Technology and Innovation

Brittany Card, Ziad Al Achkar, Isaac L. Baker, and Nathaniel A. Raymond. 9/2015. Satellite Imagery Interpretation Guide: Intentional Burning of Tukuls.Abstract

During armed conflict in East and Central Africa civilian dwellings are intentionally targeted and razed. These traditional civilian dwellings are known as tukuls which are primarily mud and thatch huts.

The intentional destruction of these dwellings, given their prevalence in these regions, is often one of the only available indicators of the intentional targeting of civilians observable in satellite imagery.

This field has lacked accepted methodologies for performing this type of analysis. This guide is the first to focus on tukuls because they are a uniquely valuable metric for both documenting attacks on civilians during armed conflicts and assessing potential mass displacement that can result from these incidents.  

This guide is the second in a series of Satellite Imagery Interpretation Guides. Future satellite imagery interpretation guides from the Signal Program may focus on other, related phenomena and structures present in similar operational contexts.

Brittany Card, Isaac L. Baker, and Nathaniel A. Raymond. 4/2015. Satellite Imagery Interpretation Guide: Displaced Population Camps.Abstract

Satellite Imagery Interpretation Guide: Displaced Population Camps is intended to help address the absence of public and standardized training resources for those seeking to use high resolution satellite imagery in support of refugee/IDP assistance operations. Students, general audiences, and volunteers studying and analyzing satellite imagery of displaced population camps may find this training resource beneficial.

The guide provides case studies of displaced population camps in East Africa and the Middle East. Dimensions, colors, shapes, and, when possible, unique identifying features of objects, including civilian shelters and humanitarian agency infrastructure, visible in high resolution imagery of the camps are identified. Objects are organized according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs humanitarian cluster system and three other categories unique to this guide. Imagery provided by Google's Skybox Imaging for the creation of this guide can be explored online by following the directions included inside the report.

Ziad Al Achkar, Isaac L. Baker, and Nathaniel A. Raymond. 3/2016. Imagery Interpretation Guide: Assessing Wind Disaster Damage to Structures.Abstract

At present, accepted methodologies for wind disaster damage assessments rely almost exclusively on responders having ground access to the affected area to document damage to housing structures.  This approach can prove both time consuming and inefficient, and does not support the use of drones and satellites.

Geospatially-based damage assessments offer potential improvements to this process in terms of providing responding agencies with previously unavailable information about hard to reach, often non-permissive environments, at a scale and speed not possible through ground-based counts of damaged structures.

This guide provides the first standard method for conducting these types of damage assessments through the analysis of drone and satellite imagery. The “BAR Methodology” has been developed by the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at HHI to address this critical gap in this evolving area humanitarian practice.

Nathaniel Raymond, Ziad Al Achkar, Stefaan Verhulst, and Jos Berens. 5/2016. OCHA Think Brief: Building Data Responsibility into Humanitarian Action.Abstract

Building data responsibility into humanitarian action is the first UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs think brief to explore what constitutes the responsible use of data in humanitarian response. It was co written by the Signal Program, NYU Gov Lab and the Center for Innovation at Leiden University.

This paper identifies the critical issues humanitarians face as they strive to responsibly use data in operations. It also proposes an initial framework for data responsibility.

Brittany Card, Ziad Al Achkar, and Nathaniel A. Raymond. 10/2015. What is 'Humanitarian Communication'? Towards Standard Definitions and Protections for the Humanitarian Use of ICTs. Read PublicationAbstract

In October 2014, the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) launched a knowledge hub on communications technology and security risk management. The first publication of this project brought together 17 authors who analyzed in 11 articles how communications technology is changing the operational environment, the ways in which communications technology is creating new opportunities for humanitarian agencies to respond to emergencies, and the impact that new programs have on how we manage security.

The most recent contribution to the project comes from the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. In their article, al Achkar, Card and Raymond explore what constitutes ‘humanitarian communications space’, and the challenges to agreeing a common definition of ‘humanitarian communication’ and its protection under international law.

