Book Review: Digital Humanitarians

Patrick Meier’s book “Digital Humanitarians” provides a comprehensive overview of how the global digital revolution is permanently changing disaster response.

Digital Humanitarians - BookStarting with the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Patrick looks at how the digitization of information is enabling us to take large problems, break them down into small parts and send these parts to people and computers all over the world, who then collectively help to solve them. The result is an additional layer of remote operational support that extends disaster response from the local to the global level.

The book is particularly useful for those who are new to this topic, because it guides the reader through some of the most relevant disaster response operations in the last five years, it shows how the volunteer and tech community helped and how that help has evolved. As one might expect from reading his blog, a lot of the book focuses on crisis mapping, drones and big data.

Solutions for big data problems

The parts I found most interesting were related to the use of artificial intelligence to solve the big data problems that disaster response operations pose. While a crowd of volunteers can analyse tweets and satellite images within a reasonable amount of time, the same task can be completed much faster if the same crowd of volunteers spends less time training an algorithm to distinguish between pertinent and non-relevant information. The advances that researchers have made in this area are impressive and Patrick’s book provides a great overview of what is already possible and an idea of what will likely be possible in a few years. Most importantly, readers learn how they themselves can access these tools.

Where I disagree

There are a few things where I see things differently from Patrick:

I disagree that Haiti was a big success for live crisis mapping, if success is defined as saving lives. There is simply no hard evidence that “a bunch of students were able to (…) help save hundreds of lives without ever setting foot in the country”. To me the main benefit of digital humanitarian’s involvement in the Haiti response was not what was (or wasn’t) achieved there, but the lessons that were learned from the process. And the main lesson is that remote support should be demand driven. Groups like the Standby Taskforce and the Digital Humanitarian Network have used these lessons to ensure that they only mobilise volunteers when there is a concrete demand by a humanitarian agency, rather than produce a map in the hope that someone can use it. This is something I would have liked to see reflected in the Haiti chapter.

I was also a little disappointed to find so little about the contributions of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap volunteers in the book. While crisis maps can be useful in the moment, the work done by OSM has a much longer-lasting impact.

Lastly, irrespective of Haiti, I disagree with the strong link that Patrick makes between the activities of the digital volunteers and lives being saved. In my opinion this raises unrealistic expectations. In most cases digital humanitarians are involved in helping organisations improve situational awareness, and while this is an incredibly important and valuable task, most humanitarian organisations are not doing search and rescue, but are planning to respond to community needs. Better planning will save lives since resources can be allocated more efficiently, but it is incredibly rare that a social media update leads to the rescue of a specific person. Where it does happen, it is almost always due to the work of local disaster responders, rather than the support provided by international organizations. I understand that “Your works saves lives” is a better motivational tool than “Your work will be on a map or slide that someone might look at who coordinates people who save lives”. However, personally, I feel that toning down expectations would be more appropriate.

A tool to overcome institutional scepticism

On the other hand, Patrick’s enthusiasm and passion are also what makes the book such a valuable read. Staff at big organisations almost always have to fight institutional inertia and scepticism to try something new. The book shows what is already possible today and how technology can be used to improve the work of humanitarian organisations during disasters. Most importantly, Patrick shows that these benefits can be reaped without major investments. You just need to set some time aside to find out how to do it.

Digital Humanitarians is a great starting point for those who are interested in using social media, crowdsourcing and ICT for disaster response. I would also recommend the book to anyone studying disaster management or information management, since it shows where and how innovation related to data analysis is taking place.

You can join Patrick on 5 May at 10:00 am EST for a free webinar through TechChange.

In addition we will discuss many of the tools mentioned in his book during my online course “Technology for Disaster Response” that starts on 22 June.

Did you read Digital Humanitarians? What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments!