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Charities, Humanitarian Action and Big Data: Friend or Foe?

The very first of the Talk Big Data panel discussions took place on 13 October 2016 and considered both the advantages and disadvantages of using and creating big data in verification of human rights and for the prediction of humanitarian disasters.

The speakers were:

  • Wendy Betts, Director of eyewitness to Atrocities, International Bar Association
  • Joanne Mariner, Senior Crisis Response Advisor, Amnesty International
  • Duncan Ross, Data and Analytics Director, TES Global and Director and Chair of Trustees, DataKind UK

The panel was introduced by Professor Lorna McGregor, Director of the Human Rights Centre and Co-Director of the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project, University of Essex and chaired by Professor Geoff Gilbert, Professor of Law and Deputy of the ‘Advancing Human Rights and Humanitarian Responses’ Work Stream of the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project, University of Essex.

Prof. Lorna McGregor, Prof. Geoff Gilbert, Wendy Betts, Duncan Ross and Joanne Mariner

Prof. Lorna McGregor, Prof. Geoff Gilbert, Wendy Betts, Duncan Ross and Joanne Mariner

The variety of expertise that the speakers and chairs offered allowed the audience to find out how big data can advance human rights and humanitarian responses, as well as the opportunities and challenges big data can present. 

An example of the opportunities was given by Professor Gilbert who explained how UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) used Tweets, the BBC weather charts and tide timetables for the eastern Mediterranean to predict how many people would arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos every day. They would know whether it would be two hundred people or thirteen hundred people and that knowledge allowed them to plan and use their resources economically and to the best advantage. 

One of the challenges to using big data is bias, for example, a gender bias: who owns smart phones and has access to smart technology, and a rural /urban bias with respect to smart technology.  How can those using the data make sure these biases don’t skew the results and therefore the response?

The three panellists all use big data in their own work to try and improve humanitarian responses.

How can big data be used to map, monitor and document human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law?

Wendy Betts  talked about a mobile phone app which can be used by human rights documenters, journalists and ordinary citizens to capture information related to human rights violations. The app increases its evidence value over and above the information that can be captured using a standard mobile camera as it collects metadata for verification. The information coming in from the collectors is amassed and securely stored. The footage is analysed to provide support for proving violations and enables ‘eyewitness’ to become an advocate to promote accountability for those who commit the worst possible international crimes.

Duncan Ross talking during the Panel discussionDuncan Ross (third from left) described how DataKind provide data scientists, who give their expertise freely, to charities who need help in using their data effectively. He explained that everyone who carried a smart phone created huge amounts of data wherever they went. Data is also generated with just about everything that people interact with in  the developed world. This data can be used in ways that we simply couldn’t before. The technology to analyse vast amounts of data is becoming incredibly cheap and the techniques of analysis to interpret this data are rapidly advancing. 

  

  

However, there are challenges; where does the data come from and how do we get hold of it and can we pose the right questions? What about bias?  All data contains bias but you need to understand the bias and take it in account. Researchers have to be careful because data can be used badly or the results could contain bias. So does that mean we shouldn’t use the data? Well, the question is, is it better than what we have at the moment because the research already out there is not bias free and the new tools we have to analyse big data is a step forward.

Joanne Mariner followed by saying that they have been developing the tools to put the massive amount of data that is generated to use to try document human rights violations in real time. The speed that the data can be analysed with is crucial in order to create public pressure to stop those violations and to motivate governments and other powerful actors to take action.

So how can big data and big data analysis be used as a tool in this area?

  • Firstly in revealing patterns of violations, the new tools reveal patterns and knowledge that was not possible to gain through previous techniques
  • By providing a really fine grain of particular incidents – tiny details can be learned from so many perspectives for example, causation
  • It enable predictive modelling which is very important field for humanitarian responses
  • It can help policy makers reach informed policy decisions because you need to be able to understand the problems on the ground well in order to come up with the policies that may remedy them

Accurate data analysis of large and varied databases can provide the evidence needed to pressure governments and political organisations into positive change. It is important that this opportunity is explored and exhausted, to put an end to human rights violations across the world.

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Page last updated: 05/05/2017