Tag Archives: Humanitarian

Computing Research Institutes as an Innovation Pathway for Humanitarian Technology

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) is an initiative by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to improve humanitarian action. The Summit, which is to be held in 2016, stands to be one of the most important humanitarian conferences in a decade. One key pillar of WHS is humanitarian innovation. “Transformation through Innovation” is the WHS Working Group dedicated to transforming humanitarian action by focusing explicitly on innovation. I have the pleasure of being a member of this working group where my contribution focuses on the role of new technologies, data science and advanced computing. As such, I’m working on an applied study to explore the role of computing research institutes as an innovation pathway for humanitarian technology. The purpose of this blog post is to invite feedback on the ideas presented below.

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I first realized that the humanitarian community faced a “Big Data” challenge in 2010, just months after I had joined Ushahidi as Director of Crisis Mapping, and just months after co-founding CrisisMappers: The Humanitarian Technology Network. The devastating Haiti Earthquake resulted in a massive overflow of information generated via mainstream news, social media, text messages and satellite imagery. I launched and spearheaded the Haiti Crisis Map at the time and together with hundreds of digital volunteers from all around the world went head-to head with Big Data. As noted in my forthcoming book, we realized there and then that crowdsourcing and mapping software alone were no match for Big (Crisis) Data.

Digital Humanitarians: The Book

This explains why I decided to join an advanced computing research institute, namely QCRI. It was clear to me after Haiti that humanitarian organizations had to partner directly with advanced computing experts to manage the new Big Data challenge in disaster response. So I “embedded” myself in an institute with leading experts in Big Data Analytics, Data Science and Social Computing. I believe that computing research institutes (CRI’s) can & must play an important role in fostering innovation in next generation humanitarian technology by partnering with humanitarian organizations on research & development (R&D).

There is already some evidence to support this proposition. We (QCRI) teamed up with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to create the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response platform, AIDR as well as MicroMappers. We are now extending AIDR to analyze text messages (SMS) in partnership with UNICEF. We are also spearheading efforts around the use and analysis of aerial imagery (captured via UAVs) for disaster response (see the Humanitarian UAV Network: UAViators). On the subject of UAVs, I believe that this new technology presents us (in the WHS Innovation team) with an ideal opportunity to analyze in “real time” how a new, disruptive technology gets adopted within the humanitarian system. In addition to UAVs, we catalyzed a partnership with Planet Labs and teamed up with Zooniverse to take satellite imagery analysis to the next level with large scale crowd computing. To this end, we are working with humanitarian organizations to enable them to make sense of Big Data generated via social media, SMS, aerial imagery & satellite imagery.

The incentives for humanitarian organizations to collaborate with CRI’s are obvious, especially if the latter (like QCRI) commits to making the resulting prototypes freely accessible and open source. But why should CRI’s collaborate with humanitarian organizations in the first place? Because the latter come with real-world challenges and unique research questions that many computer scientists are very interested in for several reasons. First, carrying out scientific research on real-world problems is of interest to the vast majority of computer scientists I collaborate with, both within QCRI and beyond. These scientists want to apply their skills to make the world a better place. Second, the research questions that humanitarian organizations bring enable computer scientists to differentiate themselves in the publishing world. Third, the resulting research can help advanced the field of computer science and advanced computing.

So why are we see not seeing more collaboration between CRI’s & humanitarian organizations? Because of this cognitive surplus mismatch. It takes a Director of Social Innovation (or related full-time position) to serve as a translational leader between CRI’s and humanitarian organizations. It takes someone (ideally a team) to match the problem owners and problem solvers; to facilitate and manage the collaboration between these two very different types of expertise and organizations. In sum, CRI’s can serve as an innovation pathway if the following three ingredients are in place: 1) Translation Leader; 2) Committed CRI; and 3) Committed Humanitarian Organization. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success.

While research institutes have a comparative advantage in R&D, they are not the best place to scale humanitarian technology prototypes. In order to take these prototypes to the next level, make them sustainable and have them develop into enterprise level software, they need to be taken up by for-profit companies. The majority of CRI’s (QCRI included) actually do have a mandate to incubate start-up companies. As such, we plan to spin-off some of the above platforms as independent companies in order to scale the technologies in a robust manner. Note that the software will remain free to use for humanitarian applications; other uses of the platform will require a paid license. Therein lies the end-to-end innovation path that computing research institutes can offer humanitarian organization vis-a-vis next generation humanitarian technologies.

As noted above, part of my involvement with the WHS Innovation Team entails working on an applied study to document and replicate this innovation pathway. As such, I am looking for feedback on the above as well as on the research methodology described below.

