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Putting the power of AI into local hands

When it comes to managing a crisis, timing is everything. Getting ahead of a disaster through predictions, early warning systems or receiving timely and accurate information about the impact of a crisis can make all the difference to hundreds of lives. That’s why the humanitarian sector is increasingly promoting anticipatory action as a key way to reduce humanitarian needs. One of the emerging tools at the heart of this change is artificial intelligence (AI).

In 2021, a World Bank analysis of AI innovation in disaster risk management, highlighted that AI is being used for a wide range of tasks including vulnerability mapping, modelling population movement, predicting risks and supporting damage assessment. These tools have unprecedented potential to equip both responders and communities affected by crises with the timely and relevant information they need to make smarter decisions.

But deploying humanitarian AI presents several challenges – some of these, such as the risks of data bias, threats to privacy and poor interpretability of models, are common to all high-stakes domains, from medicine to social services. Others, such as the lack of accountability and the danger of reinforcing old power dynamics between international and local actors pose a unique threat.

The risks posed by AI are in direct opposition to the Core Humanitarian Standard, and also undermine sector commitments to give more agency to local organisations. An analysis of predictive analytics in the humanitarian sector showed that these tools are mostly used by large international agencies or industry. Our own research into existing AI tools for humanitarian action found that even when AI models are trained using locally generated data or insights, less than one third are built to be used by local organisations or crisis-affected populations.

"Unsurprisingly, AI tools are rarely designed or developed with the participation of locals on the ground who would be impacted by them. This puts communities at risk."

Unsurprisingly, AI tools are rarely designed or developed with the participation of locals on the ground who would be impacted by them. This puts communities at risk – AI models are notoriously bad at transferring to a new context. If they are built by teams thousands of miles away without meaningful local input, they are likely to miss out relevant insights about which problems to address, what data could prove useful and how these technologies should be used.

The solution to this challenge lies in building locally developed and locally-owned humanitarian AI, using participatory AI methodologies. Tools should be created that harness the collective intelligence of crisis-affected communities, for use by local organisations and communities who are typically the first responders to any crisis.

With a grant from the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub, Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design and the International Federation of the Red Cross & Crescent Societies, recently tested out this new approach, developing two new tools in Nepal and Cameroon to improve frontline crisis response. This project included working with communities to build new, more diverse data sets on which to train AI models – helping to minimise the risk of biased data. It also meant working with communities and frontline responders to agree how the tools would be evaluated – ensuring the AI model was optimised for the outcomes that mattered to them. In addition, communities were involved in refining the AI models during the development phase. As a result of community workshops in Nepal, ethnicity was removed as one of the model inputs; while in Cameroon, Red Cross volunteers identified a blindspot with the way the model worked.

Although challenging, projects like this one prove that it is possible to build local AI with local data, local infrastructure and local talent. And that it is possible to build AI that responds to local priorities and values. In short, taking a participatory AI approach that foregrounds local context and affected communities, can help create more robust and socially acceptable AI tools.

Making inclusive AI a mainstream practice rather than an experimental one-off will require a shift across the sector from funders, agencies and tech innovators. Investing in the right technical skills at a local level is of course an obvious starting point.

In addition, we need technologists everywhere to develop AI models that work in resource- constrained, data-scarce settings (which is the reality for most countries facing humanitarian crises) rather than building large, supervised data-hungry models.

We need humanitarian funders to invest in a coordinated approach to filling data gaps, and build open datasets that are important to the operations of local humanitarian responders and communities, not just the big agencies. And we really need to see more efforts to design AI tools with the participation and oversight of crisis-affected communities. To achieve this, it will be critical to upskill community engagement teams to become participatory AI practitioners – and develop the skills and tools that can help bridge between technologists and local communities.

Changing the prevailing logic of humanitarian tech development won't be easy, but what if every agency or funder simply started asking the question: “How will affected communities participate in the design and oversight of this technology?” This is surely the first move in creating humanitarian AI that is truly intelligent.


Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach

Director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

The Centre for Collective Intelligence Design explores how human and machine intelligence can be combined to develop innovative solutions to social challenges

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Aleks Berditchevskaia

Aleks Berditchevskaia

Aleks Berditchevskaia

Principal Researcher, Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

Aleks Berditchevskaia is the Principal Researcher at Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design.

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