#CHA23 Snapshot 1: Digital inclusion of local humanitarian actors and Take Aways Day 1
(Darina Pellowska) A quick snapshot talking about digital inclusion of local humanitarian action. Please, be with me for the last session today. I'm very happy to see so many people here in the room. I hope you have enough spare energy for another quick 30 minutes. As always, let me start with some housekeeping rules: The event is still streamed live, recorded, and is going to be posted on the CHA website and YouTube channel. Keep that in mind if you want to share your input
online and here in Berlin. If you want to share your experience in this panel, you can do so by using the hashtag CHA23 and you can tag us with Centre for Humanitarian Action on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. We will have a Q&A session in this quick snapshot. If you want to feed in your thoughts and questions, you are more than welcome to do that by using the microphone over here. For those of you online, please engage in the chat. This is going to be monitored by CHA Sonja Hövelmann and she is going to pass your comments on. If you prefer to send us anonymous comments, you can send a private message using the chat as well. If you need any technical support online on Zoom, send a private message to the user CHA Technical Support.
Let's dive into the topic of this last snapshot session. It is a very practical, concrete example of linking digitalization, participation, and local leadership. That is surprisingly rarely done. I'm very honoured to be able to do that together with Patrick Vinck joining us online. Patrick, it's a pleasure to have you. Patrick Vinck is a Research Director at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He is also the Lead Investigator at the Brigham
and Women's Hospital and a Joint Associate Professor at Tulane University's Payson Center for International Development. And as this is not enough he is also working regularly as an advisor and evaluation consultant for the United Nations and other organisations. It is a pleasure to have you here. You wanted to come in person so badly. But we are very happy that we have technology so we can dial in online. Nice having you. (Patrick Vinck) Thank you for inviting me. It is interesting because it does reflect the topic of the day. Which is in some ways, technology allows me to be there but in reality I'm not there.
And I am missing the richness and informal nature of what is happening. Technology is useful. It is a perfect substitute in many cases. We will hear more about that today. (Darina Pellowska) We will. What is so interesting about you and your work is that your main research interest is in social cohesion, resilience, and social disasters, but still you ended up examining the role of text and data in these contexts.
I wonder if you can talk about how you ended up researching these topics. (Patrick Vinck) I started my career as an engineer. Programming was not completely foreign to me. I wasn't bad at it. I just didn't enjoy it. One of the things I realized is that I
was not trained in how to interview people, how to consult, or how to gather opinions which is critical when you try to engineer systems or solve problems. That led me to the aspect of: How can we improve consultation? How to work on gathering and engaging in discussions around those issues? I found myself in Iraq in 2003 after the fall of Baghdad. Between transcription, translation, and coding, it took almost a year to be able to report what people were saying. It was a very clear message that the process of betting that everybody who was a Barth party member was problematic in order to survive – you had to be a member of that party – as forces withdrew early, it created major issues for how the system works, public health for example. So that was the link the technology came as: How do we try to bridge that gap that time gap? Enabling more real-time dialogue. That is when we started looking at I am saying we because I was working with me wife and we thought how do we take what is out there? There were already some online forms, some surveys on the way, but nothing was working offline. So,
we started developing this. The open data came out which was very helpful. We have continued to look at these ways of advancing data collection. But data collection is extracted. It led me to look more broadly at what the role of technology in that space can be. How do we do this in a responsible manner? (Darina Pellowska) Exactly and than you also developed the Kobo Tool Box. Can you explain how did this evolve? How did it lead you to develop a new tool?
(Patrick Vinck) Sure. It is a little bit like I described. It is a kind of a textbook - the simplest. Many of the innovators, people working with technology are familiar with that. You identify the problem: Which is that doing data collection manually, collecting and entering the data, is not very ineffective. It is useful, but it has major bottlenecks, including aspects of timeliness, because it takes time to enter the data. It had issues with quality control. You identify from your own experience a concrete example where a potential technological solution is available. That was the creation of Kobo. We started using it on purpose. People started seeing it and asked to make it available so we started making it available, people said: We want to improve this and this and this. How do we do this. This led to that we created a non-profit.
It tries to maintain and offer Kobo as a free and open-source tool for global good and trying to improve data collection. Data collection remains a very extractive aspect. The broader question is: How do we responsibly use technology? To go back to the example of Kobo - what we are doing is enhancing and enabling better data correlation. Better in the sense of making it possible. At the same time, we were making it possible to collect bad data. We were not addressing sampling or how to ask good questions. With technology comes a range of responsibilities that I find fascinating and figure out How do we advance not only technology but practice responsibility? That led to the initiative that looks at social media data and other data. How do we this responsibly?