I plan to interview Microsoft Research, IBM Research, Yahoo Research, QCRI and other institutes as part of this research. More specifically, the interview questions will include:

  • Have you already partnered with humanitarian organizations? Why/why not?
  • If you have partnered with humanitarian organizations, what was the outcome? What were the biggest challenges? Was the partnership successful? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • If you have not yet partnered with humanitarian organizations, why not? What factors would be conducive to such partnerships and what factors serve as hurdles?
  • What are your biggest concerns vis-a-vis working with humanitarian groups?
  • What funding models did you explore if any?

I also plan to interview humanitarian organizations to better understand the prospects for this potential innovation pathway. More specifically, I plan to interview ICRC, UNHCR, UNICEF and OCHA using the following questions:

  • Have you already partnered with computing research groups? Why/why not?
  • If you have partnered with computing research groups, what was the outcome? What were the biggest challenges? Was the partnership successful? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • If you have not yet partnered with computing research groups, why not? What factors would be conducive to such partnerships and what factors serve as hurdles?
  • What are your biggest concerns vis-a-vis working with computing research groups?
  • What funding models did you explore if any?

My plan is to carry out the above semi-structured interviews in February-March 2015 along with secondary research. My ultimate aim with this deliverable is to develop a model to facilitate greater collaboration between computing research institutes and humanitarian organizations. To this end, I welcome feedback on all of the above (feel free to email me and/or add comments below). Thank you.

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See also:

  • Research Framework for Next Generation Humanitarian Technology and Innovation [link]
  • From Gunfire at Sea to Maps of War: Implications for Humanitarian Innovation [link]

Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) just published a pivotal policy document (PDF) on the use of civilian UAVs in humanitarian settings. Key excerpts from this 20-page & must-read publication are highlighted below.

ICARUS Quadcopter

  • UAVs are increasingly performing civilian tasks as the technology becomes more common. In fact, 57 countries and 270 companies were manufacturing UAVs in 2013.
  • Humanitarian organizations have started to use UAVs, including in Haiti and the Philippines, for data collection and information tasks that include real time information and situation monitoring, public information and advocacy, search and rescue, and mapping.
  • Use of UAVs raises serious practical & ethical issues that humanitarian organizations must address through transparency, community engagement, and guidelines for privacy & data security.
  • To tap into the growing interest in UAVs, particularly in technical communities, humanitarian organizations should engage in networks that promote good practices and guidance, and that can serve as a source of surge capacity. [Like the Humanitarian UAV Network].
  • Due to their affordability, ease of transport, and regulatory concerns UAVs used in humanitarian response are likely to be small or micro-UAVs of up to a few kilograms, while larger systems will remain the province of military and civil defense actors.
  • Interest is building in the use of UAVs to assist in search and rescue, particularly when equipped with infrared, or other specialty cameras. For example, the European Union is funding ICARUS, a research project to develop unmanned search and rescue tools to assist human teams. [Picture above is of UAV used by ICARUS].
  • The analysis of data from these devices ranges from straight-forward to quite technically complex. Analytical support from crowdsourcing platforms, such as Humanitarian Open Street Map’s Tasking Server or QCRI’s MicroMappers, can speed up analysis of technical data, including building damage or population estimates.
  • More research is needed on integrating aerial observation and data collection into needs and damage assessments, search and rescue, and other humanitarian functions.
  • The biggest challenges to expanding the use of UAVs are legal and regulatory. […]. Most countries where humanitarians are working do not yet have legal frameworks, meaning that use of UAVs will probably need to be cleared on an ad hoc basis with local authorities. A particular issue is interference with traditional air traffic […].
  • Any use of UAVs by humanitarian actors […] requires clear policies on what information they will share or make public, how long they will store it and how they will secure it. […]. For humanitarians operating UAVs, transparency and engagement will likely be critical for success. Ideally, communities or local authorities would be informed of the timing of flights, the purpose of the mission and the type of data being collected, with the aim of having some kind of informed consent, whether formal or informal.
  • Although UAVs are getting safer, due to parachutes, collision avoidance systems and fail-safe mechanisms, humanitarians must think seriously about liability insurance and its cost implications, particularly for mechanical failure. Due in part to these safety concerns, ultra-light UAVs, such as those under a kilogram, will tend to be more lightly regulated and therefore easier to import & operate.
  • More non-profit or volunteer groups are also emerging, such as the Humanitarian UAV Network, a global volunteer network of operators working for safe operations & standards for humanitarian uses of UAVs.
  • The pressure for humanitarians to adopt this technology [UAVs], or to provide principled justifications for why they do not, will only increase. […]. Until UAVs are much more established in general civilian use, the risks of humanitarians using UAVs in conflict settings are greater than the benefits. The focus therefore should be developing best practices and guidelines for their use in natural disasters, slow-onset emergencies and early recovery.

