jennie-phillipsWith the rapid onset of digital technologies, a new kind of humanitarian action is appearing: the citizen-driven response. This is transforming the role of humanitarian organisations. Jennie Phillips, a PhD candidate and Doctoral Fellow from the University of Toronto, whose research concentrates on the development of crisis resilience in digital response networks, explains what they are and how they can be leveraged for efficient humanitarian action.


  1. With the rise of digital technologies, it was only a matter of time before they were used for humanitarian action. Could you explain which digital technologies are being adopted by the humanitarian community and for what type of humanitarian action?

From laptop computers to mobile phones, apps to satellites, tablets to drones, existing and new digital technologies are being leveraged in the humanitarian realm. And organizations, from the non-profit to formal Humanitarian Response Organizations (HROs), are spawning to provide varying digital capacities through technology. Some examples include:

  • CrisisMappers – A network of experts, practitioners, policymakers, technologists, researchers, journalists, scholars, hackers and skilled volunteers that leverage mobile & web-based applications, participatory maps & crowdsourced event data, aerial & satellite imagery, geospatial platforms, advanced visualization, live simulation, and computational & statistical models to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.
  • UAViators – A network spanning 80+ countries, whose aim is to promote the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs for data collection, cargo delivery and communication services specific to the humanitarian and development settings. They develop and champion international guidelines for the responsible use of UAVs, promote operational safety, document lessons learned and best practices. At the request of formal humanitarian & development partners, they periodically mobilize to promote community engagement and educate UAV operators. Their pilot roster includes 400+ UAV pilots and partnership with Air-Vidgives them access to over 600 vetted pilots in more than 60 countries.
  • The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHNetwork) – A network-of-networks that acts as an interface between informal yet skilled-and-agile Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs) and formal, professional humanitarian organizations. They provide surge capacity and situational awareness through efforts including real-time monitoring of mainstream and social media, rapid geo-location of event-data and infrastructure data, creation of live crisis maps for decision support, data development and cleaning, GIS and big data analysis, satellite imagery tagging and tracing and time-sensitive web-based research.
  • ID – an online contact management application for humanitarian responders to help them find, connect and collaborate at the time of humanitarian crisis. This tool is part of a greater set of online platforms offered by the United Nations – Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) to support information-management related to humanitarian activities e.g ReliefWeb, Financial Tracking Services (FTS)

To date, Matt Stempeck provides the best summary of how technology is being used to make aid participatory.


  1. With the advent of digital technologies, a new kind of humanitarian actor has emerged: digital responders. Who are they? How do they contribute to humanitarian action?

From protracted to sudden onset emergencies, digital responders emerge and participate in all forms of crises. The digital response (figure 1) can be broken down into four types of responders (as outlined in Phillips 2015, p1):



The Affected Community – the local population directly involved in or impacted by the crisis that either a) seek help to locate missing persons, get medical treatment, identify shelters, aid, identify regions of the disaster zone that should be avoided, and so forth; b) share information about the crisis to enhance situational awareness and c) seek for ways to provide support to those affected.

The Diaspora Networks – The population physically removed from their homeland who are implicated remotely in a crisis, either as an affected community or as a response resource, e.g. source of funding or translation services

The Digital Humanitarian Networks (DHNs) — Response networks that provide “…aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies. Similar to online communities like Wikipedia, DHNs are global networks skilled in areas including information technology, emergency management (EM), mapping and communications that congregate during emergencies to facilitate response. They create maps, assess building damage, build missing person lists, monitor and aggregate big (crisis) data.

The Digital Activist Networks (DANs)Networks focused more on advocacy than relief. They use electronic communication technologies including email, YouTube, and social media to instigate, communicate, develop and foster the progression of advocacy efforts. Tactics range from the dissemination of circumvention tools to bypass Internet filtering, to delivery of cyber security training to local activists. Types of digital activists include: Armchair Activists who use digital tactics including petitions, email campaigns, etc; Citizen Journalists, everyday citizens, who share text, video and images about the situation “on the ground”; Information activists merge technology with information for social change {Tech:2012um, Joyce:2010vv}; and Hacktivists merge hacking with activism {Denning:2001ux}* for politically motivated acts.

