Digital Humanitarians

by Hannah Zitner

When the deadliest and most destructive storm of 2012 came pummeling through the Northeast – decimating homes, cutting power, downing communications, and ultimately killing close to 120 people on U.S. soil – states of emergencies were declared in nine states. The Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as state, tribal, and local responders had their work cut out in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Although traditional emergency managers and first responders were quick to get boots on the ground, another group of disaster responders were called into action. Digital humanitarians from around the globe provided online support with the response. Using Internet connections and computers or smartphones, they monitored social media, contributed to situational reports, provided maps, performed analyses, and helped coordinate the flow of information.

Humanitarian-to-Humanitarian Model Humanity Road is a volunteer-driven digital humanitarian organization that helped sift through the flood of disaster data that came pouring through as Superstorm Sandy tore apart the shores in the Northeast. The information volunteers collected provided valuable and actionable situational awareness information for local, state, and federal partners, including the Maryland State Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the New York City Mayor’s office. Humanity Road is just one example of a breed of humanitarian organizations whose function is not to deliver aid themselves, but to help other humanitarian organizations in their operations.

“Humanitarian-to-humanitarian” (H2H), named after the business-to-business (B2B) model, is the term coined to describe humanitarian organizations that provide products and services to other humanitarian organizations. Areas of expertise within H2H organizations include, but are not limited to: gathering social media situational awareness, mapping, providing analytics, facilitating communication capabilities, and offering statistical support and translation services. Though these organizations are not entirely new, their growth has been rapid and roles increasingly crucial.

“We act as a bridge between traditional organizations on the ground, such as the UN [United Nations], MSF [Doctors Without Borders], and the Red Cross,” said Executive Director Tyler Radford of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) in a phone interview on 9 February 2016. HOT is an organization that creates – or rather coordinates the creation, production, and distribution of – free, open source maps of crisis-affected areas. “The maps serve as a starting point for other humanitarian organizations during responses and not an end product in themselves,” said Radford. HOT volunteers provide an invaluable resource to humanitarian and emergency response agencies by mapping vulnerable or still unmapped areas before, during, and after disasters hit.

Innovative Practices Though technology is a common element in many H2H organizations, it is not a defining feature. Innovation and collaboration are the necessary parts of the equation and at the root of many operations. Likened to the startups in the technology world, this new brand of humanitarian organization has to be agile and responsive to the changing landscape of the humanitarian system.

Wendy Harman, who has contributed to a long list of innovative emergency management initiatives and currently serves as a 2016 Presidential Innovation Fellow, stressed the importance of innovation in the humanitarian sector while noting the irony behind the business of doing good. “The greatest opportunity in humanitarian work emerges from continually trying to put yourself out of business,” said the former Red Cross director of social strategy in an email dated 9 February 2016. “To continue operating as we always have in the face of knowing that technology has uncovered incredible opportunities to be more inclusive, collaborative, fast, efficient, and impactful than we could have imagined 10 years ago, is bonkers.”

Luckily, emergency managers in the United States are passing Harman’s “bonkers test” and are working to solve some of the system’s most daunting problems.  In 2015, FEMA launched the Tech Corps program to resolve critical challenges experienced during federally declared disasters through innovative applications of technology. In June 2015, Cisco Systems, Google, Humanity Road, Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, Intel, Joint Communications Task Force, and Microsoft signed a memorandum of understanding with FEMA. Then, in December 2015, FEMA hosted the Public-Private Partnership Conference and tabletop exercise in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Though innovation occupies a large piece of the H2H puzzle (and the informal network takes its naming inspiration from the business world), humanitarian principles, saving lives, and collaboration are still at the heart of the organizations involved.

Collaborative Alliances With collaboration at the core of the H2H modus operandi, leveraging partnerships is crucial to the model and being promoted in both domestic and international circles. In early February 2016, key members of the informal H2H network met in Geneva, Switzerland, for the Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week and will meet again in May at the first ever World Humanitarian Summit, where humanitarian organizations, governments, disaster-affected people, and the private sector will discuss innovative solutions to the complex problems the humanitarian system faces. 

