From Iris Guard payment for refugees to rescue robots,Yasmine Ziadat explores how technology is transforming the face of global aid on World Humanitarian Day 2016
When we hear breaking news, it is easy to disassociate ourselves from it. We mindlessly flick through television channels, skim over newspapers and scroll past articles on our devices.
That is why World Humanitarian Day is so important. On August 19 each year, we are reminded to stop and think about what is going on in the world, and to thank the aid workers on the other side of the screen; the ones risking their lives for those affected by tragedy, who witness the issues we see as statistics.
In this technologically driven era, it is no surprise that the face of humanitarian aid is transforming. There are still people fighting on the frontlines, but there are also people around the world inventing new technologies to help aid workers, governments and citizens advocate for humanitarian actions, and here is just a handful of examples...
Robots for Humanity
We may have all been warned about the imminent dangers of a robot take over, but what if it’s not as bad as we think? With unmanned ground, marine and aerial vehicles being built all over the world, WeRobotics is proving that rescue robots are quickly dominating the humanitarian aid scene.
Dr Robin Murphy’s book Disaster Robotics explains how robots can be used “for all phases of a disaster, from prevention to response and recovery”, and will be used more in the future, especially with the increasing impacts of global warming. These robots come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and can be programmed to carry out different tasks.
The most popular example is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), also known as a drone. Once a camera is attached to it, search teams can use them as a pair of eyes in inaccessible or dangerous areas. Whether they’re flying in to inspect the damages from hurricane Katrina, shuttling Ebola patients to hospitals to prevent the spread of disease to doctors, or swimming along the coast of Japan to search for victims after the 2011 tsunami, robots are the new sidekicks.
Map my crisis
The overflow of information generated during disasters can be as paralyzing to humanitarian response efforts as the lack of information, says Dr Patrick Meier, the brain behind Digital Humanitarians, and the Director of Social Innovation for the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI).
That is why the QCRI recently launched their “Big Data” app RHEEM, a technological solution to processing the huge volumes of data that are generated when disaster strikes.
Another project to emerge from the QCRI is its Microtasking Apps for Disaster Response (MicroMappers). Developed with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), MicroMappers was successfully used to assess the damage of the Ecuador earthquake that occurred earlier this year in April.
Iris Guard technology
IrisGuard’s eye scanning technology has had unprecedented impacts on the nearly one and a half million Syrian Refugees in Jordan.
After a recent collaboration with Cairo Amman Bank, the iris scanning technology, which scans and logs people’s unique iris patterns, is now being used in ATMs around Amman. This means that people can access their money by simply looking into a scanner, a safe alternative that prevents identity theft and eliminates the need for cards and pins.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken advantage of this new technology to distribute aid to refugees in the form of Biometric Cash Assistance (BAC).
The BAC system recognises that refugees scattered around Jordan’s cities do not necessarily need aid in the form of food, and that aid money gives people more choice and independence. By combining IrisGuard’s technology, and the UNHCR’s BAC system, refugees have been given a low hassle and secure method to access aid.
At this year’s Boston based Humanitarian Technology Conference (HumTech2016), the outstanding impact prize was awarded to mVAM, an organisation that focuses on using mobile technology to alleviate poverty.
By using different modalities, such as voice calls, SMS or IVR (interactive voice response), mVAM have managed to use “cell phone technology to conduct high frequency food security monitoring of crisis affected populations”.
Since its launch in 2013, mVAM has collaborated with the World Food Program to collect information about food insecurity in West Africa through surveys. They are constantly improving and building upon their findings, and have announced that they will soon be introducing a chatbot to not only ask people questions in a more encouraging manner, but to also allow people to interact and ask it questions.
In collaboration with British company Connectik Technologies Limited, Kenya Red Cross has released the first multi-functional ‘Humanitarian Smartphone App’. With features such as ‘Emergencies’, ‘Ambulance’ and ‘News’, it allows users to request emergency services and receive news alerts at the click of a button.
The ‘Give Blood’ feature has also succeeded in encouraging people to donate in hospitals all over Kenya, especially after receiving news notifications about national crises. Although the app has some limitations with regards to accessibility, Kenya has the highest figures in the continent in terms of smartphone penetration, with 86 per cent of the population using mobile phones, and just under 70 per cent owning smartphones.