To paraphrase Douglas Adams, life is a process of: “Extraordinary eruptions of information."
CRJ has written much about how information is the lifeblood of effective response and on how burgeoning technology in the form of crowdsourcing, mapping and the rising tide of social media is changing the emergency landscape, along with its attendant benefits and pitfalls. So it was an honour to be part of the London launch of a report on this subject (p12).
The World Disasters Report 2013 charts the extraordinary rise of digital humanitarian volunteers, an immensely valuable resource in times of emergency. It examines how technology is fuelling evolution in the self-determination and empowerment of disaster-affected communities.
However, the protection of personal data, liability and accountability are all coming under greater scrutiny. And for good reason.
Earlier this year, researchers found it was possible to identify individuals from supposedly anonymous human mobility traces harvested from mobile phones. Highly personal information can be deduced from the pathways and routes within this data.
Similarly, personal information in humanitarian situations could be tracked back to individuals or communities. This data could be used by governments or armed groups for retribution or revenge. Locations of food distribution points, clinics and the presence of aid workers can be a boon to those intent on pursuing a violent agenda.
But there’s a balancing act to be maintained. In 2007, the UK Government issued guidance for emergency responders on data protection, triggered by uncertainty among responders about sharing personal data between agencies in the July 2005 London bomb attacks.
Humanitarian and response organisations need to improve their understanding of how they treat, use and share data. Conversely, they must also avoid overzealous guarding of private information, which could lead to virtual – and possibly tragic – paralysis.