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On 25 March 2014, The ICT4Peace Foundation was invited to make a presentation at The Crisis Management Centre (KMZ) of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs on big data and social media’s role and relevance in crisis management, with a special focus on emergency and crisis response from a governmental perspective.

The Foundation’s presentation, made by Sanjana Hattotuwa, focussed on how big and often open data already in the public domain could in most cases give digital smoke signals around crises just after, or sometimes, just before they occurred, and moreover, help in relief and response efforts as well. Sanjana gave examples from the developed world, but also from countries and regions that had less developed web architectures, but comparably, if not more developed mobile web frameworks and smartphone usage patterns. Speaking to the growth of digital humanitarians and a global volunteer and technical community, with examples from the Philippines and elsewhere, Sanjana flagged key concerns around the use of big data, including algorithmic bias and importantly, the governance and rights framework around this data, which could in some cases place communities at greater risk. Given Switzerland’s commitment to human rights, Sanjana introduced the need to critically embrace the power, reach and potential of new and social media, and at the same time, develop internal capacities to ensure veracity and operational effectiveness wasn’t hostage to the volume and variety of data streams.

Contributing to the ensuing discussion, former Ambassador and President of the ICT4Peace Foundation, Daniel Stauffacher, noted how the UN system itself had changed since Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 to more fully embrace social and new media, and how Switzerland’s funding, inter alia, had directly contributed to efforts around, for example, the population and updating of the vital Common Operational Datasets around UN member states, through the good offices of OCHA.

The discussions also covered the use of cartography and data visualisation to concrete examples of how social and new media could aid specific challenges faced by the Ministry.