Posted on 5-10-2018

Ethics, Technology and Innovation in Humanitarian Settings: Calibrating the Conversation

“We need a shared language for how and where we are pitching this discussion”

By: Dónal O’Mathúna, Matthew Hunt, featuring Anna Skeels, Katrina Petersen, Olivia Iannelli, Neil Townsend and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik.

The relationship between ethics, innovation and technology in humanitarian settings is a fraught one, but also a fruitful area for practitioner-academic collaboration.  Such collaboration can improve practice,  document and analyze processes to build knowledge in the sector and enhance academic engagement. While the humanitarian sector is busy adopting new technologies and creating spaces for innovation, the humanitarian studies field is equally busy describing, cheering on or critiquing these developments. What both fields of practice have in common, is that they are in the early stages of framing and unpacking the problems and challenges of technologizing the humanitarian space, the ‘turn’ to data and the rise of the innovation paradigm. Considering what is ethically at stake as humanitarians take up emergent technologies, and how particular technologies intersect with, support, or challenge ethical commitments, is thus crucial.

Based on the panel session “Ethics and Technology in Humanitarian settings” organized by Dónal O’Mathúna (Ohio State U and Dublin City U) and Matthew Hunt (McGill) at the IHSA 2018, featuring Anna Skeels (Elrha’s Humanitarian Fund), Katrina Petersen and Olivia Iannelli (TRILATERAL), Neil Townsend (START Network) and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (UiO/PRIO), this blog post brings together diverse perspectives from practitioners, funders, researchers and educators. It touches on how we might focus and calibrate critical discussions about problem-definitions, ethical tradeoffs and bottom-up knowledge production in this burgeoning field of humanitarian practice.

The turn to a “what is the problem approach”: Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) supports organisations and individuals to identify, nurture and share innovative and scalable solutions to the challenges facing effective humanitarian assistance.  From their perspective, there  is clear concern with  simplistic, “over-association” of humanitarian innovation with technology.  Its’ strategy and recently launched Humanitarian Innovation Guide  point towards the bigger, more complex problems that tech alone cannot solve. This over-association leads to a product-heavy innovation portfolios and connects up to a culture of “neophilia” (Scott-Smith), “pilot-isis” (McClure and Gray) and a “digital zeal” within the sector at large. While the HIF’s funded innovation portfolio includes  ICT or other tech-based products that contribute to increasing speed, inclusivity and reach of humanitarian response, the HIF also has a strong focus on the problematics of experimentation and the vulnerabilities of the “digital self”. This is being addressed not only through their rigorous vetting and selection processes for who and what they fund, but also through their efforts to diversify and balance the make-up of those doing the vetting and grant-making.  Such concerns have informed the framework for their Humanitarian Innovation Guide, which adheres strongly to humanitarian principles and an ethical approach.  Through this Guide, as well as funding calls and activity, the HIF is supportingbetter and more responsible problem framing and identification of harm. This counters the wave of ‘solutions in need of humanitarian problems’ and demands a focus on better problem recognition – as a means to optimize benefits and minimize harm.

The project perspective: Working harder at conceptualizing tradeoffs. A good example of the sector’s attempts to conceptualize and frame new challenges around ethics and technology can be found in the European Commission Funded iTRACK Project. iTRACK aims to design a next generation intelligent tracking platform for humanitarian workers in the field that includes innovations like A.I. threat detection, the ability to track workers paths, and new efficient ways to communicate panic and concerns between field worker and central planning. In considering the ethical implications of iTRACK’s design, the project has raised a host of questions to consider that show how complex it is to ensure privacy as a right or ensure a technology’s use leads to ethical actions or public goods:

  • What elements should be considered to design for privacy when privacy can create both security and insecurity depending on the frame of analysis?
  • Tracking humanitarian workers can saves lives, but is there an “off-duty” time when they can turn off the trace to have privacy in insecure situations? What work does privacy do here?
  • Monitoring aid workers can both fulfill the obligation to duty of care and enhance accountability towards communities. How can technology design balance public security and worker privacy?
  • Is it possible to track effectiveness and efficiency with algorithms to recognize threats yet register locally proscribed modes of engagements and measures of success? How can this be done in a way that avoids culture creep and the pitfalls of treating ethics as relative and local?

These questions have no correct answer or standard formula that address them. But exploring the successes and challenges of projects like iTrack can help build a critical toolset necessary to approach ethics and technology in humanitarian settings.

The academic/practitioner collaboration: localizing and documenting the journey to ethics. There is furthermore the question of what it means to “localize” the innovation agenda, beyond setting up or funding innovation structures in the field. As exemplified by the DEPP labs program,  this process can be understood as a dual process of translation and vernacularization. In this process, rationalities, program tools and vocabularies are adopted, resisted, mediated or transformed by local labs— and ethics framings and problem conceptualizations change dynamically over time.  The DEPP Innovation Labs  are a two-year programme that forms part of the wider Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) . The DEPP Innovation Lab programme manages several innovation labs in four disaster-prone countries (Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya and the Philippines). While research on humanitarian innovation has either mostly been cheerleading or thrashing, little academic attention has been given to these processes (while a mountain of program documentation exists).  In the work of the DEPP labs, we have identified three clusters of challenges that generate ethical reflection across the labs.

The first pertains to the translation and vernacularization of concepts, where concepts that originate in Silicon Valley or in Geneva are adapted by labs located in other cultural contexts. What, for example, does “innovation” as a sectoral buzzword mean for people who naturally innovate and adapt? Vernacularization is the process of reshaping and adapting frameworks to regional, national or local norms, institutions, meanings and practices.  But for example is the concept of ‘fail fast’ legitimate in an emergency/disaster setting? Or, conversely, how do innovation methodologies need to be adapted by labs to take up the traditional humanitarian vocabulary of ‘doing no harm’, be neutral and impartial?

Relatedly, the operationalization of the innovation toolbox in the local context raises many questions about how tools such as “7 mindsets”, “incubation”, “design-sprints” are appropriated, resisted— or re-invented. Traditional innovation involves highly structured processes of ‘selection’ and ‘deselection’ – as well as highly visible processes of ‘defunding’.

Lastly, what are the potentials and pitfalls of community engagement in the innovation process?  The initial challenge pertains to defining “community centered” and who is a member of the community. Thereafter, labs must find an appropriate process, whereby time, resource and capacity constraints are successfully negotiated. Here ethical issues arise with respect to adequate information and expectation management. Innovation is a deeply uncertain process, with potentially significant opportunity costs for the community. There is the risk of innovation—the likelihood that it might fail—as well as the risk of the process amounting to experimentation. As the labs arrive at the end of their funding-lifecycle, there are issues related to sustainability—and finally, success poses its own ethical challenges, raising questions of intellectual property and equitable ownership of prototypes.

Moving forward together. By bringing together diverse perspectives, and drawing on a range of examples and experiences, the IHSA panel illuminated some of the ethical terrain of emergent humanitarian technologies. The panelists demonstrated tensions, challenges and potential pitfalls, but also discussed ways to deepen analysis and to support ethically robust technological applications in humanitarian settings. The thread of ethics and humanitarian technology was taken up in many other panels at the conference, clearly demonstrating the interest and importance associated with this topic and the need for work to continue on ethics in technology in both humanitarian studies and the humanitarian sector—and for close collaborations across the academic-practitioner divide.


Find the other conference blogs in the series on the website of the 2018 IHSA conference host: The International Institute of Social Studies.