Brittany Card. 7/2015. Applying Humanitarian Principles to Current Uses of Information Communication Technologies: Gaps in Doctrine and Challenges to Practice.Abstract
The goal of this paper is to identify and address current gaps, challenges and opportunities that face the humanitarian sector as it seeks to apply traditional humanitarian principles to the increasingly central role information communication technologies (ICTs) play in 21st Century humanitarian operations. While much has been written about the roles ICTs may play in support of humanitarian action, there is an absence of literature addressing how core humanitarian principles should guide, limit, and shape the use of these technologies in practice.
Ziad Al Achkar and Nathaniel Raymond. 11/2016. Data preparedness: connecting data, decision making and humanitarian response .Abstract

Signal Program Standards and Ethics Series - Issue 1

Data are a central component of humanitarian response. Frequently, however, there is a disconnect between data, decision-making and response. Informed decisions need to be made in the first hours and days of an emergency, and if the elements to effectively gather, manage and analyse data are not in place before a crisis, then the evidence needed to inform response will not be available quickly enough to matter. What's more, a lack of readiness to use data can even cause "big data disasters".

Organizations need to be prepared to responsibly and effectively deploy and manage data collection and analysis tools, techniques, skilled staff and strategies in a specific operational context to be ready before a disaster strikes. This process is called “data preparedness”. The concept of data preparedness complements and expands on existing OCHA principles on the use of information management in disaster scenarios. This paper, which was reviewed by OCHA and other UN organizations, seeks to provide a blueprint for how the concept of data preparedness may be put into practice by members of the humanitarian data ecosystem. It is the first issue in the Signal Program's ongoing "Standards and Ethics" white paper series.

Caitlin Howarth. 9/2017. “A Rights-based Approach to Information in Humanitarian Assistance.” PLOS Currents: Disasters. Read PublicationAbstract
Crisis-affected populations and humanitarian aid providers are both becoming increasingly reliant on information and communications technology (ICTs) for finding and provisioning aid. This is exposing critical, unaddressed gaps in the legal and ethical frameworks that traditionally defined and governed the professional conduct of humanitarian action. The most acute of these gaps is a lack of clarity about what human rights people have regarding information in disaster, and the corresponding obligations incumbent upon governments and aid providers.  This need is lent urgency by emerging evidence demonstrating that the use of these technologies in crisis response may be, in some cases, causing harm to the very populations they intend to serve.  Preventing and mitigating these harms, while also working to responsibly ensure access to the benefits of information during crises, requires a rights-based framework to guide humanitarian operations. In this brief report, we provide a commentary that accompanies our report, the Signal Code: A Human Rights Approach to Information During Crisis, where we have identified five rights pertaining to the use of information and data during crisis which are grounded in current international human rights and customary law. It is our belief that the continued relevance of the humanitarian project, as it grows increasingly dependent on the use of data and ICTs, urgently requires a discussion of these rights and corresponding obligations.
Faine Greenwood, Caitlin Howarth, Danielle Escudero Poole, Nathaniel A. Raymond, and Daniel P. Scarnecchia. 1/2017. The Signal Code: A Human Rights Approach to Information During Crisis.Abstract


The Signal Code is the result of a six month study by the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to identify what human rights people have to information during disasters. The Signal Code identifies five rights from multiple sources of international human rights and humanitarian law and standards that already exist and apply to humanitarian information activities (HIAs). 

These five rights are the following: 1. The Right to Information; 2. The Right to Protection; 3. The Right to Privacy and Security; 4. The Right to Data Agency; and 5. The Right to Rectification and Redress. The goal of the Signal Code is to provide a foundation for the future development of ethical obligations for humanitarian actors and minimum technical standards for the safe, ethical, and responsible conduct of HIAs before, during, and after disasters strike.

