The interconnectedness of the Earth system makes it impossible to draw a confined boundary around the impacts of the issues plaguing us, their adaptations, and vulnerability. Essentially, what I am saying is merging the anthropology of technology with that of the social in order to combat these growing global threats. Unfortunately, as the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme events affecting populations are on the rise, the humanitarian aid community is stretched thin in the face of multiple complex emergencies and protracted challenges around the world. In such a context, one question is certainly worth exploring: How can we attain a better understanding of the effects of the global threats on human populations? The answer to this question will help fill some of the informational gaps.
TANs 2.0: Upgrading an old policy solution
A part of the answer could be found in an older idea combined with newer technological capabilities.
For instance, Transnational Advocacy Networks (TANs) enabled by newer monitoring technologies that can track human migrations in near real-time, might help soften the harsher effects of climate change on human populations. TANs often include international and domestic NGOs, research organizations, social movements, foundations, or branches of governments.
Information exchange—the ability to produce timely, granular data for decision making—is one of the main assets of TANs. Written in the 1990s, the original TAN research literature did not consider modern information technology, beyond an occasional reference to fax machines, email, and cheaper air travel. This of course is a reflection of the time it was written, right at the cusp of the digital revolution. Today, mobile phones – about 7 billion in all have created capabilities which are revolutionizing how we interact within the fabric our society in more ways than one. Truly, mobile phones, social media, and open-sourced data have empowered crisis mappers and digital humanitarians to offer near real-time analysis and augment situational awareness for first responders in the field. Take, for example, UNOCHA’s Digital Humanitarian Network, a collaboration of volunteer and technical communities, and the Humanitarian Data Exchange (also pioneered by UNOHCA), an open-source web repository of the latest data being crunched by volunteer organizations, researchers, software developers, and other so-called crises mappers. Such networks have facilitated collaborations between digital and on the ground humanitarians, especially in improving the Ebola response.
The eyes in the sky: Accessible and Advanced Satellites
Another technology now available to TAN organizations is commercial, high-resolution remote sensing satellites. Since the millennium, the number, technical capability, and regulatory capacity of commercial high-resolution satellites has expanded exponentially. Besides optical precision, another important dimension of remote sensing is “temporal resolution” or “revisit frequency,” which refers to the length of time between a satellite or constellation of satellites’ revisit to the same spot on Earth.
Currently, at least four commercial satellite firms are developing constellations of remote sensing “CubeSats,” smaller desk-sized satellites. Given its deep pockets and technical capability, Google’s Skybox is probably the most likely to succeed. Although its spatial resolution is less than DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3, its revisit frequency is measured in hours, as it shifts one satellite to the next in the constellation or “flock” in orbit. It also offers remarkable high-definition video from space. Another company, Planet Labs, is today deploying a constellation of extremely small satellites called “doves.” By the end of the year, a constellation of about 100 doves will scan the entire planet every 24-hours, emphasizing a democratizing access to up-to-date satellite imagery available to journalists and NGOs around the world. THAT is good news for TANs, but the inherent danger that lays within-exploitation of such capabilities-is very real.
The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) provides an example of an evolving research agenda on the tools, methods, standards, and ethics around the use of such technologies for early warning and documentation of mass atrocities. The initiative is an exquisite example of how TANs using advanced civilian-sector technologies could cover some of the information gaps in the effort to monitor the onslaught of these global threats. This would provide additional tools and aid efforts to access data that is traditionally associated with climate change – population movements, water exploration, and the impact of climate change on local environments.
It’s worth asking if lessons can be learned from such contexts to inform what is possible in understanding and dealing with climate-induced displacement. One key development is the Nansen Initiative, a state-led, bottom up consultative process that brings together states, academic institutions, and civil society to “build consensus on the development of a protection agenda addressing the needs of people displaced across international borders by natural hazards, including the effects of climate change.”Technology creates greater awareness in learning how to tackle the glaring global threats through political and informational contributions to overcome normative and operational gaps in this field. But how that affects policy is less well understood. Future analyses must address this question.
Given the explosive growth in data, it seems to us that the ability to know about human population displacements, even at early onset, will continue to grow. Planet Lab’s “flock of doves” will achieve its goal of complete global coverage in 24-hours by 2016. On another front, growth in global mobile phone penetration will continue but also shift to Internet enabled 3G and 4G phones in the global south. As a result, TANs ability to monitor events in near real-time will continue to grow. Yet knowing about a problem does not at all guarantee that something will be done about it, as the larger climate change debate attests. What is needed is greater political will. This is where the greater challenge lays. Data and TANs help clarify the nature of the problem faced by populations facing the extraordinary challenges presented by climate change. Perhaps information can fuel political will.