Members of a team from Madras, India who participated in the ICRC’s EnableMakeathon make final adjustments before showing their invention to judges. Photo: ICRC

Phones, drones and beyond

Mobile phones were commonplace for many years before becoming an integral part of the humanitarian toolkit. Now humanitarian organizations are being far more proactive as they try to keep ahead of the innovation curve. And not all the new ideas involve technology.

It’s a given that mobile phones have changed nearly every aspect of life, from banking to finding one’s way when lost. They are also a staple part of the humanitarian toolkit, used for data collection, cash transfers and mapping, among many other things. Likewise, drones or ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ have received a lot of attention in humanitarian circles because of their potential for doing field assessments or for bringing aid such as medical supplies to places where access is difficult.

But the focus of humanitarian innovation is rapidly widening. As aid agencies’ use of mobile phones in their work is becoming more sophisticated, their understanding of how to use, or not use, drones is also evolving. During much of this process, however, humanitarians have largely been beneficiaries of technologies already developed in the private sector.

But that is changing as more humanitarian organizations seek to drive technological change or at least to better understand developing technologies and apply them more quickly in the field. After all, mobile phones were ubiquitous in many parts of the world for a long time before they became part of the aid workers’ toolkit.

Getting ahead of the curve, and working with local communities to best understand their needs, also puts everyone in a better position to ensure that the technologies being developed empower local communities and don’t create new vulnerabilities. This is a key idea behind the Red Cross Red Crescent’s ‘principled approach to innovation’, in which humanitarian values are placed at centre of the creative process.

But not all innovations involve gadgets or computer software. New platforms for sharing developments, such as the recently launched Movement website, aim to tackle problems through crowdsourcing, posing questions to fellow humanitarians about challenges such as how to develop a water purification system “that can be set up within a short period of time and continue to function for a long time without the need for maintenance… The heavy machines, tablets and filter systems [available] cannot yet provide this solution.”

Technology becomes an enabler for that most ancient of innovative incubators — conversation and brainstorming — but at a global scale.

When it comes to engineering humanitarian solutions, the answers sometimes have less to do with new gizmos than with new attitudes, behaviours, management or partnership models. Here are a few interesting innovations cropping up around the Movement.

A vivid, virtual view

Virtual reality technology is not just fun and games. Several news organizations are using virtual reality (VR) films, presented inside a specially designed set of goggles, that give viewers a sense of being immersed in events around them. The Swedish Red Cross recently released its own VR film showing a refugee transit camp in Serbia. The idea is to vividly and powerfully bring people closer to the plight of migrants on their way into Europe so that they can more fully understand the needs of migrants and the organizations trying to help them.

Photo: Katherine Mueller/IFRC

Wearable technology

As microchips and other devices become ever smaller, some humanitarians are hoping that minuscule ‘wearable’ technology could prove useful during emergencies. Tiny sensors on a wristwatch or shirt collar could monitor a person’s body temperature, blood pressure or heart rate, for example. Other ideas include beacons embedded in clothing that might help during search and rescue, shoes that sense pending earthquakes, wristbands that find and communicate with loved ones if separated, and eyewear with embedded software for such tasks as real-time translation of street signs or navigation through city streets. Some devices, such as those that track and provide real-time feedback on a person’s movements and calories, are already on the market.

Join the crowd

Have a humanitarian challenge that needs solving? Just ask the crowd — the thousands of people around the world who may be able to develop a solution, on their own or with others on the internet — or via a mix of web-based and in-person meetings. Known as crowdsourcing, this increasingly common method of casting a wide net for ideas is being used by the Movement on a number of fronts. Along with, another example is the ICRC’s EnableMakeathon, a 60-day programme designed to bring together people with disabilities, designers, engineers and entrepreneurs to create better and more affordable assistance devices for people with a wide range of disabilities. In the first-ever EnableMakeathon, 17 teams from around the world competed for seed money that would allow them to develop their ideas and products further. The winning prize went to Team Mobility, from India, which designed a low-cost device for children with cerebral palsy that allows them to both sit and stand. Normally, families have to buy two devices, one for standing and one for sitting. “That means double the cost and double the space in the houses,” says team member Trivikram, adding that Team Mobility’s device, a colourful wooden design shaped like a cartoon animal, adjusts in size as the child gets older.

