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3 of 3 | Protecting the vulnerable means protecting the virtual

In places where conflict or crisis means basic services are scarce, the use of data is saving lives. But protecting people’s physical well-being, experts say, is also about protecting their digital profile in cyberspace.

In a clinic in northeastern Nigeria, a health worker uses an app to help diagnose a young child. The program, known as Almanach, guides him through a thorough exam that looks for symptoms of a wide range of diseases.

“The Almanach tablet has helped me a lot,” says Ahmed Aminou, a community health extension worker Adamawa state. “Prior to its use, there were some tests we did not carry out.”

Better testing means more accurate diagnosis and that means fewer antibiotics and drugs are wasted.  “Improvement in diagnostic accuracy [and] reduction in the waste of drugs and reduction in the waste of resources are the three main improvements,” says Dr. Batulu Isa Mohammed, who until recently served as Chairperson of the Adamawa State Primary Health Care Development Agency.

The program also helps state health managers respond to chronic health challenges such as measles, diarrhea, pneumonia, intestinal worms and malnutrition by getting care and medicine where it’s needed most.

Named for its full title, Algorithms for the Management of Childhood Illness, the Almanach programme uses an algorithm to guide clinicians through a diagnostic decisional tree that responds to the data the clinicians input into the app.

Developed by the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Almanach is just one way in which technology is improving care in places where clinics, health workers or medicines are in short supply.  Today, Almanach is being used in more than 400 primary healthcare centers and in 2020 recorded over 75,000 clinical visits.

Rapid collection and analysis of data is now central to the ways humanitarian organizations respond in real-time to specific, evolving needs. The bulk of this data is not sensitive, personal information, but aid organizations must be extremely careful about what data they collect, how it’s used, shared and stored, experts say.

New era of digital connectivity

Today, digital connectivity, data management and algorithms are used in a wide range of humanitarian work.  The Burundi Red Cross, for example, has a network of 600,000 volunteers, many of whom are trained in data collection.

“Because they already live in the communities, they can do assessment surveys and upload data directly, so during a crisis, we have a comprehensive, real-time picture of what’s happening and what the needs are,” says Bertrand Rukundo, who helped develop data collection programmes for the Burundi Red Cross and now works as data-collection delegate for the IFRC.

In areas affected by flooding, such real-time data has been critical because it allowed the Red Cross to respond quickly as people moved first to camps, then back into their communities. As the needs changed, the Red Cross could react.

In Kenya, data of a different nature is collected by drones to assess Covid-19 risks in fast-growing but largely unmapped urban settlements.“We wanted to target our interventions so we used the drones to locate potential hot spots, places where people congregate,” says Michael Otieno Osunga, geographic-information officer at the International Center for Humanitarian Affairs run by The Kenya Red Cross Society. “Then, we were able to use that data to efficiently target specific areas for disinfection, or hygiene campaigns.”

The Kenya Red Cross also used drone and satellite imagery to analyze the impact of intensive locust infestations that wiped out vast amounts of remote croplands in 2019. “We got before-and-after images and we used that to assess the damage, the needs of people affected, and to better prepare for future infestations,” said Safia Verjee, Head of innovation for the International Center for Humanitarian Affairs.

“[Red Cross volunteers] do assessment surveys and upload data directly, so during a crisis, we have a comprehensive, real-time picture of what’s happening and what the needs are.”
Bertrand Rukundo, who helped develop data collection programmes for the Burundi Red Cross and now works as data-collection delegate for the IFRC.

Information as aid

These are just a few examples of how data — visual, geographic, demographic, economic — are being integrated into the heart of humanitarian response. In some cases, the information itself is a form of aid, because it connects people with loved ones, support networks, or it is what allows them to reach critical services such as first aid, shelter, or a warm meal.

“The big four commodities in aid have traditionally been food, water, shelter and medicine,” says Nathaniel Raymond, a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. “In the digital age, information connectivity has become even more important than these four traditional forms of aid because it often comes before the ability to access to these other services.”

Migrants and refugees who are on the road, for example, often go first where they can connect to networks, Raymond notes. From there, they can get data on where to find a safe route, a place to stay, food, water or medicine.

Aid groups have developed apps and services to meet this demand, in hopes of keeping migrants safe and healthy. At many camps for refugees and displaced people, Wifi and charging stations for mobile phone are now considered essential services.

