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Published: January 10, 2023

When Security Risk Management and Technology Collide: getting humanitarian notification systems right

By: Rob Grace

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At first blush, the notion underlying humanitarian notification systems (HNS)—also sometimes called ‘humanitarian deconfliction’ or ‘humanitarian notification systems for deconfliction’—might appear quite simple. Humanitarians operating in conflict settings seek to cultivate relationships with armed actors to enable humanitarian access, mitigate humanitarian insecurity, and promote civilian protection. When engaging with an armed actor exhibiting no evident intent to harm humanitarian actors, how complex could it be to devise an information-sharing platform (i.e., HNS) that can enhance the armed actor’s situational awareness by transmitting geolocations for static humanitarian sites (e.g., warehouses, offices, or even education and health facilities) and planned aid worker movements (e.g., road movements or flights)?

The Current State of Practice, the Pathway Forward

Unfortunately, the answer to the above question is that HNS is exceptionally complex, unleashing a pandora’s box of vexing challenges and dilemmas. Yet, a widespread sense persists across the humanitarian sector—in particular, among United Nations humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations that have participated in HNS—that HNS has value as a security risk management tool, despite its flaws.

Consider Yemen, for example. A United Nations-run HNS in this context has entailed tens of thousands of humanitarian sites and movements. The humanitarians I interviewed presented a complex and nuanced picture of the role that HNS has played. On the one hand, HNS has spiralled into an immense information management effort that has been “chaotic” (as one interviewee described it) to manage. Moreover, this interviewee pointedly stated HNS has been “an access constraint in Yemen.” Indeed, HNS has caused delays when conflict parties refrained from acknowledging receipt of notifications and/or requested excessive details from humanitarians via HNS. On the other hand, as another humanitarian told me, HNS “probably saved some humanitarian lives… If we didn’t have the system in place, I think for sure some of our convoys would have been whacked.”

As humanitarians seek to maximise the possibilities of HNS while mitigating possible adverse consequences, what should the pathway forward look like? In short, HNS requires getting the policy and practice right and the technology. Invest in one and not the other, and HNS will fall short.

My research on these issues is part of a USAID-funded project led by Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT-LL) in collaboration with Stanford Law School and the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). This project aims to address the issues of policy and practice, as well as those of technology, through extensive research interviews and engagement with humanitarian workers and militaries to gain insights into HNS implementation in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and other settings. As a previous CNA report explains, MIT-LL has also devised an HNS technical prototype geared toward 1) maximising the potential for data accuracy via a user-friendly interface, 2) reducing the human resources required to run HNS effectively, and 3) accelerating the rapidity with which a bespoke HNS can be rapidly set-up and adapted to meet context-specific needs as conflicts erupt and as relationships between humanitarians and armed actors develop, mature, and evolve.

Vexing Questions of Policy and Practice

Through this research—which builds on my previous research on humanitarian-military relations and other researchers on HNS—I am probing the vexing questions of effective and responsible implementation that plague every step of the HNS process. These questions include:

1) What can and should humanitarians seek to achieve via HNS?

2) Which organisations should be granted access to an HNS?

3) How should humanitarian organisations decide whether to participate in HNS? If they do, which conflict parties should they notify through the system, and what details should they share?

4) How should humanitarians respond when convoys or sites are nevertheless struck?

5) How can users mitigate the myriad unintended adverse consequences of HNS, including that combatants might perceive (erroneously) that HNS supplants combatants’ obligation under international humanitarian law to undertake their own targeting assessments or that HNS might become a tool of access control (for example, if conflict parties delay or refrain from acknowledging receipt after humanitarians send notifications through the system)?

Bringing Technology into the Conversation

The above questions are currently being discussed and debated across the humanitarian sector. While positive, much more work remains on this front. What appears less prominent—or even absent—in the ongoing discourse on HNS is the other crucial dimension: technology. Indeed, inherent in HNS are questions of information management, data security, and data ethics. The research interviewees with whom I spoke discussed experiences with HNS in which systems were rife with data inaccuracies (transmitting incorrect geo-coordinates to militaries, defeating the very purpose of HNS); user interfaces were difficult to navigate; notifications could not be updated easily, or at all (a key shortfall given the fluid operational environments in which humanitarians work), and systems lacked basic transparency, including about to whom the data would ultimately be transferred.

Crude, clashing, black-or-white assumptions tend to stymie productive discourse on effectively leveraging technology toward humanitarian problems. Excessive “tech optimism” and “data hubris” can fuel a false sense of technology as “a panacea of all ills.” Consequently, such “hype-without-evidence” can prompt reactionary ‘tech rejectionism.’ But only by rising above the ‘tech optimism versus tech rejectionism’ morass can humanitarians embrace ‘tech realism’. Indeed, as a recent article on the possible use of blockchain technology for HNS discusses, decisions about how to devise an effective, responsible HNS – and for users, whether and how to participate – should follow a reasonable assessment of what technology can accomplish, what it cannot, what harms might be caused by new systems, and what harms might arise from current systems in the absence of reform.

Moreover, still unfortunately underemphasised are crucial aspects of digital ethics. A report on humanitarian digital ethics—published in 2022 by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School—asks the important question: “[I]n the race of ‘for good’ technology, how do governance systems ethically anticipate harm, not just now but into the future?” This question should flourish at the centre of HNS discourse.

Currently, the state of HNS resembles a collision of all the challenges and dilemmas of security risk management and those inherent in humanitarian technology. The pathway forward should entail unpacking this collision of different problems and moving toward a fusion of the prospects, possibilities, and solutions from these two issue areas.

About the Author

Rob Grace is a researcher at Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he researches humanitarian notification systems. Previously, he was a USIP-Minerva Peace Scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and a Graduate Student Fellow at the Harvard Program on Negotiation. He teaches courses on disaster management at various institutions, including Brandeis University and the University of San Diego.

Image Credit: UN OCHA/Leni Kinzli


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