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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 17, special issue: The World Humanitarian Summit

Disintermediation - the future of Aid in a Digital world?
Ian Gray



A surprising amount of people’s work can be digitised. An example is, the development of knowledge management platforms that distribute know how to anybody who has access to them, such as the Knowledge Point platform that is multi-agency and allows people to access technical expertise that is not readily at hand [3]. Information management and analysis through context awareness platforms and remote situation rooms is another area where the information that people collect on the ground can be mixed with other data from social media and on the web and then mapped to provide a rich picture of what is happening in any given context [4]. Even more mundane tasks that have traditionally been carried out in the context where a disaster has happened can be carried out by people thousands of miles away using agencies’ own digital systems, or external digital platforms such as Crowdflower [5] accessed 13th March 2016 and Samasource [6] for micro-tasking. An example of voluntary micro-tasking is the Digital Humanitarian Network [7] who work as part of crisis mappers to map information after the onset of an emergency. Once a process or piece of knowledge has been digitised, moving them around the world becomes possible, allowing people on the other side of the world from a disaster to be working on fundamental aspects of delivering the response that were traditionally carried out in the disaster setting, but in reality do not require someone with a strong understanding of the context to perform.

In a way, these are incremental improvements on existing ways of doing things. What is more disruptive, is the use of digital tools to enable peer-to-peer humanitarian response. The large penetration of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, in conjunction with the ubiquity of search engines like Google, has meant that, where there has been widespread access to these platforms, affected communities and their social networks (family, friends, diaspora), have been able to express needs, and respond to them completely independently of any centralised coordinating mechanism, or traditional humanitarian actors. The first significant instance of this trend was in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, while Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda saw this taken to another level.

Over the past 5 years or so, Google, Facebook and others have looked at how their tools could be better optimised for such peer-to-peer support, with the development of software such as Google’s ‘person finder’ [8] which is designed to assist people to locate each other in the aftermath of an emergency. This digital enabling of self-organisation between those requiring assistance and those wishing to offer help creates a strong platform for disintermediation of the current humanitarian system.

We are only at the start of the use of digital platforms and social media for peer-to-peer humanitarian response. This type of response, where individuals can show solidarity to their fellow citizens in disaster-prone middle-income countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and even less-well-developed countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, has huge potential. The use of existing platforms and concepts such as Freecycle (for donating material relief) [9], Uber (for transporting material relief and human assistance) [10], and AirBnB (for providing shelter to displaced people) [11] are just some of the ways that Disruptive Digital Disintermediation can occur in the humanitarian industry. This creates huge opportunities for individual solidarity as well as numerous inherent risks [12].

[3] https://knowledgepoint.org/en/questions/ accessed 13th March 2016

[4] An example is http://www.speedevidence.com accessed 13th March 2016

[5] http://www.crowdflower.com

[6] http://www.samasource.org accessed 13th March 2016

[7] http://digitalhumanitarians.com accessed 13th March 2016

[8] https://google.org/personfinder/global/home.html accessed 13th March 2016

[9] https://www.freecycle.org accessed 13th March 2016

[10] https://www.uber.com accessed 13th March 2016

[11] https://www.airbnb.co.uk accessed 13th March 2016

[12] Beyond the scope of this article due to space constraints and the fact that it is not as directly disintermediating as other areas, is the power of digital tools to assist communities to hold duty bearers and powerful organisations to account. Digital tools are increasing the democratic and consumer power of many affected communities, who are able to use them to lift up their voices and stories to influence decision makers and the local and global public.