Visit the Signal Code Minisite


Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Nathaniel A. Raymond. 5/2017. “Beyond the Protective Effect: Towards a Theory of Harm for Information Communication Technologies in Mass Atrocity Response.” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, 11, 1, Pp. 9-24. Read PublicationAbstract
Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are now being employed as a standard part of mass atrocity response, evidence collection, and research by non-governmental organizations, governments, and the private sector. Deployment of these tools and techniques occur for a variety of stated reasons, most notably the ostensible goal of “protecting” vulnerable populations. However, these often experimental applications of ICTs and digital data are occurring in the absence of agreed normative frameworks and accepted theory to guide their ethical and responsible use. This article surveys the current state-of-the-art of ICT use in mass atrocity response and research to identify harms and hazards inherent in the use of ICT-centric approaches in mass atrocity producing environments. The article proposes an initial theory of harm for evaluating the potential risks and impacts of these applications as a critical component of developing ethical standards for the responsible use of ICTs in the mass atrocity response context.
Mark Latonero, Danielle Poole, and Jos Berens. 3/2018. Refugee Connectivity: A Survey of Mobile Phones, Mental Health, and Privacy at a Syrian Refugee Camp in Greece.Abstract
The report, Refugee Connectivity: A Survey of Mobile Phones, Mental Health, and Privacy at a Syrian Refugee Camp in Greece, is the result of 2017 field research by Data & Society, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Signal Program on Human Security and Technology, and Centre for Innovation at Leiden University. Lead authors of the report are Mark Latonero, Ph.D. of Data & Society, Danielle Poole of HHI/Signal and the Harvard School of Public Health, and Jos Berens, formerly of Leiden University. 
Stuart R. Campo, Caitlin N. Howarth, Nathaniel A. Raymond, and Daniel P. Scarnecchia. 5/2018. Signal Code: Ethical Obligations for Humanitarian Information Activities.Abstract

Humanitarians today lack sufficient ethical guidance adapted to the realities of humanitarianism in the information age to responsibly navigate the challenges and realities of the digital age.

The Signal Code: Ethical Obligations for Humanitarian Information Activities translates and applies the foundational sources of ethical humanitarian practice to humanitarian information activities, such as mobile devices, WiFi provision, data collection, storage and analysis, and biometric registration tools. This document represents the first effort to provide humanitarian practitioners and researchers with comprehensive ethical guidance for this increasingly commonplace and critical area of humanitarian practice.

The Obligations builds upon the rights-based approach first articulated in the January 2017 publication of The Signal Code: A Human Rights Approach to Information during Crisis. The Code seeks to identify extant international humanitarian and human rights law and standards, as well as other relevant and accepted international instruments, that provide all people basic rights pertaining to the access to, and provision and treatment of, information during a crisis. The first volume of the Code is employed as an underlying framework for how the Obligations is structured and from where the obligations are, in part, derived.

For more information please visit

Signal Program. 3/2020. Displacement & Destruction: Analysis of Idlib, Syria 2017-2020.Abstract
As the Syrian civil war enters its tenth year on  March 15, the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology conducted satellite imagery analysis to capture the rapid expansion of displaced people’s camps and the widespread impact of aerial bombardment in Idlib, Syria. This work was completed in collaboration with Save the Children and World Vision International. On 1 March 2020, the UN estimated that 961,286 individuals have been displaced since December 1, 2019; this is the largest mass displacement and acute humanitarian crisis since the  Syrian conflict began in 2012. Analyzing two internally displaced person (IDP) camps, the Signal team found that the camp areas analyzed increased by approximately 100% and 177% respectively between September 2017 and February 2020. Camp growth between December 2019 and 2020 revealed new structures and further construction, consistent with a significant influx of displaced persons.  The UN Human Rights Council reports that between May 2019 and January 2020, aerial bombardment and a surge of ground-level assaults contributed to a wave of IDPs throughout Idlib as civilian areas were repeatedly targeted. Signal’s analysis of two areas in conflict-affected towns in southern Idlib found that approximately 30% of structures were damaged; this figure likely underestimates the total damage.