Digital Specialist for Programs
Digital Specialist for Programs
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SS: Hello and welcome to Lørn. My name is Silvija Seres and the topic today is humanitarian technology or tech for good. My guest is Giulio Coppi. Giulio is digital specialist for programs at the Norwegian refugee council, Flyktninghjelpen. Welcome.GC: Thank you.
SS: We spoke with some of your colleagues about some of your projects and I became so fascinated by the scale and need for what you're doing which is why we really want to talk to you as well. We'll talk about what the main issues are when it comes to providing technology to people who're desperate in areas in their lives and how do we do it the best possible way. But firstly, who are you?
GC: My background is not in engineering or science. I got a legal background. I started working last year as a digital specialist and this was the tipping point of a change that led me from field operations in humanitarian fields to actually trying to understand how we can use technology to empower that change in people's life. This is what consumes most of my time right now, to understand what technology is out there and how we can use it.
SS: You work full time for the Norwegian refugee council?
GC: Yes, I'm based in Oslo, and I work full time, and I travel quite a lot.
SS: Your family is here as well?
SS: When you talk about travelling for the Norwegian refugee council I assume that doesn't mean Italy, but Africa and where travel finds you?
GC: This is the fascinating part of my job. I get to travel a little bit everywhere. Field operations, but also last December I was in New York organising a humanitarian blockchain summit. I get the best of both options.
SS: You have to say two sentences about the humanitarian blockchain summit.
GC: It's a gathering that started two years ago when I was working at university (??), and blockchain was distributed through technology and became a boom. Everybody started talking about it, even in the humanitarian sector. My focus is on emergency technology and we started doing workshops, and it became clear that it was a need for broader opportunities to discuss the technology because no one understood what it was about. We started putting people together and created a summit. Last year was the second one. I'm not sure if it's going to happen again, now we think it's time to string a line about emergency technology in the daily discussion instead of putting them individually under the spotlight. It's basically an opportunity to bring those actors that actually are something in this field, together and let them talk to each other.
SS: Why is blockchain interesting for a humanitarian organisations?
GC: For two reasons. The first is because it could be misused, so the ethical side. The risks and pitfalls, and the possibility of doing harm through the new technology.
SS: By financing things in a non transparent way? Cryptocurrency?
GC: It could be exposing users to danger that they don't understand like flock tutions and crypto currency or being investigated by financial actors if you start using tokens. It could also be the
fact that data is immutable, so what about sensitive information about vulnerable populations. What if it's immutable in a chain or what if the encryption isn't strong enough? And basically you allow everyone to see what everyone else is doing.
SS: At the same time it could be the vehicle of choice for providing people with an ID.
GC: This is one of the paths that we're exploring. Even though it’s clear that personal information should not be on that kind of technology, that kind of technology seems to be one of the ways that we can have standards to connect different actors in this field. This is one of the projects that's funded by Innovation Norway. It's for Oslo based agencies working on this. How can we make sure that people without an identity can have access to services without having to register everytime and how can we give them a dignified identification system.
SS: I love the way you explain what you're doing, and I'm going to read it out loud and ask some questions. How does a lawyer get into, not only humanitarian work, but humanitarian technology work? You said I realised that we could not provide the best assistance if we're not using the most appropriate solutions. The more I dig in to the matter, the more I realise that most of the traditional reasons given for not innovating enough, not enough money, not enough time, not a priority- it's just pure excuses. So little by little, year by year, I made this more of my main area of my engagement. In my mind you're just a fixer, a really good fixer. This is how innovation happens. You see the problem and think these excuses are not good enough, we could do better. Two of the areas that you've worked in in the Norwegian refugee council when it comes to applications of technology, we've mentioned ID, and you've something called Smart RRM, which is rapid response mechanism. Could say something about it?
GC: Rapid response mechanism is one of the activities we do in the field and in certain countries where we do have needs related to rapid onset crisis. We've teams that are ready for deployment to go and assess what happened whenever humanitarian problems emerge. There is a mass displacement, we need to quickly set up a team that goes into the assessment and see how the people are doing and how the whole community is coping with the conflict, what are the needs and how can we answer those needs. This is usually an interagery agency effort. Multiple agencies try to work together and it's several layers. It's an information management problem, a logical problem and a corporation problem. There’s multiple challenges. The idea is to go from a silo, isolated approach to using digital and speed up the process, make it smoother and more transparent.
SS: This could be everything from rolling out networks in refugee camps to better and faster access to drugs or am I thinking too broadly?
GC: You’re thinking broadly, but this is less related to the crisis response and more to actually the daily management of this kind of operation. In crisis response is about making sure we know when something is happening based on our system. How do we make sure that the right people recieve the right information, then we could do a follow up to verify the alert. Then we can gather enough information to set up teams and the teams of the right people, so we don’t expose people to danger without reason. How do we make sure that they take the best journey to get there, and to make sure that the data that they gather gets to those who have to make the call to what kind of assistance they need to get there as quickly as possible. How do we make this transparent for the community to see what’s happening and how we’re using funds and resources.
SS: To me this a good example of something else you said which is the role of humanitarians in shaping emerging technology is interesting, you’re moving from being a passive user to a active or demanding client. Which is driving development in this sector. You’re doing it with two aspects. I think you’re concept of digital harm is also very important because my friends in Silicon Valley and my friends technologists in Norway, people who are technologists first are a bit too optimistic about all aspects of their technology. We are so focused on efficiency that we forget that you can multiply the positive effect, but also multiply the negative effect. It’s about thinking about the negative effect in advances, it could’ve helped us with the Cambridge Analytica and many other things that we’re dealing with now. How do you talk about the concept of digital harm in your world and connect people around it in a positive way?
