How Can Humanitarians Embrace Innovation?: Q&A with Giulio Coppi

Relief workers prepare prosthetic legs for Syrians injured in the ongoing civil war. Hatay, Turkey, April 16, 2015. (Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

New technologies such as 3D printing and big data are changing the face of all sectors of humanitarian action, according to Giulio Coppi, Humanitarian Innovation Fellow at Fordham University’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs and founder of High Tech Humanitarians.

Mr. Coppi spoke with International Peace Institute Senior Adviser Els Debuf on the margins of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), held in Istanbul from May 23-24, which saw the launch of two new initiatives to foster greater innovation in humanitarianism: the Global Humanitarian Lab and the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation.

“It’s an ambitious first step that sees many of the major humanitarian actors sitting at the same table to work together and with non-humanitarian partners,” Mr. Coppi said.

Can you explain what High Tech Humanitarians does, and how new technologies can be useful for humanitarian work?

At High Tech Humanitarians we try to advance the discussion on the value of open source technology for humanitarian action. We have a strong focus on resilience and ownership of technological solutions by local communities and NGOs that could be helpful in case of disaster or emergency. This is an initiative that was started thanks to the active support of many like-minded partners such as Fordham University.

What about a concrete example of how some of these new technologies can help local or other humanitarian actors?

Talking about existing solutions, one of the biggest examples is the impact that geographic information systems mapping and big data are having in the way humanitarians conduct and implement their missions. A lot of this software and hardware is open source, so building the necessary capacity could actually allow organizations to handle and manage their own data in a different way.

Another option could be related to prosthetics. Most of the tools, not just 3D printing, but most of the tools related to orthotics and prosthetics are now open source, and their schematics are available for everyone. These will actually empower local organizations to provide services to people with disabilities without waiting for external actors, and this is the same for medical labs and other health solutions. In terms of future technology, I see a growing interest in “blockchain” for humanitarian funding and even for data management for local health systems. The impact of technology expands to all the sectors of humanitarian assistance and sometimes even to protection.

How has technology been used to carry out protection activities?

In terms of protection, the issue is much more sensitive. In theory, there are many tools that could be used, but concretely very often the sudden access to technology can actually increase vulnerabilities by exposing users to threats or suspicion. This is especially true in conflict situations, which constitute the vast majority of humanitarian crises. In these cases, the role of innovation is to increase the access capacity of humanitarian actors, rather than providing local communities with gadgets.

In some situations, however, technology can and must make the difference for affected communities, for example to protect vulnerable groups in refugee or internally displaced people camps. There is an SMS-based app that actually helps people find shelter in case of, let’s say, domestic violence, and this is also applied to other case of violence in refugee camps and displaced camps. It allows people to send an alert in a very anonymous and discreet way, and allows humanitarians to find this person a secret or secure shelter for the night, allowing them to escape from threat or personal danger.

At the World Humanitarian Summit, innovation was quite a buzzword and two specific initiatives were launched. One was the Global Humanitarian Lab and the other was the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation. Could you explain what these are about, how they are different, what they can bring to humanitarian action, or what you see as their limitations?

These two initiatives approach the same issue—improving the response from humanitarian actors to crisis situations—but using different philosophies. One is more focused on developing consistent and more effective policies and standards for improving humanitarian action, innovating humanitarian technologies in a systematic way; that is the Global Alliance. And the other one, the Global Humanitarian Lab, is more concentrated on unleashing innovation worldwide, creating a global network of makers and innovators that could produce local humanitarian tools and solutions that could be used to facilitate responses by humanitarian actors, and notably facilitating the logistics of these. So avoiding long-distance deployment of technology and other tools that are necessary in the field. The two are different in their applied methodology and approach, but I see some kind of convergence in the long-term; I think that the two will actually find a way to communicate quite soon.

Do you think that these kinds of initiatives can truly speed up innovation in the humanitarian sector, which many people say has been quite late in arriving?

Definitely. Of course, it’s just the first step in a long process, and as you said the sector has a lot to catch up on. However it’s an ambitious first step that sees many of the major humanitarian actors sitting at the same table to work together and with non-humanitarian partners. Even some actors who were historically resistant to join “umbrella” organizations are now spearheading one or both initiatives. I think this is a clear and strong sign that not only the message on the need for new strategies and tools was well received, but that the major organizations are willing to break the ancient silos system and finally work together in a coordinated way. Let’s see if the good intentions will be followed by consistent changes in internal and external strategies at all levels, to give these initiatives the resources and flexibility needed to reach their goals.

The WHS saw a lot of commitment to empower local actors and for the international humanitarian sector to maybe step back at some points and support local response. Do you think there is enough focus on making new technologies or innovative approaches to humanitarian action available to local actors in a meaningful way?

I think in this sense the WHS did what had to be done, meaning it reaffirmed the engagement of humanitarian actors to constantly revise and improve their strategies. This said, international humanitarian actors can only go so far in allowing local actors to access technologies. Most of the work still relies on the effort of states and private actors; they have different means, they have a different outreach, and they have a different capacity. Humanitarian actors can only try to orient and facilitate some kind of discussion on how to use technology for good and in a principled way, but then they cannot be the one who actually develops most of the technology. They cannot be the ones who create research labs because they are usually not funded nor mandated for this. So, the collaboration and contribution of private partners and public partners will be fundamental. Without this, and without public actors taking responsibility, I don’t see this as a game-changer.

Has the private sector been engaged in the Global Humanitarian Lab and the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation? Are they part of those networks?

Yes, of course, and that’s a good sign. For example, in the Global Alliance you have some participants from the academic sector like us, though not so many; you have some from the private sector; and you have a good amount of NGOs and international agencies. This is a good mix and I’m really curious to see if this finally provides a platform to find standard language and standard protocols to cooperate and develop new technology in a principled way.