Humanitarian information systems: Ethics, information protection and “information DNA”

One of the discussions that cropped up in the working group on Innovation and also at the Plenary at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium was the ethics of information sharing in humanitarian aid systems. I for one find it hard to believe that we are bereft of the information needed for timely and sustainable humanitarian action. The essential challenge is three fold – oftentimes the significant lack of progressive political will, information overload and its corollary, information exchange systems that are extremely poor in their ability to leverage information and transform data to knowledge.

Addressing the first is beyond the scope of this post and looking into the future, I was in particular concerned with challenges to information security posed by the ubiquity of location and presence aware devices, ranging from mobile phones with built with GPS to RFID tags that can now even be implanted inside humans.

As the article on RFID notes, the ethical use of technology such as RFID, particularly for humanitarian aid, is an area that is as yet ill-defined and for which there is little or no interest at present. This is fundamentally because of the growth of so many new technologies that need, in some way, to be tested amongst beneficiaries of aid before they are touted as proven technologies. The +5 Symposium’s Innovation Working Group recognised this and cautioned against the use of new technologies in mission critical scenarios:

We shouldn’t experiment with unproven technologies during the critical phases of the emergency response; and better preparedness of: personnel, systems, infrastructure, and data improves the effectiveness and timeliness of the response while allowing for innovation

Nigel Snoad, one of the best known thought-leaders of humanitarian information systems design currently with the Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group (LinkedIn Profile) and one time head of the UN Joint Logistics Centre in Rome, Italy and I had a fascinating exchange on the topic of ethical information sharing that to me still defines this emergent field of study.

Titled How much information should we share in peacebuilding and humanitarian operations? I proposed the idea of “information DNA”, akin to the semantic web and RDF:

Future technologies may also look into something akin to information DNA – invisible yet system wide meta-tags that clearly indicate when records were gathered, by whom, for what purpose. These tags can then be tracked, so as to ensure that information gathered for humanitarian relief is never used for active combat operations, however valuable such information may be for offensive / defensive operations.

My post was in response to one of Nigel’s posted on the Strong Angel III website and contains a number of points that will be of vital interest to humanitarian aid workers, humanitarian system architects and information protection experts based on my field experience of designing, deploying and managing complex, mission critical applications for peacebuilding, peace process support and human rights monitoring.

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