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In conclusion, the UN brief offers several policy considerations:

  • Focus on using UAVs in natural disasters and avoid use in conflicts.
  • Develop a supportive legal and regulatory framework.
  • Prioritize transparency and community engagement.
  • Ensure principled partnerships.
  • Strengthen the evidence base.
  • Update response mechanisms […] to incorporate potential use of UAVs and to support pilot projects.
  • Support networks and communities of practice. […]. Humanitarian organizations should engage in initiatives like the Humanitarian UAV Network, that aim to develop and promote good practices and guidance and that can serve as advisors and provide surge capacity.

The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) is actively engaged in pursuing these (and other) action items. The Network promotes the safe and responsible use of UAVs in non-conflict settings and is engaged in policy conversations vis-a-vis ethical, legal & regulatory frameworks for the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.  The Network is also bringing UAV experts together with seasoned humanitarian professionals to explore how best to update formal response mechanisms. In addition, UAViators emphasizes the importance of community participation. Finally, the Network carries out research to build a more rigorous evidence base so as to better document the opportunities and challenges of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

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See Also:

  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Live Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • “TripAdvisor” for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]

Live: Crowdsourced Crisis Map of UAV/Aerial Photos & Videos for Disaster Response (Updated)

Update: Crisis Map now includes features to post photos in addition to videos!

The latest version of the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Crisis Map of UAV/aerial photos & videos is now live on the Network’s website. The crowdsourced map already features dozens of aerial videos of recent disasters. Now, users can also post aerial photographs areas. Like the use of social media for emergency management, this new medium—user-generated (aerial) content—can be used by humanitarian organizations to complement their damage assessments and thus improve situational awareness.

UAViators Map

The purpose of this Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) map is not only to provide humanitarian organizations and disaster-affected communities with an online repository of aerial information on disaster damage to augment their situational awareness; this crisis map also serves to raise awareness on how to safely & responsibly use small UAVs for rapid damage assessments. This explains why users who upload new content to the map must confirm that they have read the UAViator‘s Code of Conduct. They also have to confirm that the photos & videos conform to the Network’s mission and that they do not violate privacy or copyrights. In sum, the map seeks to crowdsource both aerial footage and critical thinking for the responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

UAViators Map 4

As noted above, this is the first version of the map, which means several other features are currently in the works. These new features will be rolled out incrementally over the next weeks and months. In the meantime, feel free to suggest any features you’d like to see in the comments section below. Thank you.

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  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • Using UAVs for Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • Using MicroMappers to Make Sense of UAV/Aerial Imagery During Disasters [link]

The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone: Giving Content to an Emerging Concept

Kristin Bergtora, who directs the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies (and sits on the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network, UAViators), just co-authored this important study on the growing role of UAVs or drones in the humanitarian space. Kristin and fellow co-author Kjersti Lohne consider the mainstreaming of UAVs as a technology-transfer from the global battlefield. “Just as drones have rapidly become intrinsic to modern warfare, it appears that they will increasingly find their place as part of the humanitarian governance apparatus.” The co-authors highlight the opportunities that drones offer for humanitarian assistance and explore how the notion of the humanitarian UAV will change humanitarian practices.

CorePhil DSI

Kristin and Kjersti are particularly interested in two types of discourse around the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The first relates to the technical and logistical functions that UAVs might potentially fulfill as humanitarian functions. The second relates to the discourse around ethical uses of UAVs. The co-authors “analyze these two types of discourse” along with “their broader implications for humanitarian action.” The co-authors make the following two assumptions prior to carrying out there analysis. First, technologies change the balance of power (institutional power). Second, “although UAV technology may still be relatively primitive, it will evolve and proliferate as a technological paradigm.” To this end, the authors assume that the use of UAVs will “permeate the humanitarian field, and that the drones will be operated not only by states or intergovernmental actors, but also by NGOs.”

The study recognizes that the concept of the “humanitarian drone” is a useful one for military vendors who are urgently looking for other markets given continuing cuts in the US defense budget. “As the UAV industry tries to influence regulators and politicians […] by promoting the UAV as a humanitarian technology,” the co-authors warn that the humanitarian enterprise “risks becoming an important co-constructor of the UAV industry’s moral-economy narrative.” They stress the need for more research on the political economy of the humanitarian UAV.

