Blog 1 - Cloud Computing in the Humanitarian World
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
When I was in high school in the late 90s, I vividly remember the introduction of the internet to the world as a phenomenon, an unprecedented force, and a luxury only accessible to the few. Now, however, the internet has become such a fundamental utility we can’t go a day without its use and is incorporated into almost every facet of the business, personal life, government, and development. And yet, an early challenge with this exponential increase in its infiltration of world systems was the storage of mass amounts of data and resources required for its use that was accumulated over time. It was not until the early 2000s that experts resolved the issue with the idea that looked strange at the time but is so common today, known as “Cloud Computing”.
What is Cloud Computing?
Source: Youtube, Simplilearn Channel
So, how can we use this to benefit the world for good? How can we bring this key integration into a low-tech context? How can we integrate cloud computing into humanitarian emergencies to benefit operations?
“Globalisation, as defined by rich people like us, is a very nice thing... you are talking about the Internet, you are talking about cell phones, you are talking about computers. This doesn't affect two-thirds of the people of the world.” Jimmy Carter 39th president of the United States.
Jimmy Carter put the early spread of technology into a critical perspective and highlighted one of its original critiques, which has improved over the past few years due to these expanding uses of information systems and technology worldwide.
New innovations that adapt to these critical needs come to light in developing countries where a bank account or internet access is limited to a minority of the population. Bangladesh, for example, has implemented a national money transfer system, bKash, for money transfers that are more accessible than formal banking systems. These adaptations in contexts of scarcity prove that even the simplest technologies can make the biggest difference in such contexts, including during a humanitarian response.
Source: Youtube, Bloomberg Quicktake: Originals Channel
What is the benefit on the ground during a humanitarian response?
However joyful this story may seem for Bangladeshis, the same is not the case for Rohingya refugees who have resettled in Kupatalong, the world’s biggest refugee camp located in Bangladesh on the border of Myanmar. These refugees do not have access to such financial systems, are not permitted to have mobile phones, and are restricted from accessing the internet by the government of Bangladesh.
Approximately 900,000 refugees receive lifesaving aid each month, including food distributed through e-voucher outlets, which originally used traditional methods to distribute food packages to beneficiaries. The UN World Food Programme providing this aid soon realised a change was needed for a more effective response and, in 2019, began utilising blockchain technology in its distribution transactions. The utilisation of “smart cards” were deployed to allocate food and as a beneficiary data management system, allowing refugees to use the technology in designated shops within the camps to buy food leading to more nutritious and diverse diets. The blend between Cloud computing, cryptocurrency, extensive data management and Artificial intelligence helped to empower the refugees to have the free will to choose the next meal as we all do in an ordinary world.
How did frontline humanitarian aid workers benefit?
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Existing socio-economic and health issues were compounded by the pandemic, especially for refugees, who bore the brunt of the impacts of a global crisis. COVID-19 cases ravaged the refugee camps that were in close quarters and could not always follow health recommendations. However, as the refugees did not have access to the outside world, many of these cases came from outside the camps, from humanitarians shuttling between the camps and Cox’s Bazar town and their offices daily. These technology solutions, such as introducing QR codes for access control, came in.
Source: Twitter, World Food Programme @WFP
Other technology applications were then implemented in the humanitarian response in Bangladesh, such as plugPay, which allowed communities to receive cash assistance through their payment method of choice. This application was so successful in Bangladesh that it then spread to other countries.
Source: Twitter, WFP Innovation @WFPinnovation
These benefits were not only felt on the ground when frontline staff and even senior management of UN agencies had a go and benefited from it.
Source: Youtube, WFP Innovation Accelerator Channel
After seeing first-hand the devastation of the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, and the drastic change that these technology solutions made to the humanitarian response using cloud computing and technology information systems, it is evident that these technologies are not only limited to businesses and big tech companies. We can clearly see the difference technology makes when used for good - as the light in a dark world.
Human Rights Watch. 2022. Bangladesh: Internet Blackout on Rohingya Refugees. [online] Available at: <https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/09/13/bangladesh-internet-blackout-rohingya-refugees> [Accessed 20 July 2022].
Matak, V., 2020. How blockchain is helping WFP’s fight against coronavirus in Bangladesh. [online] Medium. Available at: <https://medium.com/world-food-programme-insight/how-blockchain-is-helping-wfps-fight-against-covid-19-in-bangladesh-d2b466a8becf> [Accessed 24 July 2022].
www.twitter.com. 2020. WFP teams in Cox's Bazar created a digital solution to facilitate continued humanitarian access to the #Rohingya camps as part of our efforts to support Government partners to prevent the spread of the virus.. [online] Available at: <https://twitter.com/WFP/status/1255053853982146560?s=20&t=OJG7VP6ygG-JF3yknyMTSw> [Accessed 20 July 2022].
www.twitter.com. 2021. What does plugPAY do?. [online] Available at: <https://twitter.com/WFPInnovation/status/1470727772284674050?s=20> [Accessed 20 July 2022].
www.youtube.com. 2020. WFP and UNHCR harness digital solutions at the first-ever virtual innovation Bootcamp. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl2mQLyPZYI&t=3s> [Accessed 20 July 2022].
Youtube.com. 2020. What Is Cloud Computing? | Cloud Computing Explained |. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M988_fsOSWo&t=36s> [Accessed 21 July 2022].
Youtube.com. 2022. Why Bill Gates Thinks bKash Will Revolutionize Banking for the Poor. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOWFzyyBNJs&t=31s> [Accessed 20 July 2022].