Joseph Guay: A Humanitarian in the Digital Age
Joseph Guay, an associate at The Policy Lab, is Special Advisor to Crisis Code: Humanitarian Protection in the Digital Age, a two-day conference taking place in San Francisco September 27–28 as part of the Swiss Touch campaign. Swiss Touch is an initiative that brings together diverse stakeholders and fresh perspectives for conversations on innovation and pressing current issues: each discussion takes place around an artisanal table that was custom built in the Alps.
After a debut atop the Matterhorn and appearances across the East Coast, Swiss Touch makes its first West Coast landfall in San Francisco for Crisis Code this week. Mr. Guay sat down with Martin Schwartz of the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco to discuss the conference, his background in ICT and humanitarian response, and why the humanitarian sector needs to “wake up” to digital realities. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
First of all, Mr. Guay: What is Crisis Code?
Crisis Code is a two-day program here at Switzerland at Pier 17, organized by the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco and swissnex San Francisco, that will bring together experts, researchers, and practitioners across a range of disciplines and domains, from the private sector to UN agencies to NGOs to civil society to academia. In public panel discussions and invite-only workshops, we’ll wrestle with some questions which until recently really haven’t been asked, with regard to emerging vulnerabilities in cyberspace and their humanitarian implications.
What effect would you like to see Crisis Code have on the conversation about humanitarianism in the digital age?
We are trying to raise awareness, define problems, and prioritize concerns with regard to a shifting cyberthreat landscape, and identify practical actions for mitigating risks associated with humanitarian operations. We’re hoping to bring people together to have informed policy conversations around new threats and operational hazards and to build consensus around an international agenda for action.
“The Crisis Code Conference is part of a growing ecosystem of dialogues and processes around international cybersecurity.”
This conference is part of a growing ecosystem of dialogues and processes around international cybersecurity, but we’re trying to move the needle on these conversations in ways that haven’t happened before. At Crisis Code, we hope to facilitate knowledge exchange among stakeholder groups that normally don’t talk to each other. You don’t usually have cyber-experts talking to humanitarian practitioners. This is where Switzerland comes in, both in offering a neutral forum for these conversations and as the custodian of the Geneva Conventions. That we are having this conversation here at Pier 17 is no coincidence.
The conference focuses on humanitarian work and on ICTs — how have these two fields come together in your career?
My introduction to this space was in 2011, as an intern at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, using real-time satellite imagery to document mass atrocities, human rights abuse, and war crimes in South Sudan as part of the Satellite Sentinel Project consortium.
What was your team looking for?
Military fortification and deployment of unauthorized forces, the intentional destruction of civilian infrastructure, the presence of mass graves, for example — things you couldn’t normally monitor using conventional means but made possible with remote sensing tools and capabilities.
This was the beginning of a massive shift in the application of emerging technologies and communications platforms in the humanitarian sector — we were one of the first non-state groups to use these kinds of techniques. Now, this model is used regularly by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; they do great work with satellite imagery analysis, in part because of some of the methodologies that we piloted at Harvard University in the summer of 2011.
Where did your career take you next?
Since then, I have worked in a number of ways to integrate emerging technologies and digital platforms into humanitarian response, first through teaching university courses on “crisis mapping,” and later as a consultant to various UN agencies and operational NGOs.
During the Ebola response in Liberia, in the Fall of 2014, my GIS graduate students at Northeastern University partnered up with the Standby Task Force, an online group of digital volunteers, and Nethope, who will be coming here for Crisis Code. In two weeks, 500 volunteers helped verify, update, and geo-tag information about the location, status, capacity, and current use of over two thousand community care centers (CCCs) and Ebola treatment units (ETU) locations in West Africa, giving the World Health Organization the first inter-agency database of geo-tagged facilities for the response. Similarly, during the Nepal earthquake, my students were encouraged to “digitally deploy” with the Standby Task Force, Micro Mappers, or Humanitarian Open Street Map deployments to provide crowdsourcing support for humanitarian operations.
