Digital humanitarianism: revisiting the empowerment narrative

Give a well-intentioned person access to the Internet and voilà—you have a digital humanitarian. This is, at least, what Meier (2015) will have us believe: “Anyone can be a digital humanitarian, absolutely no experience necessary; all you need is a big heart and access to the Internet”. One would suspect, however, that digital humanitarianism must be somehow a more complex issue. Certainly, for the humanitarian sector and the field of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), it must have one or two ramifications… at least. (Full disclosure: Meier does address some of these in his book—it’s not all rosy techno-/pop-optimism.)

Digital humanitarianism, as it turns out, emerged in the Americas after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010. It may be considered a movement in an activist sense, or “as part and parcel of a transformation of social, economic, and political practices of disaster response” (Büscher, Liegl & Thomas, 2014). Attempts at definition aside, the use of digital and mobile technologies as well as social media for crisis management undoubtedly entailed a recognizable paradigm shift in the way humanitarians (be they the Meier or the professional type) approached their task. Digital mapping using crowdsourced information suddenly became a promising tool for the humanitarian praxis.

It is widely agreed that key in this shift have been applications like Ushahidi. Ushahidi, an open source mapping platform developed in Kenya in 2008 to monitor post-election violence, was used during the 2010 Haiti earthquake to collect public reports on the ground and turn them into maps, harnessing the potential of mobile phones and the Internet to coordinate and better target the humanitarian response. It was deployed again in the Americas when a magnitude-8.8 earthquake ravaged Chile a little over a month after Haiti. More recently, in the Americas as well, it was again used in Ecuador to respond to the magnitude-7.8 earthquake that hit the country in April 2016.

Technologies like Ushahidi are predicated on citizen participation—and praised for that very same reason:

This is not to deny their actual potential, which they do have. But, still, it seems to me that the empowerment narrative needs to be approached in a more nuanced way. What implications do these technologies have for the humanitarian sector and for the way it does business? What aspects are being overlooked in this empowerment discourse, for instance, in terms of the digital divide? As Read, Taithe and Mac Ginty (2016) have pointed out, the claim that ICTs have the potential to change power relations has yet to be proven: “The most significant empowerment that data technology risks bringing is that of those who believe in the potential of technology”.

I will leave it at that for now—food for thought. I’m sure it would make for an interesting discussion.


  1. Rhoda

    That is a good piece there, Guillermina. I tend to agree with you on how digital humanitarianism really can assist in finding the missing puzzles between what is broadcasted on events in the mainstream media and what actually occurs on the ground. The most obvious challenge is how to discern the truth especially when the both media are disseminating conflicting views.

    Keep on posting.

    • Guillermina

      Thanks, Rhoda! You’re right about the challenge, and actually much has been written on how to verify crowdsourced reports, especially after disasters of the scale and magnitude of the ones I mentioned above (Haiti, Chile…). Meier devotes a whole chapter to the issue of verification, and another one to discussing how artificial intelligence and machine learning could help in the task. The case study in the latter chapter is quite interesting: he analyzes how after the 2010 earthquake in Chile methods were developed to detect rumours and noncredible tweets—one of them an automated system to predict credibility that was also “remarkably accurate” (!) (p. 148). So, yes, quite a lot to dig into on this subject! 😉

  2. Roberto Carrera

    Great post Guillermina. Ushaidi was a very interesting project, coming from Kenya and adapted to their technological resources. But I liked the final reflection you did. “What aspects are being overlooked in this empowerment discourse, for instance, in terms of the digital divide?” I think that is a key question. Now the website looks like any other Silicon Valley startup, the “Ushaidi Ecosystem” has more companies working in USA than all the other countries together, and Google or Cisco are mentioned as partners. Digital humanitarianism will only create a higher dependency on the West for developing countries if the apps are not focus on the necessities and infrastructure available.

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