13 ways humanitarian organizations use tech to save lives

Over 3.5 billion people were affected by natural disasters and humanitarian crises between 2000-2016, and the impact is still being felt: around the world, there are 65 million displaced people, and the number is growing. The scale of this challenge is driving humanitarian organizations to use technology to help them with their vital work. The following examples illustrate the extent to which connected technology is being employed to assist relief efforts.

Networks matter

What happens when a humanitarian organization tries to bring aid to a war or disaster zone? Existing infrastructure may be destroyed, and yet network communications can make the difference between life and death. That’s why the ITU in 2017 deployed emergency telecoms equipment to the hurricane-damaged islands in the Caribbean.

To help the International Committee of the Red Cross, Orange Business provides a fully-managed set of network services, based on satellite, terrestrial and Internet-based technologies. These enable hundreds of ICRC locations to share information. On a smaller scale, Disaster Mesh has designed a tiny network device that can be dropped in large quantities over disaster zones to create ad hoc mesh data networks.


Keeping in contact

In a world in which more people have mobile phones than toilets, networks matter. No surprise, then, that Mercy Corps reports that the first thing refugees ask for once they reach a safe place is Wi-Fi, so they can contact and find friends and family. Many refugees are using technologies like WhatsApp and Viber to remain in contact with relatives and to find families and friends once they reach refugee camps.

Drones to map the terrain

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) works in some of the world’s most dangerous and least-mapped areas. In Malawi it used a drone to map Makhanga, a relatively uncharted area cut off from aid by flooding. The drone’s information enabled the team to build accurate maps, which they used to understand the scope of the relief challenge and to identify population centers. MSF isn’t alone. Drones were used in Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and elsewhere. The World Bank, WeRobotics and OpenAerialMap are developing AI solutions that swiftly provide useful post-disaster maps to emergency responders. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is also exploring drones.

Getting the message out there

To educate the public in the terrifying challenges refugees face, MSF is using virtual reality and 360-degree videos in an interactive exhibition that lets visitors experience the refugee crisis on the ground. The exhibition puts context around crisis – sharing real-life stories and videos from refugee camps, sea rescue missions and emergency medical projects. The idea is to help people understand the dangerous journey the world’s refugees are being forced to make. At the Red Cross, VR is being used to help train emergency responders before they enter disaster zones.

Creating identity

The UN estimates that two billion people are effectively stateless, without birth records or bank accounts. The organization is working with blockchain technology to develop forms of identity records for stateless people, while BanQu uses blockchain to help refugees create financial identities, an essential first step toward accessing banking services. Blockchain-based systems may also help minimize potential conflict zones. For example, De Beers uses it to differentiate legitimately sourced diamonds from those mined in conflict zones. The UNCHR is also exploring biometric scanning to provide ID for displaced, stateless refugees.

The social network

Facebook uses social network data from disaster zones to provide aid organizations with information about who, where and what kinds of help are needed. Facebook recently began sharing the disaster map API with aid organizations so they can coordinate aid more efficiently. Facebook also provides the Tarjimly translation bot, which connects refugees to volunteer translators. This enables them to communicate with international relief agencies to try to get the assistance they need.

Education matters

Children in refugee camps often miss out on education. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is working with mobile platform Vroom to help Syrian refugee parents teach their children new skills through everyday activities. The system uses SMS, WhatsApp, video and social media to distribute lesson plans and ideas.

An app for that

RefAid is a location-based app that connects refugees to education, health, shelter, legal and other services. Over 400 of the world’s largest aid organizations, including the ICRC, support it. When refugees have smartphones, websites can be useful. Multilingual website refugeeinfo.eu provides refugees with information they need en route, such as emergency contacts, asylum processes, and where to find water, lodging and medical care.

Data for the rest of us

The UN High Commission for Refugees is exploring ways to harness big data analytics to detect trends and understand problems that may impact people. In one example, the group is working with Twitter feeds to help inform policy around xenophobia, discrimination and racism towards migrants and refugees. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) manages the Humanitarian Data Exchange, which gathers data from relief organizations on the ground to create an open platform where relief agencies can share information to expedite their work. Connected systems for gathering and assessing data on projects, such as health or sanitation, are also critical.


The Humanitarian Data Exchange is just one example that illustrates how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are making increasing use of technology to boost collaboration. Access to digital workspace, unified communications and videoconferencing tools enable multiple relief agencies to work together, reduce response times and scale their efforts. This is essential to address major health challenges, like AIDS or malaria, or disasters, such as Superstorm Sandy. Many of the problems we face today are so large and widespread that no one organization or agency can solve them alone. Collaboration tools help them avoid duplicating their efforts, use resources more effectively, cut travel costs and work more transparently with corporate partners.

Digital payments

Digital cash payment systems have helped support Ebola response workers in Sierra Leone and provide monthly aid stipends to refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab Camp. Micropayment services are being developed to provide displaced populations with access to essential services, including network coverage, alongside micro-loans and opportunities for increased autonomy.

Security matters

Humanitarian organizations work in some of the world’s most dangerous situations, and the threats aren’t just physical. Cybercriminals, hackers and unfriendly governments may have an interest in subverting systems, stealing data, or even trying to identify and locate high-profile refugees who may have fled to seek protection. These threats are just as real for a humanitarian group as for any enterprise organization, which is why we see a growing tendency for such groups to use advanced security protection, such as Mobile Threat Protection solutions.

Text messages

Older technologies such as SMS have a part to play. For example, the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health sends out text messages to alert people of vaccination campaigns, while the UNHCR uses texts to let refugees know when they should come and get their aid packages.

Find out here how the International Committee of the Red Cross benefits from global network services provided by Orange Business.