Because the reality is I mean You can sit with ChatGPT. Our abilities are advancing so fast - faster than our understanding of the issues it faces. It is even advancing faster than legislation, the framework around the use of these tools. There is a fundamental problem. If you are implementing and leveraging those capabilities that are emerging so quickly without thinking about what you're doing, then it's a problem. (Darina Pellowska) Indeed. What is really striking is: How Kobo which is also working offline and other tools are actually really providing an additional channel we didn't have before to communicate But still it is mostly used as an extracting data tool and to generate feedback and provide reporting data instead of actively involving the affected people. Or also other local actors on the ground.
I wondered: Did you ever ask yourself what the reasons are behind that mechanism? (Patrick Vinck) Fundamentally, if you look at how the minority world has approached humanitarian action, it is about diagnostics, the needs, an extractive approach. And here is what we are going to do about it. Now, technology can contribute to that. But for fairness: It does more than that. We heard some examples around feedback. There are still a lot of questions. But if you think about agency that is enabled through digital cash transfer, we have moved far from purely extractive approaches, even for data collection. Practices in terms of participatory design and assessments, questions about who owns data, even issues of data retention and responsibility, or of those holding data to share access and enable communities to leverage the news. This is very clear. So I do think it's Overall, we have moved far away from this extractive model in many ways. The question
is the fundamental problem that remains: Who is driving the agenda? Who is making fundamental choices with regard to policies, infrastrcutre, necessary conditions. This is where this issues and tension between digitalization and localization, is crystallizing. If from a technology perspective, you are imposing from the minority world to the majority world decisions around digital infrastructure, security infrastructures – which has reasons – but if you're doing it in a way that is excluding and reinforcing the dynamic of imbalance of power, then we have a fundamental problem. Because digital transformation and localization are contradicting and not mutually reinforcing when you're taking these approaches. So how do we not do that? How do we not go to a local organisation and tell them: Use this tool with this security condition. The other
agency goes to the same organisation and says: No you need to use that tool And then the organization can use either of it because there are not designed for them to use. This is fundamentally wrong. We need to address this. (Darina Pellowska) Yes and you nicely did so with your playbook: technologies and humanitarian settings. I hope you can see it on the screen. If you haven't downloaded it,
there is a QR code. We will post the link online. Many in the audience pick out their phones and scan it. Patrick, what is it about? (Patrick Vinck) Actually, after a lot of thinking what came out is: It is just a list of questions. It is very simple. Early in my career, I was advised Whenever you are faced with a problem ask yourself 300 questions. You know where the knowledge gaps are and in some ways, this has stuck with me. How can we address this fundamental tension between digital transformation and localization? I ressorted to this approach of asking the right questions And in part the experiences with Kobo where there are many guides and many playbooks out there on how to do participatory development and engagement.
Whether you are from the majority world or a local organisation, the reality is that it is very hard to implement. It was very organic, informal, contact with users, in a much less structured and linear manner these guides suggest. But it is so much messier in reality so much more organic That I thought instead of trying to provide a framework, it would be much easier and more efficient to help innovators global local whatever you are guide you to the questions that they should ask yourself.
(Darina Pellowska) Exactly and I am going to ask you one last question. But I am giving the audience online and here in Berlin a heads up If you have any questions here at Berlin, you can grab the mic in a minute and ask questions. One last question for you, Patrick. We can see the content of the guidebook now here on the screen. It has different sections where you can ask those questions. With these power imbalances and trying to actively use this
knowledge and these capacities from local actors that have not been involved so much: Which of these sections, in your experience, is one of the most important for tackling these power imbalances? Do you have a favourite question or a sector that you find most crucial with that regard? (Patrick Vinck) So you know I thought I would answer the question with asking my favourite child but the reality is no I am not so passionate with that questions but actually, I think that there is one area of questioning that is most important that you will be engaging with strongly when thinking about how innovative your solution is. And you are thinking of the advantage and what it does and technically how you are going to do this and so on I want to refer to something humanitarians know really well: doing no harm. It is not about what is developed in an idealised case, but you have to think about how things work in the conditions on the ground. I like this series of questions because it forces you to think about
not doing any harm. There is a danger that I will know better what risk is there for you So let me tell what is not going to harm you. That is really imbalenced power we have to thinking about So, these questions are about engagement about relation. I like this area of questions.
But I do think we have questions that deal with technology itself, with the users, with the environment. But I do think this area of questions around risk is on that is really import to engage with and again to engage in a manner that is very very inclusive and I want to emphasize that Sometimes we have a romanticised idea about local localisation. This is very appropiate for local organisations as well you know You may be working in a capital with refugees. It is about relations between different actors. They need to be consciously addressed and purposefully examined. You cannot
sit down and answer all these questions, you have to have them at the back of your mind and constantly revisit it Are we working based on assumptions? Are we clear of what we are trying to do? I hope that it is helpful to approach this. (Darina Pellowska) Let me dive into one section that we have been discussing in the Opening Panel We talked about data protection and privacy. You also address that in the playbook. How do you address that in connection with sharing data and transparency?