GC: It’s increasingly easy unfortunately because people are more and more aware, and acknowledging that there’s a problem. It’s still hard to make organisations and tech people understand the contribution that humanitarian actors can bring to the table. We’re still seeing a kind of media gig and an easy PR exercise to deploy technology and emerging cool tools and technologies to the field and the good. We’re trying to change this narrative in a way that we can be helpful in shaping technologies because we know the risk that comes with deploying these kinds of technologies once they’re formed. And how hard it is to change something once it’s fully developed. Once a tool is shaped there’s hardly any chance that you can go back to the drawing board and say “we screwed it up. This is killing people and we need to go back and change it.” It’s too late, now it’s out there and we have to deal with the damage. What we’re trying to do is we can help you from day 1 to crash test your solutions and to tell you the chain of reaction that will lead to negative impacts. This is the kind of exercise moving from passive customers to actively engaging with tech companies.
SS: That’s a side of our digital identity project as well. You say this is an area where Norway has one of the most solid systems, this is a great project financed by Innovation Norway, Red Cross, Redd Barna, Norwegian church aid and the Refugee council are collaborating. It’s providing respectful ID for people without ID for receiving help, but also for reconnecting. You say we need to think about the secondary effects and are you able to collaborate with this project in a way that does this kind of thinking?
GC: 90 percent of what we do is trying to understand where the hype is and where the concrete opportunity is. Then, the 10 per cent is how to use that concrete opportunity in an ethical way and a way that’s effective. It’s not for the sake of giving people registration cards, it’s for the sake of avoiding that people have to register 20 000 times, and then forcing them to do the same process with someone else or at the same time. It’s to give them their identity, which is their dignity, and their individual personality. Owning them as NGO or organisations without them having any agencies on those data, we want them to be the owners. That comes with a responsibility, and sometimes we need to take the responsibility when people ask. This is a complicated matter, how do you allow them to be the owners and allow them to give them the responsibility back to you if they feel threatened? It’s a thin line.
SS: I ask you about recommended reading and I love your answer. You say “with the speed of technology, by the time a book comes out it’s already outdated”. You wrote a chapter on tech in urban crisis in response 4 years ago and the whole book is still ongoing.
GC: It’s still in the wild.
SS: It is still being reviewed perhaps by people who have less practical experience than you do.
GC: That makes it easier so I have less comments. That’s a problem beauce then your publication is hostage to something else that has a different pace. You have a lot of academic publications and papers that often come out. Social media is an excellent way, I use it a lot, because a lot of what’s published is out there. I wouldn’t say exactly where to find one single source, its multiple sources. This is one of the problems. We’re trying to strengthen the relationship with the academic institutions to have more humanitarian focus science. We need more evidence based analysis on technology. Right now there’s not a lot of data.
SS: I ask you for a quote? “The best way to predict the future is to create it” you wrote.
GC: I didn’t want to massacre the quote because it’s just too good. My boss was travelling and she saw it written somewhere and she posted in, I thought this is exactly what we’re after. We don’t want to just predict the future, we want to understand what’s coming. We want to be the one that helps shape it in the real future.
SS: If there’s one thing people have to remember from our conversation?
GC: We’re open to discuss with any tech partner that wants to develop technology. You want to develop the next tool for good, the next solution, come and talk to us.
SS: As the Refugee council?
GC: Everyone. It could be us or one of our partners on this platform. All humanitarians. I’m speaking for the whole sector. The Norwegian refugee council is very open, but others are as well. Come talk to us. We want partners and need to develop it together. The new technologies and emerging technologies are not owned by one person. All of the technologies that are distributed are unsustainable in one organization, it needs to be the result of a collective effort. We’re there to help.
SS: There’s probably no better taker of technology than what you are. Giulio Coppi, from the Norwegian refugee council, thank you for coming to Lørn and for teaching us about how to apply technology that does good in the long term.
GC: Thank you.
SS: Thank you for listening.
What are you doing at work?
My role is to help field operations at the Norwegian Refugee Council engage in an ambitious digital transformation process, with the objective to become the lead organization in using data and tech to assist populations displaced by conflict.
What are the most important concepts in your technology?
The progress done in mixing machine learning and geodata is just mind blowing. We are also extremely involved in exploring the concept of selfs-overeign identity as proposed by those pushing for decentralized governance systems.
Why is it exciting?
The new role that humanitarians can play in shaping emerging technologies. We are moving from being passive users, to actually contributing in advancing the sector.
What do you think are the most interesting controversies?
The struggle to define the emerging concept of digital harm, and identify appropriate mitigating measures that do not cripple our efforts in engaging with these technologies.
Your own favourite projects in your technology?
I am especially attached to one of our ongoing initiatives – Smart RRM - aimed at digitizing the Rapid Response Mechanism, those who provide first response to onset crises.
Your other favourite examples of your technology internationally and nationally?
I like how UNICEF is leading the way when it comes to exploring blockchain tech for innovating governance strategies. I also like how the Red Cross is exploring Islamic financing to introduce bond-like systems in traditional humanitarian activities, such as water and sanitation.
What do we do particularly well in Norway?
Norway is extremely engaged in exploring distributed ledger technologies, but more broadly one of the main focuses is on digital identity. Unsurprisingly, Norway has one of the most solid systems, but there is still a lot to learn in how to make these strategies resilient to crises, and flexible to adapting to changing demographics and migratory phenomena.
A favourite future quote?
The best way to predict the future is to create it.
Most important takeaway from our conversation?
Humanitarians need tech partners just as much as tech companies need us. If there’s any hope for a future of ethical and positive technology, it goes through learning how to design for the most complex scenarios and the most vulnerable users.