Can Drones And 3-D Printers Save Lives? Emerging Technology Choices in Humanitarian Response

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

With these words, Microsoft founder Bill Gates helps frame an important moment for the humanitarian response community. Emerging technologies with a tremendous potential to dramatically decrease loss of life in a disaster scenario are on the visible but still far horizon. They show promise but not ready for pragmatic wide-scale use. How do we heed the advice of Mr. Gates and act today to enable the major leaps of the next decade that will save hundreds of thousands of lives?

Reflecting on the 2014 Ebola outbreak response can start the conversation. Mobile phones and cellular networks were readily accessible to Ebola responders. Their potential as a powerful, emerged technical tool to track and trace the outbreak and response were well documented and understood. However, phones in the hands of first responders and affected population did not ensure critical information got to organizers fast enough to get ahead of the outbreak in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone.

A number of factors contributed to the technology inefficiency in ebola response. Various response groups were using different information systems which meant they could not collaborate or share information easily. No legal partnership agreements on emergency protocol for telecommunication companies were in place, which meant caller data which could be used to track the outbreak was not released. A lack of basic reporting infrastructure at health clinics resulted in underreported or incomplete information of the situation. The 2014 Ebola episode demonstrated the impact of advanced technology in emergency response is only as good as the foundational systemic pieces focused on prevention, preparedness and local capacities.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent have been leading a worldwide discussion on how we leverage emerging tech to strengthen community resilience in their Global Dialogue on Emerging Technology for Emerging Needs. Michele Lynch is a lead on the initiative for the Red Cross which has engaged local, national and global stakeholders. “Futurists and consumers agree that emerging tools like 3-D printers, augmented reality software, biometric scanners, robots, unmanned aerial vehicles and wearable devices are sparking another technology revolution” Lynch states. “Preparing for their arrival in the marketplace will help to mitigate potential disruption and increase acceptance, demand, and usage, in everyday life and in disaster preparedness, response and rebuilding”.

To further explore the emerging technology and humanitarian response landscape, we spoke with Lynch, her colleagues, and others in the humanitarian response field and focused in on two emerging technologies: drones…

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