Faculty Member Helps Lead Northeastern’s Very Own “Digital Humanitarians”

When the Ebola crisis reached alarming levels in West Africa late last year, help was to come from an unexpected source: faculty and students from Northeastern.

This was in part thanks to Joseph Guay, a digital humanitarian and faculty member in the Master’s in Global Studies and International Relations and the  Geographic Information Technology (GIT) program.

Guay was already involved with The Standby TaskForce (SBTF), a group of volunteer crisis mappers who collect important open-source data to help the United Nations (UN) and humanitarian agencies improve their responses. What better way for his Crisis Mapping for Humanitarian Action students to understand the real-life impact of the classroom skills he was teaching, Joe thought, than to involve them in helping respond to the world’s worst outbreak of the Ebola virus?

Joe and co-instructor Steve Purcell believe in a holistic approach to crisis mapping, an emerging cross-disciplinary field where public health specialists, technology entrepreneurs, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) experts, field clinicians, and social scientists get together in virtual and physical spaces to make sense of needs in natural disasters, or warn vulnerable communities in conflict settings, for example.

Before setting out on the SBTF deployment, his students, most of whom are pursuing GIS and Homeland Security degrees, were encouraged to become familiar with humanitarian principles, explore the relationships between conflict and climate-induced crises, and gain a perspective on the democratization of information communication technologies (ICTs).

Before training modules on remote sensing, SMS aggregation tools, or mobile surveys, students were trained to think about how a digital response depends greatly on the resources available on the ground, about the global shifts that make digital volunteerism possible, or about the ethical implications of data mining.

By the time he’d asked students to send text messages about traffic conditions in their local commute (a lesson on Frontline SMS and Ushahidi heat maps) they were already thinking about ways such re-envisioned technologies can create valuable data in low resource settings.

In the Ebola exercise, students worked at the other end of the spectrum, using crowd-sourced methods and open-sourced data alongside hundreds of others to gather and share information on the availability of Ebola Treatment Units in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, a resource that was to be made available on the Humanitarian Data Exchange, a web repository for data that was set up by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The students gained extra credit-and valuable real-world experience at the same time.

Joe is unstinting in his quest to bring home to his students the importance and potential of this new field for humanitarian response.  To that end he has brought some outstanding guest lecturers to the classroom, including Patrick Meier, named 2014 National Geographic explorer of the year (the first digital explorer to gain such recognition); Laura Walker Hudson from Social iLab, the creators of the Frontline SMS tool, and Andrej Verity from OCHA, a driving force behind the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) and the Humanitarian Data Exchange.

In May, Joe may be teaching this online course from Beirut, where he’s set to be consulting for the aid organization World Vision, leveraging digital technologies to investigate possible tensions between refugees and host communities in Lebanon and Jordan. Upon his return, he will travel to Washington D.C. to give a training and presentation on crisis mapping at an upcoming United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, GeoInt2015, along with Cordula Robinson, director and faculty member of the GIT program.

“I’m not actually a crisis mapper, but a social scientist,” says Joe. “And that’s crucial for this area of work. It’s important to give the students skill sets, but first we need to orient students so they have an understanding of the roles of different humanitarian actors in an emergency. Understanding what they’re doing, what they’re contributing to, and not just how to do it, is a powerful thing.”

Read Joe’s blog post  “How Digital Humanitarians are Improving the Ebola Response.”

And the co-authored blog, “Climate change induced displacement: leveraging transnational advocacy networks (TANs) to address operational gaps.”