Technology and Innovation

HHI's research on Technology and Innovation examines the impact of emerging technologies on the humanitarian field, focusing on both ethical and technical considerations. Explore the individual programs below to learn more about this work. 

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Technology and Innovation


A suite of tools for field data collection for use in challenging environments

Signal Program

Advances the safe, ethical, and effective use of information technologies by communities of practice during humanitarian and human rights emergencies

Humanitarian Geoanalytics

Leverages the potential of geospatial data and analytics to introduce new ways of thinking, identify targets for micro-planning and research, and optimize resource allocation for cost-effective programming

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Works to ensure that Big Data serves the interests of people across the globe, especially those of poor and vulnerable populations. Links to an external site.

Related Publications

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.

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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.
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.