Technology: corporate vs. humanitarian needs and trends

Lybia Crisis Map by UshahidiThis week, the 3rd International Conference of Crisis Mapping was held in Geneva. However, don’t expect this article to be a wrap-up. No, a wrap-up is later or elsewhere. This article is just one of many inspirations by ICCM put into words, reflecting on our expectations in technology and the direction we are heading.

It is about where we expect technology to take us. If we don’t know what is possible, our estimates will always be wrong.

During the first day’s keynotes and Ignite sessions it became very clear already: what is expected from technology – and the way it is used – corresponds explicitly to some requirements/trends identified independently from humanitarian applications already. I had to realize that it makes a lot of (imaginary?) boundaries between corporate and non-profit disappear.

(However, let’s not forget that the weight of a need/trend is very different in the two areas: what is an interesting tool for branding/customer retention/sales/… or simply a nice gadget in the corporate world can have life-saving impact in the humanitarian field. Nothing less.)


In countries where there are no accurate maps, how to get people to contribute to the Humanitarian Open Street Map project? And how to get them to contribute useful data? Learning by doing. Kate Chapman said that in Indonesia, they organized a contest at a university where teams of students were invited to map their city. 5 points for each building mapped, 1 point for everything else.

User-based design and simplicity

Before a crowd-sourced mapping of Indonesia was even possible, the tool had to correspond to something people were able to understand. Kate Chapman explained that they had to adapt the iconography and create icons that would make sense to Indonesian people – the standard Western ones simply wouldn’t.

And whereas usability is always appreciated, it is more than important when it can save lives. And this is what almost every presenter underlined: technological tools have to be as easy as possible to use. Technology is a means, not the end.
Or to put it like Sanjana Hattotuwa “Remember: we are here to save lives, not to promote technological tools”


In his talk, Andrej Verity proposed a Humanitarian ID volunteers could use to do “check ins” (and check outs) at humanitarian (emergency) projects, which would allow for a better coordination. An ID that might be connected to other online profiles.

The interconnection between online and offline has been addressed, amongst others, by Anahi Ayala (“The most innovative project is the one that will still work even when the technology does not.“) and Laura Hudson, whose FrontlineSMS enables you to communicate with your computer without internet connection via mobile signal (GSM).

Interconnecting on a more technical level, Kua-Yu “Slayer” Chuang hacked the Ushaidi Android app with OpenGeoSMS – offering the possibility of sending automatically geo-tagged sms.


Well, not surprisingly for crisis mapping conference, geo-localisation, geo-tagging and mapping have been omnipresent. As opposed to the corporate world, this is not just a trend but a necessity in the face of humanitarian crisis, emergencies and the promotion of peace. The (possible) fields of application in the humanitarian domain is tremendously big.

And much more

Crisis Mapping - Leveraging Information and Technologies for complex emergencies
Of course, there are crucial overall issues. Privacy, the availability and/or openness of data, security (to name but a few) have been discussed a lot. There might be other circumstances within the non-profit sector than in the corporate world, but still: it is the same technology and the same societal changes that we are trying to manage and understand.

To my surprise, there were almost no private sector Digital/Social Media people attending the Crisis Mapping Conference – if you want to understand or promote the use of digital, estimate its impact on our lives as well as our twofold relation to technology, it is best to understand all aspects of it.

Top picture “Lybia Crisis Map” by Ushahidi

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