Domestically, several informal alliances have formed, and FEMA continues to focus on a whole community approach while formalizing various networks and partnerships. Acknowledging fiscal realities can sometimes get in the way of best practices, Humanity Road President Christine Thompson sees collaboration as one solution to budgetary woes. “To ease shrinking budgets, the emergency management industry is focusing more and more on leveraging partnerships,” said Thompson in a phone conversation on 13 February 2016, adding that one key to preparedness is pre-established communication plans among stakeholders.

Leveraging the various strengths of each individual organization and sharing the brunt of the generic tasks allows organizations to focus on their specialized contributions. Working outside the traditional humanitarian and emergency response systems offers opportunities for organizations to be agile and innovative, but there are limits to being small and specialized too – with diminished capacities for administrative tasks (such as grant writing and creating business models), smaller organizations can suffer. Collaborations, partnerships, and networks allow each organization to remain specialized and ultimately deliver better products and services.

Harman, who advocates for inter-organizational collaboration as well as community-centered collaboration, described the role collaboration can play in domestic emergency management: “The golden ticket is developing a common understanding about where and how to most efficiently use scarce resources.”

Not only are H2H organizations collaborating with one another, they are also collaborating with armies of volunteers scattered around the world. In the wake of disasters, people want to help. Whether sending virtual thoughts and prayers, changing a profile picture out of solidarity, or actively contributing to the response, the collective desire to help exists. “Unlocking the skills and goods in local and digital communities removes the notion that we have limited resources,” said Harman. “The options for meeting needs become much more abundant when we recognize and figure out how to seamlessly collaborate and deploy them.”

Assessing which organizations – digital, volunteer-driven, or otherwise – are available to collaborate with an organization ahead of time can save precious moments when disasters hit. For example, in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, Humanity Road, Standby Task Force, HOT, and a handful of other humanitarians collaborated to provide timely products and services to established aid agencies:

  • Humanity Road volunteers filtered and analyzed 213,000 tweets that supported both AmeriCares and Nepalese-based nongovernment organization Kathmandu Living Labs.

  • HOT volunteers provided maps to traditional response organization such as MSF;

  • Translators Without Borders volunteers translated more than 500 terms into Nepali, Newari, and Hindi to help monitor messages from the affected population and relay other messages to search and rescue teams.

  • Statistics Without Borders supported census analytics for mapping and provided statistical volunteers to assist in developing after-action surveys.

In the United States, the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) is an emergency response organization that relies on a collaborative approach to bring connectivity and communications to disaster-affected communities. ITDRC provides temporary workspaces, connectivity, and surge technology assets that enable first responders and humanitarian relief agencies to communicate and coordinate aid. “Though many ad-hoc partnerships are formed during an event, the organization strives to establish relationships in advance through VOAD [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters] memberships and public-private-partnership initiatives,” said Operations Director of ITDRC Joe Hillis in a 9 February 2016 phone interview.

ITDRC’s collaboration with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit veteran-based disaster response organization that has a strong logistics section, is just one example of its pre-established partnerships. Both organizations leverage each other’s strengths, skills, and resources to reduce duplication of efforts, enabling each to focus on their core competencies. “We’ll tag along on their logistics efforts – if we have five volunteers, they have 100. So, if they focus on logistics, we can focus on our core mission, which is to deliver technology. Likewise, they rely on us for tech so they can free up their logistics operations,” said Hillis. “It’s a win-win for all organizations,” he added. 



Hannah Zitner is a journalist with a master’s degree in disaster and emergency management. She writes about communication tools and technology used in emergency management and humanitarian operations. She’s also the editor-in-chief of the Ontario Association of Emergency Management website and a volunteer for Humanity Road. You can find her at or on Twitter @miss_hannahz.