Back to Magazine


The digital humanitarian


Never before has so much information been available to so many so quickly. According to the IFRC’s World Disasters Report for 2013, which focuses on technology and humanitarian action, this communications revolution is having a profound impact on the way people respond to emergencies.

Around the world, there are now some 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions and 2 billion mobile broadband internet subscriptions, according to the report. (These are impressive numbers considering that the earth’s population is now estimated at roughly 7.1 billion. The digital divide is still vast: only 54 per cent of people in Africa have mobile phones while in Europe, there are more mobile phone subscriptions than people. Still, in the last five years, mobile phone subscriptions have doubled in developing countries.

At the same time, there’s been exponential growth in the number of tasks these devises perform: exchanging money, buying goods, getting health advice, sharing first-aid tips, following the news or keeping in touch with friends and family, to name a few.

They can also help save lives. During Typhoon Pablo in 2012, emergency responders in the Philippines (where more than 90 per cent of the population has mobile phones) processed thousands of Twitter messages — including images and videos — to rapidly create maps of storm damage that helped them direct their response more effectively.

When linked with satellite imagery and geographic information systems (GIS), this can help relief organizations pinpoint aid delivery, says Robert Mardini, ICRC head of operations for the Near and Middle East. “This is clearly changing the way we work,” Mardini told those gathered for a GIS conference in April 2012. “Beneficiaries will increasingly have their say about when and how humanitarian organizations will work.”

Still, the humanitarian community needs to catch up, argues Patrick Vinck, the editor of this year’s World Disasters Report. The director of the programme for vulnerable populations at Harvard University’s Humanitarian Initiative, Vinck writes that humanitarian organizations are still not equipped to analyse vast amounts of emergency data and turn it into information upon which first responders can act. But they are working on it. Here are a few examples.

To find out more
For more about the humanitarian potential and challenges of new technology, see the World Disasters Report at

First aid at your fingertips
The screen of the smart phone shows a 19-second video of a mother holding her daughter’s forearm under the kitchen faucet. Meanwhile, a calm, soothing voice offers instructions: “Cool the burn under cool running water for at least ten minutes.” This scenario is from a new smartphone application, developed by the British Red Cross, that aims to put first aid into the hands of everyone. Scrolling down through the smartphone screen, the user sees simple, step-by-step instructions with animated illustrations, followed by series of common questions such as, “Should I put ice on the burn?” Users can also place a direct telephone call to emergency services with a push of one button. The American Red Cross has adapted the app for the US market and has released another series that helps people prepare for hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados and wildfires. Now both these National Societies and the IFRC — through its Global Disaster Preparedness Center and Global First Aid Reference Centre — are working on a universal first-aid app that can be adapted by National Societies around the world to put life-saving skills in even more hands.

The digital village
The digital humanitarian revolution is still about people helping people. Consider the Kenya Red Cross’ volunteer network, in which volunteers all over the country monitor social media around the clock and post Twitter messages about ongoing emergencies. “Hit and run at the Kangemi market,” reads one recent report. “Casualty onsite.” The information is then shared with the National Society’s Emergency Operations Centre, or one of its 63 local branches, to allow a faster and more targeted response.

The computer crowd
One of the big challenges is how to process the flood of data that comes in during emergencies. This is one reason that in March 2012, the American Red Cross opened its Digital Operations Center, where volunteers and staff synthesize ‘big data’ found in social media conversations in order to better understand how disasters are unfolding on the ground.

Dividing the tasks
Often, the digital volunteers and computer systems used to process the data are dispersed throughout the world. By dividing up computing and data management tasks to digital volunteers around the world, projects can be accomplished that could never be done by any one single organization. One example is SyriaTracker, one of the longest-running crisis maps. Another is the ICRC’s project to expand and repair the water supply system in conflict-affected Walikale, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ICRC engineers needed to better understand population distribution in the area so they asked volunteers with OpenStreetMap — an internet map website that allows people to create their own digital maps — to mark roads and buildings on satellite images in order to help ICRC teams determine where to lay pipes, dig reservoirs and deliver water.

Instant data
Data collection has often been a weak point for humanitarian organizations but mobile phones may make it easier. In 2011, the IFRC piloted a new way to collect data about the spread of malaria in communities in Kenya, Namibia and Nigeria. Called Rapid Mobile Phone-based Survey (RAMP), the methodology uses web-based, freely accessible mobile phone-based software to collect and upload data directly from the field. 

Cash transfers
Instead of shipping bags of rice or oil, relief organizations can now use mobile phone networks to distribute electronic cash vouchers where viable. These vouchers are sent directly to people’s mobile phones through SMS and recipients can withdraw cash or goods at identified merchants. This reduces shipping and other overhead costs, speeds up delivery and requires fewer staff and volunteers. It’s also safer than having relief workers carry cash into remote areas.


Great expectations: Better communication with beneficiaries often means the expectations of people affected by conflict and other disasters are also greater. “But the logistical, financial, travel and other constraints we face on the ground remain unchanged,” notes the ICRC’s Mardini.

False information: Real-time crisis maps can enhance safety for people affected by emergencies as well as humanitarian workers. But humanitarian platforms could be tainted with false information, or be disrupted. And there is the challenge of monitoring vast grass-roots networks of e-volunteers.

Field versus screen: Could new technology divert attention and resources from on-the-ground field work and human resources? Humanitarian groups stress that  technological innovations are only as good as the experience of humanitarian workers who will use or help create the data in the field.

Glitches: How will communities and relief groups function if mobile phone or satellite systems fail? What about areas where broadband is not available? What can be done about the digital divide?

Photo:©Benoit Carpentier/IFRC

National Society timeline

150 years of humanitarian action


Cameroon Red Cross Society
30 April 1960


Red Cross Society of Côte d’Ivoire
13 October 1960


Tonga Red Cross Society
1961 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 10 August 1972.


Vanuatu Red Cross Society
1962 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 30 July 1980.


Rwandan Red Cross  
July 1962


Senegalese Red Cross Society
29 January 1963


Saudi Red Crescent Authority
8 June 1963


Red Cross Society of Niger
16 July 1963


Nepal Red Cross Society
4 September 1963


Burundi Red Cross
31 July 1963


Congolese Red Cross (Brazzaville)
22 February 1964


Kiribati Red Cross Society
1965 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 12 December1989.


Mali Red Cross

24 August 1965

Kuwait Red Crescent Society
10 January 1966


Central African Red Cross Society
25 October 1966


The Palestine Red Crescent Society
26 December 1968


Bahrain Red Crescent Society
28 January 1970


Mauritanian Red Crescent
22 December 1970


Red Cross of Chad
1970 as a provisional committee, granted legal status in 1972 and became a National Society on 1 June 1983.

Click here to continue
the timeline


Coming next issue

150 years since the first Geneva Convention

War machines — are humanitarians keeping pace with new generations of high-tech weaponry?
Automated aid — can new technologies such as drones, robots and satellites help humanitarians save lives?
Cyber wars — international humanitarian law in cyberspace


Contact Us