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First Do No (Digital) Harm: Protecting the Humanitarian Mission With the Cloud

By April 29, 2019

An emergency response vehicle. Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross.
Humanitarian organizations are on a transformational journey with their use of technology. Where it was once rare to see a laptop in the field on a humanitarian response mission, today mobile phones and tablets are routine ICT devices in complex humanitarian and development operations. Many organizations are currently exploring newer, more innovative technologies to further their humanitarian mission: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), artificial intelligence and machine learning, blockchain, 3-D printing, biometrics, and other connected technologies just to name a few.

A changing world demands that organizations evolve to meet changing needs. Technological innovation can unlock new capabilities for aid organizations to ensure that the right help can get to the right person at the right time in a crisis. In the context of development (known by the acronym ICT4D, or information and communications technology for development), technology can help lift communities out of poverty, bring education to underserved populations, and help transform communities by raising the standard of living and creating opportunities. A classic example of this is M-PESA, a mobile money service best known as how unbanked people transfer money (such as a worker in a city sending funds home to parents). According to ICTworks, mobile money transactions are now larger than Kenya’s GDP.

Because humanitarian organizations often literally operate in the midst of conflict, serving the most vulnerable people on the planet, humanitarian technology needs to be up to world-class standards for data governance, physical and cloud security. Collaboration must occur in real-time to mitigate any technological challenges that may delay or disrupt humanitarian action. Some examples of the challenges: Paper patient files at a rural hospital can become targets for an invading military to seize data about a vulnerable group. An autocratic politician can use demographic data about an ethnic group and their location to cause harm, even if that data is aggregated and deidentified. A hacker might try to spoof a humanitarian nonprofit’s social media account to spread distrust among their donors and constituents by spreading disinformation. For humanitarian organizations, the difference between using legacy technologies or modern ones, and using them effectively, can mean life or death for their constituents.

To make effective and sustainable use of transformative technologies, humanitarians must not only use secure platforms and data governance processes, they must also innovate responsibly. For humanitarian technology, it’s important to identify potential hazards to reduce risk.

Improving security processes is a collaborative effort.

Digital Dignity Starts With Human Rights

Over the years, when I’ve been involved in discussions of innovative technologies in the humanitarian sector, technologists will often start with the technical solution and work backwards from there: “This is a great new technology! Let’s figure out a way to go use it!” It’s enough of a cliché that the online comic XKCD even referred to it. Humanitarian technology does not exist in a vacuum. Technologies introduced into a humanitarian context must be designed from the outset to uphold human dignity and human rights.

The good news is that here are a number of efforts in the international humanitarian community to codify principles that allow for the responsible use of innovative technologies that are grounded in the universal humanitarian values of Humanity, Neutrality, Impartiality, and Independence as well as supported by International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and other applicable regulatory frameworks, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Some of these efforts include the International Committee of the Red Cross Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action, the Signal Code from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and the working draft of Data Responsibility Guidelines from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. These and other applicable standards and frameworks should be incorporated at the earliest possible point in a technical design discussion. This ensures that humanitarian organizations are situated squarely in their core principles and mission as they adopt new technologies and transform their operations to best take advantage of technology.

How The Cloud Helps with Responsible Data Usage

In the field, humanitarian workers will often resort to ad hoc methods of data collection to accomplish their missions. This could include spreadsheets locally stored on an individual laptop, pen-and-paper records, or on a homegrown application server sitting underneath a desk. In a time-sensitive crisis situation or other circumstances with few resources, the temptation to use whatever is available can be very strong – and can paradoxically open up more risk to people in their hour of greatest vulnerability.

On the other hand, multi-tenant cloud solutions, such as those provided by, can enable humanitarian organizations to take advantage of proven security and data protection features at scale, allowing even smaller NGOs to benefit from the same robust capabilities as the largest businesses, even in remote or austere field locations. Data can be collected, processed, and appropriately shared without having to worry about encryption, patching, or backups. Access controls can be fine-tuned to the purpose at hand, and the data itself resides in the cloud, not on a local device that could be lost. Applications can be designed to be useful and responsive even in situations where there is limited connectivity or the user is accessing the service on an older, less powerful device.

In short, the cloud can allow humanitarian NGOs to focus on delivering impact while meeting their responsible data obligations.

A disaster response team working together Stands With Humanitarians

Global humanitarian organizations today face enormous challenges: climate change, limited funding, urbanization, and the mandate to create opportunities for health and wellbeing for all mean that humanitarians are being asked to meet complex needs that are only growing in enormity. At, it is our privilege to stand alongside nonprofits to empower and protect the communities that they serve with the best technology we can deliver. The people who work and volunteer in the international humanitarian community are among the most passionate people on the planet, and the humanitarian mission to better the human condition ennobles us all.

About the Author
Rakesh BharaniaRakesh Bharania is Director of Humanitarian Technology Impact at He has spent more than twenty-five years in the humanitarian sector, focusing on the intersection of emerging technologies and international humanitarian crisis response and development. Rakesh has also engaged across the board with policy-makers, senior government officials, academia, first responders, NGOs/IGOs, volunteer organizations and industry leaders. Connect with Rakesh on LinkedIn or say hi to him at the ICT4D conference 2019 in Uganda this week.