This year’s Inter-Agency Global Security Forum (GISF) posed interesting questions and proposed innovative solutions aimed at anticipating what happens next in humanitarian action.
When conflict breaks out, the ICRC’s priority is to respond to the needs of suffering civilians, which often means moving quickly to stress, danger and heightened emotion. Emergencies, it is clear, do not lend themselves to patient reflection.
In the fight to react faster and more effectively, digital tools are increasingly useful for humanitarian actions such as registering people for food aid or medical care, helping to locate missing relatives , the digital search for global inclusion or the development of experiential training programs.
The ICRC was invited to this year’s GISF event to showcase some of our innovative approaches to the humanitarian future.
“Conflict is a place where the consequences of small digital risks become more severe,” says Fabrice Lauper, ICRC technology adviser. “In an emergency, there is a tension between the need for new solutions on the one hand and the risk associated with digital tools on the other.”
The main risk, he says, relates to data protection and how to ensure that personal data collected by humanitarians is secure. If it falls into the wrong hands, such as a hostile force, a database of phone numbers or identity documents can be reused as a hit list.
If humanitarians want to protect the people they serve, they can’t just snatch generic digital tools of the trade as they rush into conflict.
This is why, in certain cases, the ICRC has to build its own tailor-made tools. Commercial products often have data collection and centralization by default, but, according to Lauper, the opposite should be true. “We have to make sure that we don’t collect data that we don’t need.”
One answer is that humanitarians to bring useful information rather than bring together personal data, something that the ICRC RedSafe digital platform already does. Another is to build risk reduction into the design.
“We can avoid creating the risk, rather than trying to mitigate it later, by designing something more responsible,” Lauper says.
Lauper gives the example of the Nexus environmental assessment tool (Clean+), a UNEP/OCHA-supported multi-stakeholder project aimed at improving coordination between environmental and humanitarian actors. The tool does this by collecting data on displaced and host populations, the environment and planned actions.
Lauper immediately saw the usefulness of such a tool, but was convinced that the ICRC needed to be able to manage the data collected itself, rather than relying on an external cloud service.
“I expected resistance,” he says of the Neat+ tool, “but they were already moving in that direction, to allow us to manage our own data.”
The growing awareness of digital risk is welcome. According to Lauper, “there is a tendency to realize that massive data aggregation creates more risk than the limited value it brings.”
Another ICRC speaker at GISF was Christian Rouffaer, head of the virtual reality unit at the ICRC, who spoke to participants about the challenges and opportunities of computer-generated training simulations and immersive virtual reality, drawing on more than a decade of experience building these tools.
The gamification of security training allows people in disparate locations to meet and collaborate online as avatars in a shared virtual space, where they can play out scenarios in an unscripted and improvised way, reflecting closely to real situations.
“It’s the best way to do gamification: simple technology, easy to implement, with a small learning curve,” says Rouffaer.
When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly made it difficult for people to meet in person, simulations really came into their own, with fringe technology taking center stage.
Immersive virtual reality, with its headsets and world-building capabilities, is an impressive piece of technology best suited to “very specific technical training” such as forensics or unexploded ordnance management, Rouffaer says.
“I’m not a big proponent of immersive virtual reality for mass training,” he adds, “because heavy equipment requirements limit its reach, but I think virtual reality training is perfect for a selection of highly technical or very dangerous jobs”.
It is also a powerful sensitization, advocacy and fundraising tool, giving ICRC supporters a visceral understanding of what it means to work in a conflict zone. virtual reality as behavior change tool is also conducive to experiential education.
The lesson from Lauper and Rouffaer was the need to innovate to be ready for the future, whether for a world in which digital security and physical security are intertwined, or in a world where movements are surprisingly reduced. despite the need to continue operations.
We may not be able to see the future, but if we can imagine it, we can prepare for it.