03/15/2016 02:54 pm ET

Humanitarian Innovation: Surprising News, Cautionary Tales, and Promising Directions

For those fleeing active conflict zones, natural disasters, or the gradual devastation of climate change, a host of humanitarian relief agencies is standing by. A symposium of leaders from the United Nations, nonprofit organizations, academia, and industry gathered last month at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) and the Banatao Institute to discuss ways we might improve cooperation and deliver better services to those facing extreme circumstances. We uncovered not only daunting challenges but promising new directions.

News from Syria has highlighted access to information as an element of humanitarian aid, one as essential as food, shelter, water and sanitation. Indeed, social media platforms have become lifelines for refugees planning escape routes and communicating with family and friends along the way. Still, despite the sophisticated electronic communications and mapping tools now available, low-tech communication methods--radio, print, posters--can be more appropriate in contexts of low literacy or where political or ethnic rivals might be competing for scarce resources. A combination of tools can also be effective, as seen in the Za'atari camp in Jordan where UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is communicating via SMS and traditional channels with more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

Emergencies may offer a silver lining when infrastructure is implemented whose benefits will persist once the immediate crisis has past. For instance, in the Philippines, Visa is pioneering the use of prepaid cards for use following natural disasters, where normal infrastructure is disrupted, and electronic transfers offer more security and accountability than large cash infusions.

Numerous opportunities for innovation present themselves in the humanitarian cycle, not all of which require technology. One surprising strategy for alleviating the lingering effects of trauma associated with natural disasters: insurance. In a study of "Risk-Taking Behavior in the Wake of Natural Disasters," economists discovered that access to insurance increased Indonesian households' willingness to adopt new technology, open a business, or otherwise invest in their future following natural disasters. (Earlier studies have shown the effect of property insurance on reducing instances of post-traumatic stress disorder among those affected by Hurricane Katrina.) Techniques to improve community resilience through innovative financial mechanisms deserve further investigation.

A few lessons emerged from the convening, including one from the disability rights movement: "nothing about us without us." Affected communities are best suited to evaluate the feasibility of solutions offered on their behalf and should be fully engaged as co-creators. Examples of effective community engagement include the American Red Cross's project for deploying sensor networks for fire detection in Nairobi's informal settlements. Or Digital Democracy's work to help indigenous communities build low-cost, durable drones to monitor environmental degradation. At the same time, in the age of Big Data, outside organizations should consider the ethics of data collection, analysis and circulation. Unless the local populations have access to it and some means to use it themselves, data can become another "extractive resource."

A strong recommendation emerged for investing in the innovation pipeline, and indeed, a number of humanitarian institutions have recently created labs or venture funds under the banner of "innovation." The UN has more than a dozen such offices within its agencies (including a long list of local Innovation Labs affiliated with UNICEF and themed labs affiliated with the High Commissioner for Refugees), and the U.S. State Department has launched USAID's Development Innovation Ventures. Nongovernmental organizations like Internews and World Vision each have labs. Recognizing the need for more nimble response and the opportunities offered by new technology, organizations are applying the tools of mobile devices and social media, and testing sustainable solutions under social impact investing models.

In the cycle of disaster preparedness, response and recovery, academic institutions can play a role throughout: by developing new technologies; by rigorously monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of search and rescue methods and community resilience in real time; and by engaging communities to rebuild and offering evidence-based guidance to practitioners. University-based researchers may have the time and perspective to undertake assessments of the field as a whole, such as Howard Rush's work on "Mapping the Humanitarian Innovation Ecosystem" at University of Brighton. In the best case, such assessments will not sit on an electronic shelf but rather become living documents that implementing organizations and local partners can use to learn from examples and try new approaches. Academic partners from all disciplines can be better integrated into the disaster response ecosystem. Efforts to tackle the Ebola crisis would have benefited not only from improved sanitation techniques and protective equipment but also from incorporating the expertise of social scientists and anthropologists who could advise on local cultural practices and attitudes. New academic journals such as the International Journal of Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management cater to the emerging fields. University centers like CITRIS and the Haas School's Center for Responsible Business can also convene relevant actors to provide space for discussing triumphs and failures, and accelerate iteration of promising ideas.

Humanitarian innovation must be radically interdisciplinary and collaborative to be effective and sustainable. Some of these practices are summarized in the Principles of Digital Development, released a few days after the conference described here. The Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI), spearheaded by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, will serve as a convener for continued collaboration. To be launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, GAHI has an important mandate in a world where nearly 150 million people are affected by natural disasters or displaced by conflict. Sitting among students and faculty at the leading public university and creative entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute are eager to contribute to the challenging and worthwhile endeavors ahead.