This series of articles elucidates the consequences of what limited access to information and the ever-growing spread of misinformation have on the most vulnerable groups of the society.
In this final blog post I will bring together the topics of my previous four blog posts. I will explore the concepts of misinformation and data privacy from the perspective of private entities and governments creating mobile phone applications aiming at solving humanitarian crises. My aim is to critically discuss the current trend of quantity over quality when it comes to the development of technological solutions and the lack of privacy regulations that surrounds them. As in my previous posts, my focus will be around vulnerable groups, i.e. refugees, indigenous peoples and language minorities and their use of technology.
To recap my previous posts, I started my blog series by looking into an Australian offshore immigration detention centre and the current law proposal to ban mobile phones in the detention centres. The second and the third blog post discussed Indigenous peoples’ and language minorities’ access to reliable information on COVID-19 online. Finally, the last post was about a mobile phone application developed for the refugee crisis.
This final blog post will have a more academic tone of the voice compared to the previous posts; however, it will still follow the same stylistic choice. The post will stem from the fourth blog post by looking at the concept of technology-for-development through a larger lens, especially focusing on private entities’ and governments’ mobile phone application development and the issues that come with it. As a case in focus, I will critically look into the current trend of developing mobile phone applications for refugees, and the misinformation and lack of data privacy that surrounds them.
The role of technology for displaced people in a crisis situation
There are 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide – The Un Refugee Agency (2019) has called the past ten years the decade of displacement. At the same time technology has become more affordable and accessible to the degree that refugees and immigrants are more likely to have access to a mobile phone than have access to sewerage (Heeks, R. 2017, p. 1). As Read et al. (2016, p. 6) point out, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 is considered as a turning point for digital humanitarianism. This was the first-time social media and SMS technology were used as a real-time tool to respond to a public health and social emergency.
The influx of refugees and migrants to Europe has sparked the tech-for-development community to innovate digital solutions to steer humanity out of the crisis. Not to mention other resources, there are dozens of mobile phone applications developed specifically for people who have had to flee their homes.
The question then is that who develops and under what framework?
Firstly, it should be asked that how exactly do displaced people use technology and how could it better serve them. In short, the answer is: They use it just like everyone else.
The app galore
Refugees do not need any more mobile phone applications; they need a reliable internet connection and access to Facebook. Still, we have witnessed an app craze over the past few years where many different entities want to create mobile phone applications that are specifically designed for refugees. The problem is that there are too many of these applications and they become void in a year or two. (RAND, 2020).
““There’s too much,” Dimarogonas said. “There are too many organizations trying to pursue technology to solve problems. In many cases, they’re enamored with the technology first, and then trying to find a problem they can apply it to.”” (RAND, 2020)
According to the RAND (2020) study, refugees in the focus groups said that they rely on their smartphones to communicate with family and friends, search jobs, save photos, learn languages and read the Bible or Quran. The truth is that there are applications for all these things already. The refugees do not need an app to communicate with their family or an app to learn a language, they need a smartphone with an internet access so that they can download Facebook or Duolingo, applications that already exist and that everyone else uses too.
As Read et al. (2016, p. 2) show, many of the innovations in digital humanitarianism seem to be driven by what is possible rather than what is needed. The question is whether development agencies are generating useful knowledge or just collecting data for data’s sake. Money is being invested in developing new state-of-the-art technological solutions to humanitarian crises, but it seems that there is no clear sense of what is needed but rather what does technology enable. This leaves many technological developments to be limited in use and time.
App development and data privacy
The other issue that goes hand in hand with the quantity over quality is the lack of data privacy regulations. Technology may seem like a neutral entity, something that is merely circuitry and satellite transmitted information. However, it is always attended by its own political economy in which the actors, i.e. the IT specialists, are empowered within humanitarian organisations. In this relation, as Fechter and Hindman note, “the technology that surrounds us is often thought to be “just a tool”, but tools – be they laptops or irrigation consultants – both shape that in which they are engaged and act in unexpected ways.”. In other words, technology has the capacity to construct and define a picture rather than just reflect on it. (Read et al., 2016, p. 7).
A major problem with technology and aid agencies is the lack of skills or security protocols to manage vast amounts of information. Many humanitarian actors seem to focus on information gathering rather than on their capacity to deal with the information. This leads to resources being wasted on gathering information that will not be fully processed. (Read et al., 2016, p. 12–13).
The technological developments are able to restore the loss of face-to-face contact through digital means in places where there is no access to zones of humanitarian crisis (Read et al., 2016, p. 2). However, trust is normally built through face-to-face interactions but when communication happens online there is no direct human contact and thus it may be harder to establish trust. This then leads to concerns about privacy and security. (Heeks, R. 2017, p. 328)
Another problem in relation to power relations and technology is when technological developments and innovations become mainstreamed to the extent that they are not subject to fundamental transparency and examination or lack clarity and methodologies. The risk is that these developments end up becoming a replication that reinforces existing power holders and focuses on technical advances rather than on aspects of power and agency.
“Whether appreciated by their users or not, technological innovations in the humanitarian sphere are part of a political economy in which technocratic solutions and quantitative data are more highly valued than other approaches or knowledges.” (Read et al., 2016, p. 7.)