But as humanitarian services are increasingly intertwined with digital, data-driven technology, how will they navigate the risks that come with new opportunities?

How will they ensure they people they hope to help are adequately protected?

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, data about community attitudes about Ebola were critical in helping health workers respond and ultimately eradicate the disease in the country in early 2020. It’s also critical to tracking and stopping the spread of Covid-19, other infectious diseases such as measles and malaria, and in combatting health issues such as malnutrition and vitamin deficiency.

Important steps for safety

Some steps are simple. Don’t collect data you don’t need.  Keep the data anonymous. When the Kenya Red Cross was using drones to create its digital maps, it was able to learn a lot without ever entering any personal information into its maps and databases.

Some steps are more complex, involving international law and diplomacy.  In 2019, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement secured commitments from state parties to the Geneva Conventions to  protect humanitarian data – information collected by organizations providing neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian services.

The resolution “urges States and the Movement to cooperate to ensure that personal data is not requested or used for purposes incompatible with the humanitarian nature of the work.”

While the resolution is considered “soft law” in that it is not legally binding, it’s an important first step toward legal protections for humanitarian data, according to Raymond. “This is a critical first building block in applying the Geneva Conventions to data and the beginning of creating a humanitarian space in cyber space.”

This is particularly critical, he says, when it comes to data needed to help people stay connected with family in conflict zones, or along the migration trail. In recent years, some governments and prosecutors have been interested in knowing more about the migrants and asylum seekers coming into or going through their countries. (Read more about this in our series Handcuffing the helpers.)

If governments were able to reap that data, aid groups worry that migrants or other vulnerable people would quickly lose trust and avoid further interactions, pushing away from services that keep them safe and healthy.

“When we think about data protection, this is really about people … Affected communities have a right and a need to be able to decide what data is collected, how it’s used and why, and then, to get feedback about how that data was collected and used.”
Heather Leson, Data Literacy lead at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Providing access to networks that connect people with loved ones, bank accounts, and critical services has become a critical form of humanitarian aid during crisis.  “Connectivity and access to information has become even more important … because it often comes before the ability to access other services,” says Nathaniel Raymond, a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

Not just an ‘IT’ issue

Ultimately, data protection is not just about legal, or technological fixes, the experts say. It’s about people; protecting them from harm that could be caused if data were misused or abused. Data protection, therefore, can no longer be seen by humanitarian organizations as another “IT” or compliance issue for the information technology teams or the lawyers to fix.

Just as humanitarian workers are trained to understand and navigate the risks of the physical world in a crisis, they now need to understand the dynamics of the digital world. As more and more people around the world connect digitally, protecting people when they are vulnerable also means protecting them in the virtual world.

This kind of operational awareness about digital threats needs to be part and parcel of daily operations, from the field to HQ, the experts say. “When we think about data protection it’s really about how the physical world and the digital world connect,” says Heather Leson, who leads Data Literacy at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “So when we are think about protecting people in the physical world, we have to think about protecting their data, their digital identities, as well.”

This is one reason the IFRC has joined with the Centre for Humanitarian Data and other organizations to raise awareness about data protection and improve practices through initiatives such as the Data Literacy Consortium, a clearinghouse for best practices, disuccion and case studies.

The ICRC, meanwhile, has also taken a leading role, releasing the Handbook on data protection in humanitarian action and several other guidance documents, as well as hosting regular debates and online events on the issue and developing a training and certification programme for Data Protection Officers in Humanitarian Action.

Increasing “data literacy” at all levels is critical because it’s not just a question of protecting data after it is collected. Well before any data-driven project is conceived, there are ethical, legal and humanitarian questions to consider. Do the people involved really understand the risks? Will they have a say over how their data is used?

For Leson, part of the answer lies in adopting a far more inclusive, participatory approach.   “When we think about data protection, this is really about people,” she says. “Affected communities have a right and a need to be able to decide what data is collected, how it’s used and why, and then, to get feedback about how that data was collected and used.”

Increased reliance on data and digital networks on the part of aid groups requires better safeguards to ensure sensitive personal data could never be used to cause harm, according to humanitarian data experts. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is working with other aid groups to promote heightened standards and better data-protection practices across the humanitarian sector.

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