes, survivors may not” – Dr. Patrick Vinck, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Harvard School of Public Health
  • “Community resilience depends upon using what is already there. Humanitarian assistance cannot displace community resources in the name of doing good” – Dr. Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Dept. of HHS

“Soft” Technology a necessary ingredient to Appropriate Technology

In addition to some of the technical inventions (such as Madi-Drop and SwissLeg) presented at the conference, was a refreshing dose of so-called soft technology and soft skills to define and refine engineering intuition and judgment. Speakers employed a variety of historical knowhow and social science to reinforce their assertions. For example, Matthew Jelacic traced the anthropology of contemporary refugee camps back thousands of year to Roman army encampments to illustrate opportunities for more appropriate lived environments in Haiti and Dadaab. Closer to home, Michael Bauer developed and implemented a quantitative Appropriate Technology Assessment Tool (ATAT), which was leveraged by Aaron Brown and other colleagues in human centered design of the EZ Heat Solar Furnace for Denver’s Westwood neighborhood.

Disaster Response: Over, Under, and In the Cloud(s)

When it comes to disaster relief, modern-day first responders’ heads are in the clouds: Above the clouds, DigitalGlobe pulls together satellite imagery in real time to remotely evaluate conditions on the ground. Specifically, in the aftermath of the Malaysian airline disappearance, Tomnod was able to crowdsource 8 million volunteers from more than 100 countries to tag 750 million images for the search and rescue effort. Now the US Department of State is building the MapGive initiative to leverage these same volunteers to create a human landscape for disaster preparedness. Want to help? Download the new MiniMappers app to tag twitter text and images for machine learning in preparation for the next catastrophe. Below the clouds, not all site conditions can be directly observed from satellites, especially in weather-related disasters. DroneAdventures presented their extensive teamwork with MedAir and SenseFly for UAV surveillance of disaster zones and other landscapes to inform humanitarian relief with real-time damage assessment at precise resolution.

In “the cloud” the barrage of real-time, high-fidelity spatial data can create a globalized perception of emergency response. Whereas in prior crises many first responders had to be trusted to make judgment calls in the field, these tools may create the illusion of awareness back at overseas headquarters. An unexpected consequence of cloud-based emergency coordination is a re-centralization of control functions in command centers far from the action.


Will the real humanitarian please step up?

At times, technologists and practitioners may leap into action with too much exuberance, or too little regard for the principles of humanitarianism, namely: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. An important-yet-controversial paradox for grassroots civil society activists to consider is the delicate balance between advocacy and access. Dr. Patrick Vinck provided several examples, such as Kony 2012, where the zeal for polarizing human rights issues has undermined the legitimacy of organizations and coalitions in public perception, thus crippling the very movements they aimed to bolster.

New Technology = New Moral Ethics

With the new possibilities of cloud computing, real-time data, machine learning, and remote surveillance, humanitarians have a wider toolbox than ever before. Nevertheless, Patrick Meier challenged participants to scrutinize a new playing field of moral complications in employing these technologies. For instance, UAViators have written a code of conduct for the implementation of drone aircraft for humanitarian purposes.


See all of the tweets from the conference at #HumTech2014. Here are three for a taste of what the tweeters told us.

#HumTech2014 in pictures
All of these photos are by Frank Bergh.

Dan Oerther took a selfie with two members of the Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering team that won Best Poster.

This breakout session is an example of one of the parallel/contributed talk tracks

Tomicah Tillemann, Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies at the US Department of State, speaks at the plenary.

The closing panel featured Vincenzo Bollettino, Executive Director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

The IBM team.

The morning plenary had a full house.

Patrick meier, Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, showcases UAViators.

UVA students

John Clark (left) at Skybox Imaging and Julian Mann, Skybox co-founder.

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