It is not only private corporations but also governments that are developing apps that allow users to share their location data and social contacts on a voluntary basis (Zwitter, A. & Gstrein, O.J., 2020, p. 1). As I discussed in my previous blog post, a couple of years ago a Singapore based ad agency called Grey Group developed an app called I Sea. The app was meant to help refugees who were in trouble crossing the Mediterranen Sea. It even won an award, though it was later returned. The app alleged to feed its users live images from the Mediterranean, allowing them to spot refugees in distress. With the help of live satellite images, the user was supposed to identify boats in trouble and flag their location to a Malta based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas) which would then reach out to the refugees to help them. However, it was later discovered that the app did none of the above.
The case of I sea clearly depicts how a lack of ethical guidelines and legal frameworks regarding technological developments is very problematic and calls for policy updates.
The way forward
To make technical developments more ethical in terms of data privacy, Read has two suggestions. The first is to enhance humanitarian organisations’ data-processing capabilities, though this a supply-led approach, and the second is to guide and control the humanitarian organisations’ information gathering ambitions in order for them to collect enough, but not excessive, amounts of information. (Read et al., 2016, p. 12–13). Zwitter and Gstrein (2020, p. 4) on the other hand suggests that dedicated legal frameworks and transparent policies regarding technological developments should be created through democratic processes in parliaments. If nothing else, the governmental policies should at least describe the means, objectives and undertaken practices in a detailed manner and so that they are rooted in proper legal basis and competences, including an establishment of an oversight mechanism. (Zwitter, A. & Gstrein, O.J., 2020, p. 4)
Another idea could be that the UN could consider establishing worldwide frameworks for the ethical use of technology in refugee settings, i.e. setting standards for data security to protect refugees and other displaced people. (RAND, 2020).
To tackle the problem of quantity over quality, an interesting proposal for developing new technology is the “wedding registry” approach. International organisations such as the UN could establish so called wish lists of technological needs for the investors and tech companies to choose projects to work on. The list could have examples such as better internet connectivity in far-flung refugee camps or more reliable digital identifications. This way tech companies would not compete to rush out the new apps, just to be forgotten in a year or two, but instead meet the actual demands of the market. (RAND, 2020).
It is apparent that when trying to solve a humanitarian crisis, it is not necessary to develop more and more applications for refugees and immigrants but instead these groups of people should have a reliable access to internet without needing to compromise their personal data. Displaced people are a group of people who are already extremely vulnerable due to having fled violence and persecution in their home countries, but now are faced with no other choice than provide their personal data to the mobile phone applications that lack privacy protocols to get the help they need.
“When humanitarian organizations fail to account for potential problems in issues relating frameworks and data responsibilities, technological initiatives can subject refugees to discrimination and risks related to security, privacy, and technology experimentation. Ethical, security, and privacy challenges have direct consequences for both refugees’ well-being and overall levels of trust in the humanitarian system.” (Culbertson et al. 2019, p. 77).
The blog exercise has been like a fresh breeze of wind during the degree studies. It has challenged me very differently compared to the previous courses and exercises, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the very practical take on this course.
Having a group to work with, as well as being able to closely follow other groups’ works, has been extremely valuable. I had no previous experience of WordPress so building up the website and choosing the theme for our blog was a great learning exercise for me. I have learnt not only through my own trial and error but also by observing my fellow student’s blogs and their creative takes on designs and themes and this I found greatly beneficial.
Group work with my team had some challenges given that we are across three different continents and the time differences were just impossible to overcome, yet I would say that we managed to work well as a team. Instead of relying on real time discussions over video conferencing we had a very active WhatsApp group where we shared ideas and commented on each other’s questions.
Probably the most challenging parts of the course were the tight schedule, executing a vibrant social media plan and balancing between an informal blog text versus keeping an academic tone on the writings. In my group we focussed more on the technical creation of the platform as well as the content of the blog, leaving less time and effort to the social media plan. If the project was any longer it certainly would have made sense to put more effort into interacting with other social media accounts to increase our followers. Even though we did not end up having a large follower group, this exercise served as an excellent practice for managing social media in a professional setting. Also, considering my professional career, it has been valuable to learn to caption important topics in a way that is catchy and easy to read instead of only writing academic essays.
Culbertson, S., Dimarogonas, J., Costello, K. & Lanna, S. 2019. Crossing the Digital Divide. Applying Technology to the Global Refugee Crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR4322.html.
Heeks, R. 2017: Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Abingdon: Routledge.
Read, R., Taithe, B. & Mac Ginty, R. 2016: Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly, 37:8, 1314-1331.
Zwitter, A. & Gstrein, O.J. 2020: Big data, privacy and COVID-19 – learning from humanitarian expertise in data protection, Journal of International Humanitarian Action, 5:4.
The UN Refugee Agency. Global Trends. Forced Displacement in 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2019/
RAND. The RAND blog. The Right Technology Can Help Refugees Stay Connected. 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/blog/rand-review/2020/03/the-right-technology-can-help-refugees-stay-connected.html