In many cases, these networks aren’t mutually exclusive. Members of affected communities may be digital activists, and diaspora, digital humanitarians. The Occupy movement in the United States, for example, started off as an activist movement fighting for the 99%. Yet when Hurricane Sandy hit, the movement transformed into Occupy Sandy – a humanitarian response arm that organized the collection and distribution of supplies to disaster victims. In contrast, during the 2010 wildfires in Russia, Patrick Meier describes how citizens organized a digital “self-help map” to match requests for support with offers of support.

However, some of these ventures, unfortunately, can quickly become political as local authorities don’t always welcome the involvement of DANs nor the image they may project. As Meier explains, DHAs and DHNs frequently battle both “Big Data and Big Brother.” And, thus, when we think about the digital response we must think of them at their intersection, as the overlap between DHAs and DHNs, as Digital Humanitarian Activist Networks (DHANs).

This concept is explained in more detail here.

  1. How do you see digital response networks transforming the approach large humanitarian organisations have towards humanitarian response?

As my immediate research looks at how we can build resilience in virtual and physical networks, the ways technology is changing how citizens respond to crisis is unveiling interesting opportunities for building broader resilience in communities but also humanitarian operations.

Crisis response is transforming in three ways:

First, there is increasing information supply and demand in crisis situations. The increased proliferation of mobile phones and smart phones, combined with broader, more robust communication infrastructures, has rendered populations seamlessly connected to one another and to the broader community through social media applications like Twitter and Facebook. When a crisis hits, the surge of information generated is profound. For example, according to Meier, up to 300,000 tweets per minute were generated during the Japan tsunami, and over 20 million tweets during Hurricane Sandy. From reports, to calls for help, to offers of support, the information overload brings with it a whole new set of expectations from affected communities for the provision of response. In Canada, for example, a country where 1 in 3 people are prepared for emergencies, the Canadian Red Cross reports up to 80% of social media users expect emergency responders to monitor social media sites, and that 1 in 3 expect help to arrive within one hour of posting.

Second, it is shifting the burden on crisis response resources. The information surge provides opportunities and challenges. Primarily, an increase in information generation and sharing also implies communication and collaboration between citizens can be enabled. Citizens now have the ability to mobilize, coordinate and manage their own response to crises locally and/or distributed across regions in a crisis. This implies that the demand on first responders may decrease for two reasons. First, enabling communities to communicate locally and remotely renders them more capable of organizing themselves. Second, information resources instead of physical ones could prove more valuable in this case, and thus increase the need for information response or information management personnel instead.

Third, it is creating opportunities to engage remote support. In many cases, existing response structures lack personnel and broader capability to manage the scale of information generated in crisis. With the essence of information exchange being digital, however, the response capability required for information management or crisis communications can also be digital or virtual. This implies this demand can be delegated to resources remote from the crisis capable of providing this digital surge capacity. More specifically we can engage volunteer & technical communities like digital humanitarian activist networks (DHANs) mentioned above. By leveraging DHANs to manage information online during crisis, local responders can focus efforts more to their strengths, outsource digital needs to those with the digital strengths, and work towards enabling communities instead of responding to them.


  1. With the development of these Digital Response Networks, how do you think humanitarian actors should adapt?

As highlighted in an earlier article, humanitarians must shift from the “role of a savior to an enabler.” Following recent work with Andrej Verity at UN-OCHA, one practical approach to doing so can be through the development of local Digital Response Networks (DRNs). Similar to the DHNetwork concept, local DRNs aim to bridge local digital responders with local physical responders. The purpose is to build resilience into local communities by connecting local Volunteer and Technical Communities with one another and the larger response community to enhance communication, coordination and information sharing. For guidance, you can refer to “Guidance for developing local Digital Response Networks (DRNs)”.

With or without a local DRN, humanitarian actors will benefit from taking the time to understand the digital layer of the context in which they operate. In the initial needs assessment, they must look at the technologies people are using, how they’re using them and how they’re communicating. It is essential to grasp and establish clear expectations around the provision of information online and support requested through digital means. Communications security must be front and center of the planning. They must take the time to look at the existing privacy and surveillance context and identify mechanisms to protect communications, data and the identities of the individuals they engage with. Through this understanding and provisions, humanitarians can isolate how citizens can help themselves, how humanitarian actors can enable their collaboration in a safe and secure manner, offset digital demands where they lack the capability to manage and allocate where they possess the capability to shine in times of stress.


For more information see Jennie’s website or follow her on twitter @drchangelove