Printing in three dimensions

Imagine you are in a remote village after a devastating earthquake. You are trying to restore water services but some critical couplings that connect water pipes are badly damaged. The system is old and there’s little chance of finding replacement parts. What do you do? No problem, you send photos and the exact dimensions of the broken part back to the mobile 3D printing lab at the regional delegation and they have the piece printed and sent the next day. While 3D printing is still not ready at a cost and scale that is practical in the field — or that makes life as simple as the above scenario — many see potential for exactly these kinds of situations. Efforts are already under way to place 3D printers, other fabrication tools and the associated computing power in small-scale workshops in strategic locations around the world to be sent as a part of the early disaster response. Used along with other tools such as laser cutters, which can customize metal pieces, 3D printers could also be used by communities to develop customized solutions to specific disaster-recovery needs. 3D printing also holds promise for customized prosthetics for people who have lost limbs.

Beyond corporate social responsibility

New types of partnerships formed to manage complex, large-scale problems are also part of the Movement innovation portfolio. The Australian Red Cross, for example, takes part in the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities, which brings together companies and organizations with expertise in finance, insurance, telecommunications, infrastructure and humanitarian response to work together to improve the country’s ability to withstand natural disasters. One outcome so far: a roundtable-commissioned study that found that natural disasters cost the Australian economy more than US$ 4.5 billion annually. The research also found that carefully targeted, pre-disaster investments in risk reduction could lead to a savings of US$ 8.7 billion by 2050 (and a reduction of annual costs by roughly 50 per cent). Those findings are now backing up the roundtable’s efforts to strengthen government policy and commitments for annual coordinated investment in mitigation and community education, and to create new platforms for disaster-related data and research.

Mobile phones in crisis 2.0

In issue 2-2015 issue of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine, we told the story of how the IFRC’s Rapid Mobile-Phone Based survey, known as RAMP, helped geographically dispersed health workers track and manage a chronic problem of malaria in the Central African Republic. While RAMP proved to be very effective in ensuring treatments were always available in remote areas for this long-term health battle, it had yet to be fully tested in an emerging emergency. That is, until the Ebola outbreak in 2014–2015. As the number of infections and fatalities grew, burial teams used RAMP surveys on phones and tablets to document and analyse the deaths and to map the location of each Ebola-related victim. This helped to identify potential risks for new infection, target social mobilization efforts and do follow-up contact tracing. In both Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, RAMP solved the time and logistical challenges of paper-based surveys. “We had to handle piles of paper, making [data collection and analysis] impossible,” says Nicéphore Aguiar, supervisor and RAMP trainer for the Red Cross of Benin. “This new tool means we can undertake quick and comprehensive data collection.”

Members of a Liberian Red Cross Safe and Dignified Burial team record data about Ebola cases using mobile phones, which allows for later analysis and mapping of cases. Photo: Victor Lacken/IFRC

Coming next issue

Filling the funding gaps

Many in the humanitarian field agree that prevailing models of aid-financing are not adequate to meet today’s mounting needs and that they generally shortchange local actors. What should be done to fill the gaps and correct the imbalances?

Shaking hands with business

For many years, humanitarians have seen businesses mainly as potential sources for funding. Today, the relationship between humanitarians and the corporate world is about much more. Increasingly, the two sectors collaborate on new ideas and technologies that help vulnerable people become more resilient to crises. A look at the benefits, and potential pitfalls, of partnership with the private sector.


What happens when machines can decide who to kill?

It’s the stuff of science fiction: machines that make decisions about who and when to kill. Referred to as “autonomous weapons”, they’re already in use to some degree. But as more sophisticated systems are being developed we wanted to an expert in the field about whether such systems comply with international humanitarian law and what it means for humanity to give machines the power over human life and death.

‘Wildfire diaries’ and radical change in communications

In this episode, we talk with humanitarian communicator Kathy Mueller who produced our first magazine podcast series, The Wildfire Diaries, about massive wildfires in Northern Canada in 2017. We talk about that series, her many international missions, and the big changes in humanitarian communications since she began with the Canadian Red Cross almost 20 years ago.

The power of storytelling

In this episode, we talk about the power of storytelling to inform and inspire. “Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of human communication,” says our guest Prodip, a volunteer and multi-media storyteller for the Bangladesh Red Crescent. “It inspires us to be a hero of our own community.” We also speak with one such community hero, Dalal al-Taji, a longtime volunteer and advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities in emergencies response. “In disasters. persons with disabilities sometimes get forgotten.”

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