Humanitarian Technology and Digital Dignity

Aaron Martin

Aaron Martin

Aaron is a Postdoctoral Researcher at TILT, where he focuses on humanitarian data topics within the Global Data Justice project. Prior to joining TILT, he worked in the financial services sector in the area of cyber governance and technology regulation. He has also worked in technology policy roles at the OECD, European Commission, and Vodafone Group. He is an Oxford Martin Associate at the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre. He has a PhD in Information Systems and Innovation from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

This week I had the privilege of participating in a Wilton Park conference on digital dignity in armed conflict organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross in association with the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The discussions (held under Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution in what follows) were focused around how humanitarian actors can strengthen the dignity of people affected by crisis in contexts in which digital technologies are increasingly being used to facilitate the provision of aid. This topic is near and dear to the Global Data Justice project, particularly our ongoing case study on what might constitute just governance of humanitarian data. While I am still processing three days of intense discussions, I would like to provide some immediate reflections on the conversations that took place at Wiston House.

Conference attendees mulled over what we actually mean by ‘digital dignity’. It was well noted that aid actors still have a lot of work to do in ensuring dignified humanitarian response irrespective of the digital dimension. What makes the digital realm worthy of special consideration? There was also considerable reflection on whether the concept of ‘digital dignity’ sufficiently captures the diversity of concerns that the sector is grappling with as it continues its digitization journey. These critical issues include, among others, how to most effectively protect both personal and non-personal data, the emergence of cyber risks affecting humanitarian organizations and their beneficiaries, and campaigns that spread misinformation and/or weaponize information for strategic purposes with negative impacts on crisis-affected populations. Suffice it to say, the Wilton Park debate is ongoing about the utility of framing these different issues in terms of ‘digital dignity’ or if other frames are more instructive.

It was also remarked that there may be value in approaching this topic with a clearer focus on the different kinds of digital technology most present in humanitarian intervention, especially if we want to begin to assess their specific implications for human dignity. I think this may be a helpful path forward. While the meaning of technology is always context-specific and technological impacts are impossible to fully assess in advance of implementation, we ought to consider how the use of different digital technologies renders certain affordances that may either promote or degrade personal dignity. For example, humanitarian agencies are increasingly implementing biometrics in order to address concerns about aid fraud. This kind of digital intervention primarily serves the interests of the humanitarian agency (and its donors), and less so those receiving aid. Many argue that the use of biometrics in the humanitarian context degrades personal dignity, instead of promoting it, by treating people’s bodies as a means to an end (though it is worth pointing out counterarguments that using biometrics is a more dignified way of registering people for aid than previous methods involving wristbands, ration cards, and invisible ink). While certain measures may be adopted to reduce the negative effects of using biometrics, (including privacy-by-design approaches), many at the conference were unwilling to concede that the use of biometrics in the humanitarian enterprise promotes the dignity of affected populations.

However, the use of other digital technologies might help to reinforce the dignity of crisis-affected populations. For example, it is widely acknowledged that access to connectivity which is affordable and reliable can directly serve the needs and interests of those affected by crisis, including refugees and other displaced persons, who seek out ways of connecting to the Internet for a multitude of reasons, as well as to communicate with family and friends. There is, of course, a need to ensure that such connectivity is safe and secure and does not put people at risk, but the key point is that this kind of digital intervention lends itself more directly to addressing people’s needs and can be viewed as an important component of dignified humanitarian response. There may also be benefits to these interventions for aid agencies, for example improved communication with affected persons, however these do not detract from the value of connectivity in terms of human dignity.

These are just some of the ideas swirling around in my head since returning from Wilton Park. We look forward to further engagement with the humanitarian community on these crucial topics.

About the project

Places and populations that were previously digitally invisible are now part of a ‘data revolution’ that is being hailed as a transformative tool for human and economic development. Yet this unprecedented expansion of the power to digitally monitor, sort, and intervene is not well connected to the idea of social justice, nor is there a clear concept of how broader access to the benefits of data technologies can be achieved without amplifying misrepresentation, discrimination, and power asymmetries.

We therefore need a new framework for data justice integrating data privacy, non-discrimination, and non-use of data technologies into the same framework as positive freedoms such as representation and access to data. This project will research the lived experience of data technologies in high- and low-income countries worldwide, seeking to understand people’s basic needs with regard to these technologies. We will also seek the perspectives of civil society organisations, technology companies, and policymakers.