(Patrick Vinck) Let me give you one Example because I think the reality is data protection data privacy have been fairly high on the list of concerns. People know that these are important issues. Let me say two things about this. One is the default approach has been a very technical solution let's create robust systems that require multilevel identification, that create a safe system. But there are negative consequences to that. Let me give you one example In terms of security, you can create a system that prints vouchers for food distribution with timestamps on them and are very secure. Linked to anonymisation, without names.
This is fantastic. For practical reasons on the ground your distribution is delayed You end up distributing the vouchers too late. So the data validity is past cannot use them. And then you cannot simply edit them in the field you have to go back to the capital. It requieres three levels of permission and now potentially life-saving assistance is delayed by weeks.
Just because it has not been based on sound principles and this leads to more challenges. I am not saying these are not important to have these concerns but it can lead to problematic implementation. Approaching issues of confidentiality from the perspective of a minority world organisation that is primarily concerned about safeguarding the data they hold, but not about the practical implications in the country. The people who face issues of a breach of data. There are specific areas that was one of the examples that in a recent evaluation. People think about privacy and data protection, but I found no evidence of a data retention policy. The question is if you hold
the data, how long will you keep it? There are so many issues. I can think of dozens of examples where people promised to offer alternatives, but often we do not give people a choice effectively. We say that they don't have to, but we do not offer them any alternatives. So, if they are faced with the alternative of getting assistance or not, you might create a setting that does not allow for a lot of options for people.
(Darina Pellowska) Let me finish with the last question. A conference on digital tools and humanitarian action cannot go without ChatGPT, one of the most prominent examples of technology. I asked ChatGPT which question I should ask you. And it came up with the one question
I think could be a really nice one to be a last take away to share with us before we close this little Snapshot ChatGPT is asking: What steps can organisations take to make sure that that technology is used in an ethical and responsible manner? (Patrick Vinck) It touches on the answer to one of the earlier panels. Someone mentioned that COVID-19 had changed a lot. The reality gives me a sense that, from my office in North America, I know what is going on in the world and in that corner of Nigeria and that I know what has to be done to address the challenges this specific area. COVID showed us how technology can be used
and localisation in reality it shows how as a local organisation You can retain a lot of power by exerting digital control over what is happening. To answer that question: I think that what you need to do is to relinquish power. You need to accept and understand that you are not going to be in the driving seat but to support organisations on the ground. They have their tools, their ways of thinking and delivering systems. You
need to support that. I know that this is very obvious. In the end, that is the only way that you can reconcile the use of technology and localisation agenda with ethical aspects. (Darina Pellowska) That is a very good last word. Thank you for joining us online. It was a pleasure to have you. And I am sure us will go through the Handbook. Thank you for contributing to the playbook. Please ask yourselves the questions from the playbook. Thank you, Patrick. Thank you to the audience. I'm handing over to Ralf to close the day.
(Ralf Südhoff) Thank you Darina! Not really me but our two rapporteurs from the Muppet Show. Let's make sure that our panellists can sit and share their views with us in a decent way If you haven't been on-site or online when we started and kicked off the conference, we have invited two rapporteurs for this annual conference that will be with us tomorrow as well. They have joined us from the very beginning. Arbie and Anita. How are you how was it? Sleepy Hungry? Still ready to share some views Anita? It was a really good half-day. Some takeaways from my perspective from NEAR perspective Patrick, in a way, stole some of my thunder. I had a really good critique and suggestions.
Personally, as I mentioned before, NEAR is not a digital expert. That is already one check of my expectations. Hearing about the Kobo Tool Box, and other topics: There are clearly technological solutions being used in different ways for different purposes. It does seem like there are a lot of technological solutions being developed to help us engage better with communities. This is very key There is a big gap between digital transformation and where the energy is in this technological solution finding and the efforts and aims of localization.
So, when we heard Juliet speaking today about the challenges that she raised, faces, I did not hear many technological solutions being proposed to respond to those challenges. The language was mentioned in the last panel: Language and coordination seem like an impossible avenue for digital, technological solution finding. and yet, the fact that we don't have technological solutions today here for the active engagement of non-English speakers is a problem. And we at NEAR face that, too. It's not just for CHA it is for the whole sector So the centre for gravity for digital solution finding We want to address the power imbalances in the sector, so we need to start moving toward finding solutions that work for local actors and supporting their leadership in responses. Addressing their problems. That is my big takeaway (Ralf Südhoff) Many Thanks! Arbie your Key Takeaway if you have one.
