© Paul MorseTechnology has increasingly democratised the structure of the aid system in recent years. Whilst top-down support from aid agencies and NGOs is still an essential part of disaster relief efforts, social responses are increasingly harnessed, enabling unprecedented opportunity for affected communities to provide critical information, send requests or messages and align assistance need with provision.

Ninety percent of lives saved during natural disasters are saved by those people already there, and the employment of user-led technology allows the communities to be engaged, transforming them from witnesses to participants, from passive recipients of aid to active informants. There are wide-ranging examples from electronic cash transfers for survival kits through SMS technology, to the development of First Aid apps, to the use of Twitter to make urgent pleas for assistance.

At the launch of the World Disaster Report – ‘Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian intervention’ at the Overseas Development Institute last Tuesday, increasing emergency collaboration through private/public sector partnerships was promoted by Paul Conneally, Head of Communication and Partnership Promotion at the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (UN ITU). Companies worldwide are increasingly providing assistance to primary relief organizations, for instance Google developed its Person Finder service after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to help survivors locate friends, family and loved ones.

Paul Conneally believes it is these partnerships that will lead to strategic innovation, by companies that know what works and where. Imogen Wall, Coordinator of Communication at the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), referred to ‘information ecology’ – the use of technology being a profoundly social and cultural activity. She sensed the need for the digital divide to be bridged through assessing the pattern of technology use in each place.

Yet there are also calls for standardisation. Overloading of information, data protection, ethical issues when involving the private or military sector in humanitarian aid (for example using drones to deliver food supplies), and technology failure on the ground were all highlighted as potential problems during the Q&A. Troubles that could be eased by the introduction of a set of practical guidelines to follow. Maintaining the balance between standardisation and contextualisation is evidently something that will be difficult to get right.

Finally, despite all the technological advancement, Imogen Wall stressed that the aid model itself has remained largely unchanged. To effectively harness the social response, perhaps a new business model for humanitarian assistance is needed.