That being said, while defense contractors are promoting their large surveillance drones for use in humanitarian settings, “a different group of actors—who might be seen as a new breed of ‘techie humanitarians’—have entered the race. Their aim is to develop small drones to conduct SAR [search and rescue] or to provide data about emergencies, as part of the growing field of crisis mapping.” This “micro-UAV” space is the one promoted by the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), not only for imaging but for multi-sensing and payload delivery. Indeed, as “the functions of UAV technologies evolve from relief-site monitoring to carrying cargo, enabling UAVs to participate more directly in field operations, ‘civil UAV technologies will be able to aid considerably in human relief […].”

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As UAVs continue collecting more information on disasters and the impact of humanitarian assistance, they will “part of the ongoing humanitarian challenge of securing, making sense of and maintaining Big Data, as well as developing processes for leveraging credible and actionable information in a reasonable amount of time. At the same time, the humanitarian enterprise is gradually becoming concerned about the privacy implications of surveillance, and the possible costs of witnessing.” This an area that the Humanitarian UAV Network is very much concerned about, so I hope that Kristen will continue to push for this given that she is also on the Advisory Board of UAViators.

In conclusion, the authors believe that the “focus on weaponized drones fails to capture the transformative potential of humanitarian drones and their possible impact on humanitarian action, and the associated pitfalls.” They also emphasize that “the notion of the humanitarian drone is still an immature concept, forming around an immature technology. It is unclear whether the integration of drones into humanitarian action will be cost-effective, ethical or feasible.” I agree with this but only in part since Kristin and Kjersti do not include small or micro-UAVs in their study. The latter are already being integrated in a cost-effective & ethical manner, which is in line with the Humanitarian UAV Network’s mission.

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More research is needed on the role of small-UAVs in the humanitarian space and in particular on the new actors deploying them: from citizen journalists and local, grassroots communities to international humanitarian organizations & national NGOs. Another area ripe for research is the resulting “Big Data” that is likely to be generated by these new data collection technologies.

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See Also:

  •  Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Debrief: UAV/Drone Search & Rescue Challenge [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search/Rescue [link]
  • Check-List for Flying UAVs in Humanitarian Settings [link]

What Humanitarians Can Learn from Conservation UAVs

I recently joined my fellow National Geographic Emergency Explorer colleague Shah Selbe on his first expedition of SoarOcean, which seeks to leverage low-cost UAVs for Ocean protection. Why did I participate in an expedition that seemingly had nothing to do with humanitarian response? Because the conservation space is well ahead of the humanitarian sector when it comes to using UAVs. To this end, we have a lot to learn from colleagues like Shah and others outside our field. The video below explains this further & provides a great overview of SoarOcean.

And here’s my short amateur aerial video from the expedition:

My goal, by the end of the year, is to join two more expeditions led by members of the Humanitarian UAV Network Advisory Board. Hopefully one of these will be with Drone Adventures (especially now that I’ve been invited to volunteer as “Drone Adventures Ambassador”, possibly the coolest title I will ever have). I’m also hoping to join my colleague Steve from the ShadowView Foundation in one of his team’s future expeditions. His Foundation has extensive experience in the use of UAVs for anti-poaching and wildlife conservation.

In sum, I learned heaps during Shah’s SoarOcean expedition; there’s just no substitute for hands-on learning and onsite tinkering. So I really hope I can join Drone Adventures and ShadowView later this year. In the meantime, big thanks to Shah and his awesome team for a great weekend of flying and learning.

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See Also:

  • Welcome to the Humanitarian UAV Network [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Debrief: UAV/Drone Search & Rescue Challenge [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search/Rescue [link]
  • Check-List for Flying UAVs in Humanitarian Settings [link]

Welcome to the Humanitarian UAV Network

UAViators Logo

The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) is now live. Click here to access and join the network. Advisors include representatives from 3D Robotics, AirDroids, senseFly & DroneAdventures, OpenRelief, ShadowView Foundation, ICT4Peace Foundation, the United Nations and more. The website provides a unique set of resources, including the most comprehensive case study of humanitarian UAV deployments, a directory of organizations engaged in the humanitarian UAV space and a detailed list of references to keep track of ongoing research in this rapidly evolving area. All of these documents along with the network’s Code of Conduct—the only one of it’s kind—are easily accessible here.

UAViators 4 Teams

The UAViators website also includes 8 action-oriented Teams, four of which are displayed above. The Flight Team, for example, includes both new and highly experienced UAV pilots while the Imagery Team comprises members interested in imagery analysis. Other teams include the Camera, Legal and Policy Teams. In addition to this Team page, the site also has a dedicated Operations page to facilitate & coordinate safe and responsible UAV deployments in support of humanitarian efforts. In between deployments, the website’s Global Forum is a place where members share information about relevant news, events and more. One such event, for example, is the upcoming Drone/UAV Search & Rescue Challenge that UAViators is sponsoring.

