By Leila Toplic, Lead for Emerging Technologies Initiative, NetHope
What are the benefits of using AI in humanitarian contexts? What are the challenges? And what do we need to consider if we seek to incorporate more AI into the NGO sector?
Today, close to 80 million people are displaced due to conflicts and persecution. As many as 143 million people could soon be displaced due to climate change, which is disproportionately impacting already resource-constrained regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, inequality is growing sharply across multiple dimensions including education, gender, and economic development. 258 million children were out of school before Covid-19 and an additional 463 million were cut off from education during the pandemic. These are just some of the humanitarian challenges that we’re facing.
Our world is facing ever more intense and protracted humanitarian crises, and as a result the global community is pressed to find new ways to help people and communities in need. Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the tools that has potential to help us tackle some of the toughest humanitarian challenges.
AI systems – with their capacity to learn, to predict, and in some instances, to make decisions based on those predictions and take specific actions – are fundamentally changing the world around us and improving how we live and work. So, it’s no surprise that AI has become a hot topic in the humanitarian sector, with many discussions about its benefits, risks, and appropriate use cases as humanitarian organizations look to incorporate AI in humanitarian programming.
As a technology consortium of the world’s leading NGOs, we at NetHope see the potential in AI to support every aspect of our work. We believe that the humanitarian sector has a responsibility to the people and communities we support to explore and apply AI in a responsible, impactful, and sustainable way.
Since 2017, we’ve been bringing together global NGOs and technology experts from the private sector and academia to share, learn, and collaborate on all aspects of AI application in the humanitarian sector. Recently, we convened a group of leading humanitarian NGOs – members of our AI Working Group – for a round of consultations focused on exploring the benefits, challenges, and the path forward for AI in the humanitarian sector. I had the opportunity to speak with organizations that are focused on disaster response, the needs of children and women, protecting refugees, and promoting respect for human rights, including Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Norwegian Refugee Council, Catholic Relief Services, SOS Children’s Villages, and Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps Team.
This research was supported by Microsoft’s AI for Humanitarian Action Initiative and will be used to inform the new call-for-proposals that Microsoft issued on September 24, 2020, with project proposals due by October 31, 2020.
As you consider this and other opportunities for AI in the humanitarian sector, I wanted to share what we know about the benefits and challenges, and several considerations for the way forward.
We know from early practical implementations of AI/machine learning (ML) in the humanitarian sector that there is a whole set of problems that AI/ML, along with other tools, could help us solve.
AI systems can help NGOs:
The sector is taking the first step with AI by exploring a whole range of programs and experimenting with different AI/ML capabilities. Some examples of early practical implementations include:
Danish Refugee Council is using AI/ML to forecast forced displacement in places like Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria in west Africa. The Foresight tool uses open data from sources including UNHCR, the World Bank and the NGO agencies to predict forced displacement in a given country.
International Rescue Committee is using AI/ML in a number of projects including for optimizing service delivery to refugees, for predictive modeling of conflicts and crises, to facilitate jobs-matching for refugees, and for individualized learning experiences for children affected by crisis.
Norwegian Refugee Council’s chatbot assists Venezuelan migrants in Colombia with learning their rights according to current immigration policies and laws.
The Carter Center is using AI to get more accurate and timely analysis on the Syrian conflict.
It’s important to note that while the opportunity for AI to help in the humanitarian sector is vast, many of the AI/ML initiatives are still in the exploration or piloting stage and they are not yet delivering significant impact on a sustained basis. This is due to some of the challenges outlined below.
AI for humanitarian response shares some of the same challenges as other technologies that are being used in the humanitarian sector. They include barriers related to data, sustainability, inclusion, funding, and oversight. However, the barriers to adopting AI/ML remain higher in comparison to other technologies due the fact that many of the NGOs are just not far along on their digital transformation journey.
Barriers to overcome include:
So, what's the path forward for AI in the humanitarian sector? Humanitarian organizations have an obligation to bring the best, most appropriate tools to support their work in disaster response, protecting and supporting refugees, and promoting respect for human rights. As advancements in AI accelerate and AI gets embedded all around us, humanitarian organizations need to understand the best uses for AI/ML as well as the potential risks, and know how to determine when it’s appropriate to use this powerful technology.
To get started with AI in humanitarian contexts, we recommend you:
It’s no surprise that the problem areas in the humanitarian community that would benefit the most from AI are mostly focused on improving existing programs and processes rather than creating solutions that would not be possible without AI/ML. Specifically, NGOs are looking to:
There are several reasons why Augmentation, Self-Help and Prediction are some of the most promising use cases for AI at this time, including:
When evaluating suitability of new AI project concepts in the humanitarian sector, we recommend asking the following questions:
For additional questions to ask when determining the suitability of AI for your programs and organizations, please review NetHope’s AI Suitability Framework.
RESOURCES AND SUPPORT
In order for NGOs to overcome the challenges outlined above and turn their ideas into sustainable, responsible AI solutions – they need internal (leadership) commitment to digital transformation and external support in the form of:
If you are interested in learning more about AI in the humanitarian sector, we invite you to join us at the NetHope Virtual Global Summit later this month where we’ll have a number of sessions focused on lessons learned from practical implementations of AI in the sector, demos of no-code and low-code AI tools, training on how to get started with developing chatbots, and an AI ethics workshop.
Special thanks to Alix Cabrall (IRC), Giulio Coppy (NRC), Grant Gordon (IRC), Priyanka Jagtap (CRS), Alexander Kjaerum (DRC), Brett Koblinger (SOS Children’s Villages), Neal Moffitt (IRC), Bo Percival (HOT), Ognen Plavevski (CRS), Mary Rochelleau (Mercy Corps), Ahmed Shoukry (CRS), and Ric Shreves (Mercy Corps) for their participation in the consultations.