In 2015, I made the transition to more operational work. In East Africa, on the ground in Nairobi, I helped an international NGO provide risk assessments for a mobile data management program they were piloting to try get a sense of the routes of transit, profiles, and patterns of mixed migration and human trafficking in the Horn of Africa region. Currently, I’m advising a pilot project in Myanmar as part of a grassroots mobile conflict and ceasefire monitoring system led by the Non-Violent Peace Force.
This work has brought to your attention what you call emerging territories of vulnerability: you feel that there are threats that the humanitarian sector itself brings to affected populations through use of ICTs, as well as threats that come from ICTs that the humanitarian sector is not aware of.
Aid agencies, NGOs, and the private sector are carrying out information and data-related activities and services that, themselves, constitute new forms of humanitarian assistance. Think biometric digital identification systems, digital cash-based transfers, and the provision of mobile connectivity initiatives, which are growing exponentially in humanitarian response. The sector is also experimenting with emerging technologies for enhanced intelligence and situational awareness. Call detail records (CDR) and social media exhaust have been used to predict the spread of infectious diseases or for sentiment analysis and rumor tracking in fragile contexts. Aerial and submersive robotics have been used for surveillance of damaged locations and monitoring critical infrastructure.
“But there’s no comprehensive and commonly-accepted guidance on the use of information communication technologies and the data they generate in humanitarian emergencies to ensure proper safeguards against unintentional harm to affected populations who are, themselves, already vulnerable.”
There aren’t standards to prevent gross negligence leading to beneficiary data breaches, or the publishing of sensitive personal or demographically-identifiable information on open data exchanges, both of which may lead to the targeting of certain groups. We’re really not thinking about risk and data protection in ways that we should. The threat landscape is shifting, but our lens on risk isn’t keeping pace.
Was there a moment in your career when this understanding dawned on you?
The project in Nairobi.
They had asked me to come in and do some advisory work on their program in order to scale it up. But when I started looking into their data systems and operational protocols, I realized very quickly that there were some serious issues around validity and reliability of the tool (raising questions about the utility of their analysis and recommendations for policy makers), and the ethical and safe use of beneficiary data during the experimentation phase of the project. This lead to major credibility and liability problems that not only undermined the integrity of the mission, but also could have endangered the very migrants they were hoping to serve.
Untrained local informants, equipped with smart phones, had collected an unprecedented number of potentially high-value interviews with Somali, Ethiopian, and Kenyan smugglers without a methodology for validating this data or making sure that sensitive information (for example the identities and/or locations of families in transit) was not compromised during the interviews. I advised the team to immediately shut down the program.
This doesn’t mean that innovation can’t happen in these kinds of contexts, though. The project would really have benefitted from an informed, evidence-driven innovation process and responsible data practices built into the DNA of the prototype. This is actually what we do at The Policy Lab in our work at the intersection of emerging technologies, innovation, and humanitarian action. We work with aid agencies, the private sector, and community-based organizations to develop locally-relevant, contextually-informed, and strategically-oriented programs, policies, and tools. In looking toward the future, we’re really prioritizing data protection, risk mitigation, and digital security in this kind of work.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge for the humanitarian sector right now? Is it the changing threat matrix affecting communities today or is it the way humanitarian work itself is done?
Two sides of the same coin.
As conventional modalities of armed conflict give way to hybrid, digital forms of organized aggression and systematic violence, crisis-affected populations will have to contend with identity theft, exploitation of personally-and-demographically identifiable data, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, media blackouts, and misinformation campaigns.
How will the humanitarian sector respond to this future? I think we need to have conversations with the technology industry, cyber-researchers, and digital forensics experts so that we can be responsive to these types of scenarios. We need to have a better grasp of the kinds of activities that are being conducted in cyberspace, which will help us be better prepared to respond to them.