When first announcing this initiative,  I duly noted that launching such a network will at first raise more questions than answers, but I welcome the challenge and believe that members of UAViators are well placed to facilitate the safe and responsible use of UAVs in a variety of humanitarian contexts.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to colleagues and members of the Advisory Board who provided invaluable feedback and guidance in the lead-up to this launch. The Humanitarian UAV Network is result of collective vision and effort.

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See also:

  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search and Rescue [link]

Humanitarian Response in 2025

I’ve been invited to give a “very provocative talk” on what humanitarian response will look like in 2025 for the annual Global Policy Forum organized by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York. I first explored this question in early 2012 and my colleague Andrej Verity recently wrote up this intriguing piece on the topic, which I highly recommend; intriguing because he focuses a lot on the future of the pre-deployment process, which is often overlooked.

2025

I only have 7 minutes to give my talk so am thinking of leading with one or two of the following ideas−but I’m very interested in getting feedback from iRevolution readers and welcome additional ideas about what 2025 might look like for OCHA.

•  Situational Awareness: damage & needs assessments are instantaneous and 3D Crisis Maps are updated in real-time along with 3W’s information. Global communication networks are now hyper resilient, thus enabling uninterrupted communications after major disasters. More than 90% of the world’s population generates a readable, geo-referenced and multimedia digital footprint, which is used to augment 3D situational awareness; Fully 100% of all news media and citizen journalism content is now on the web and automatically translated & analyzed every second; high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery for 90% of the planet is updated and automatically analyzed every minute; Billions of physical sensors provide feedback loops on transportation, infrastructure, public health, weather-related and environmental dynamics in real-time. Big Data Analytics & advances in predictive modeling enables situational awareness to be predicted, allowing for IDP/refugee flows and disease outbreaks to be anticipated well ahead of any displacement.

•  Operational Response: disaster response is predominately driven by local communities. The real first responders, after all, have always been the disaster-affected communities. In 2025, this grassroots response is highly networked and hyper-tech enabled, thus significantly accelerating and improving the efficiency of self-help and mutual-aid. The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) is no longer a purely virtual network and has local chapters (with flocks of UAVs) in over 100 countries that each contribute to local response efforts. Meanwhile, close to 90% of the world’s population has an augmented-reality Personal Context Assistant (PCA), a wearable device that provides hyper-customized information (drawn in part from Quantified Self data) on urgent needs, available resources and logistics. National humanitarian response organizations have largely replaced the need for external assistance and coordination save for extreme events. International humanitarian organizations increasingly play a financial, certification and accountability role.

•  Early Recovery: There are more 3D printers than 2D printers in 2025. The former are extensively used for rapid reconstruction and post-disaster resilient development using local resources and materials. Mobile-money is automatically disbursed to enable this recovery based on personal insurance & real-time needs assessments. In addition, the Share Economy is truly global, which means that communication, transportation, accommodation and related local services are all readily available in the vast majority of urban areas. During disasters, Share Economy companies play an active role by offering free use of their platforms.

•  Data Access & Privacy: Telecommunications companies, satellite imagery firms and large technology & social media companies have all signed up to the International Data Philanthropy Charter, enabling them to share anonymized emergency data (albeit temporarily) that is directly relevant for humanitarian response. User-generated content is owned by the user who can limit the use of this data along the lines of the Open Paths model.

If you feel like this future is a little too rosy, that’s because I’m thinking of presenting two versions of the future, one that is optimistic and the other less so. The latter would be a world riddled with ad hoc decision-making based on very subjective damage & needs-assessments, highly restrictive data-sharing licenses and even the continued use of PDFs for data dissemination. This less-than pleasant world would also be plagued by data privacy, protection and security challenges. A new digital volunteer group called “Black Hat Humanitarians” rises to prominence and has little patience for humanitarian principles or codes of conduct. In this future world, digital data is collected and shared with no concern for informed consent. In addition, the vast majority of data relevant for saving lives in humanitarian crises remains highly proprietary. Meanwhile, open data that is publicly shared during disasters is used by tech-savvy criminals to further their own ends.

These two future worlds may be extremes but whether we lean towards one or the other will depend in part on enlightened leadership and policymaking. What do you think humanitarian response will look like in 2025? Where am I off and/or making unfounded assumptions? What aspects of the pictures I’m painting are more likely to become reality? What am I completely missing?

Update: Video of presentation available here.

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