I have three. I am very critical. I'm sorry in advance. Three takeaways: Number one, the concept of power imbalance, we heard it in all presentations. But it seems to me as if we treated it as if it is something that is over there. There is a power imbalance that exists separate from us. But with power imbalance, there are people behind it. Every time a power imbalance is brought up or every time somebody speaks to you, I want you to think: Who benefits from this imbalance that is perceived there? Who gets to be the expert? Who gets the material benefits, salaries, and contracts? Maybe we have moved away from being extractive but there are still extractive aspects.
The technologies that we are using, who is being served by that technology? The INGOs for their self-preservation and self-interest? Or what Anita and Juliet mentioned, to tackle the issues that community-based organisations face every day? The second point is related to that. to the mismatch, it seems to me. As Juliet said, she mentioned some of her issues: untimely disbursements, burdensome due diligence, and reporting. Somehow, there is a disconnect around the discussion about big data, data privacy, and data security. With no doubts
But some of the successes Juliet mentioned were Google Sheets, Google Docs, and Zoom. How are we thinking about those basic things and incorporating them so that local actors are enabled in leading the humanitarian response? And the third thing – maybe not hypocrisy, but a cognitive dissonance in two parts: first, donor governments. Can I have a show of hands: Who is British or lives in the UK? Few of us in the audience. I live in the UK. We talk about digitalisation and donors who are prioritizing digitalisation. But let's look closer to home. In the UK, they have a digital-first strategy and a digital-first policy.
But it has been described by Human Rights Watch as disastrous. It has been described by the UN Expert on Human Rights and Poverty: The British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind an algorithm. How are we claiming on having expertise in these areas when in our own homes these are not sorted out? NHS, for example, I have experienced waiting on the phone for hours and hours.
Who really enjoys talking to a chatbot here even when they get a refund for something they bought on Amazon? Let's think about ourselves and how we engage with technology in our day-to-day life and are we exporting these same faulty technologies to other places? And the second part is cognitive dissonance in INGOSs themselves right? Let's look closer at our own homes and organisations. Think about the digital technologies you use daily in your jobs. Who has tried to apply for a job in the UN and going through their very archaic digital recruitment platform where you get an answer after three years? (Laughter) Think about the graduate systems that we have. Think about the financial tracking systems. Finally, if we are thinking about how technology can enable change within organisations, two things are quite strong: first, investigative journalism and digital media. That has exposed a lot of abuse by iNGOs. Why are we not talking about that? Whistleblowing. There have been whistleblowing social media accounts that have called out international organisation
not least for being racist for example. There is a Twitter account out there that is anonymous and whistleblow A more critical reflection on power. I'm keen for all of us to reflect on that in the next few days and engage with the issues. (Ralf Südhoff) Thank you very much, Arbie, and thanks for the anecdotal info from the UK. A short summary: We had an interesting discussion on technology, but the structural issue power imbalances were not addressed sufficiently. We will hopefully hear more about that. Is that your take as well?
(Anita Kattakuzhy): In fact, Andrea was presenting a recap of some research and there was one line saying: (Anita Kattakuzhy): In fact, Andrea was presenting a recap of some research and there was one line saying: Let's not replicate the problems we have offline online. This is really key. If we are consumed with big data and data security and we get tied up in knots about these massive issues and we cannot figure out how to make sure that someone who speaks a different language can participate in your meeting, we are doing something wrong.
Yes, you summarized the point correctly. Let's keep that line that Andrea posted centre tomorrow when we come back. (Ralf Südhoff) It was from a paper on digital accountability. You can find that in print and digitally out there. Also Darinas paper on localization and agile management. Final question
We hope to provide this conference with a diversity of perspectives. We want to make sure that this is not a discussion of old white men. Did it work out or is there homework to get more perspectives as of tomorrow? (Arbie Baguios) I can see the effort that CHA has put into this event inclusive of perspectives and voices from the global majority, local organisations, and the Global South. It was mentioned in a pre-event discussion about visas and inviting people to come over.
I'm aware that some people had some issues with visas. That is not a learning because it is not a new issue as you have mentioned. But it is something to take into account. I do see the effort that there has been the inclusion of different perspectives. I do commend CHA on that one. In Germany, we would say: Wir haben uns bemüht, but we keep trying.
See you tomorrow for the kick-off of the second day. We hope to get inspiring thoughts from your side. Thank you here on-site and online for your patience. We keep overrunning. Now it is time for having a beer and pasta out there. It is not yet raining. If you run, you might get dry pasta. We come back tomorrow at 9:30 am Berlin time. Take care, good night, have a good evening, whatever. Hope to see you tomorrow. Thank you so much. (Applause)