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How the Networked Age is Changing Humanitarian Disasters
Luncheon Series

How the Networked Age is Changing Humanitarian Disasters

Event Description

Information communication technologies and the data they produce are transforming how natural and manmade disasters alike unfold. These technologies are also affecting how populations behave and organizations respond when these events occur. This talk will address the ethical, legal and technical implications of this pivotal moment in the history of humanitarianism.

Notes from the talk

Humanitarianism has gone through several transformations since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. According to Nathaniel Raymond, we are now at another crucial moment in humanitarian history, a time which he referred to as the “digital Goma,” referencing the cholera outbreaks in camps around Goma during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Raymond criticized the “humanitarian innovation narrative,” which assumes that increases in innovation and technology will lead to better humanitarian aid.

The use of ICT and data, while well intentioned, are causing secondary data disasters. Raymond cautioned that, “new ways of seeing create new ways of being blind.” For example, during Hurricane Katrina, people used cellphones to identify needs and request help, but the result was that white communities, in which cellphones were more prevalent, received more aid than communities of color. Such problems are the result of integrating new technologies into humanitarian efforts without adhering to a rights-based approach. In response to these issues, the Signal Program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative has developed the Signal Code, described as a “human rights approach to information during crisis.” The code identifies five rights: the right to information; the right to protection; the right to privacy and security; the right to data agency; and the right to rectification and redress. The Signal Program hopes that the code will be the foundation for continued transformation of the humanitarian doctrine in this technological era.

Raymond concluded by asking whether we need a fifth Geneva Convention for the age of cyber warfare. We are either moving towards a “golden age of new regulations” or a post-normative world, in which the word “humanitarian” may not mean anything anymore. Currently, we are at a pivot point, on the precipice of a third world war, or a “war on trust.” Several key questions are at stake: Do we develop new norms? If so, how, and who gets to develop them? Finally, what are the consequences if we do not develop them?

Notes by Donica O'Malley

About Nathaniel

Nathaniel Raymond is the founding Director of the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. He has over fifteen years of experience as a humanitarian aid worker and human rights investigator. Raymond was formerly director of operations for the George Clooney-founded Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) at HHI.

Raymond served in multiple roles with Oxfam America and Oxfam International, including in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. He has published multiple popular and peer-reviewed articles on human rights, humanitarian issues, and technology in publications including the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the Lancet, the Annals of Internal Medicine, and many others.

Raymond served in 2015 as a consultant on early warning to the UN Mission in South Sudan and as a technical consultant to Home Box Office on detainee abuse during the Bush Administration. He was a 2013 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow and is a co-editor of the technology issue of Genocide Studies and Prevention. Raymond and his Signal Program colleagues were prize winners in the 2013 USAID/Humanity United Tech Challenge for Mass Atrocity Prevention and received the 2012 U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation Industry Intelligence Achievement Award.


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Past Event
Oct 24, 2017
12:00 PM - 1:15 PM

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Luncheon Series

The Berkman Klein Center Luncheon Series is a weekly forum for conversations about Internet issues and research. It is free and open to the public.