On Emergencies, Wifi, Gender and Social Dynamics

Syrian refugees get online at a camp on Chios Island, Greece.  (NetHope photo)


“It’s no longer a luxury. This is serious. It’s really a social justice issue. It’s a 21st century civil rights issue.” – Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner on the Digital Divide

Once upon a time, there was no connectivity in disasters and humanitarian emergencies.  The Internet was not really regarded as an essential service in the midst of crisis.  Emergency workers communicated predominately through push-to-talk radio.  Victims of disasters and emergencies might line up for blocks to use a payphone to all friends and family.


Fast forward to today.  As put forward by the CDAC Network, and others “communication is aid.”  The ability to communicate and share information is seen as a vital humanitarian service on equal footing with food, shelter, medical care and other essential human needs.  The UN OCHA paper Humanitarianism in the Network Age from 2014 was a major milestone in getting recognition of this concept.  Today, in 2017, it is nearly impossible to go to any humanitarian technology conference and not hear this message as a core topic of concern to the crisis technology community.

With this pivot, we as emergency technologists are no longer being asked to just connect the first responders, government workers, and NGO staff that comprise the professional response.  To be sure, I think this will always be a part of our core mission, but the harder lift for us now is to connect the disaster or crises affected population.  We aren’t just talking about a few dozen or a few hundred aid workers – but now we’re talking about true mass communication.  How big?  Our recent work in Europe has seen us provide connectivity to over 600,000+ unique devices as a part of the Syrian refugee response.

OSI Layer 8 and 9

The responsibilities we have to face when connecting a mass population of vulnerable people are substantial, and I don’t think we (the entire community in the broadest sense) have really thought through what our ethical requirements are in this brave new world.  To be sure, I have spent several years advocating for security, data protection and privacy for affected populations – and I’ll probably write more than a few more blog articles on those topics in the months and years ahead.  But today I wanted to think about the next challenges on the radar.

When I was learning network engineering, one of the basic things we have to learn is the OSI Model – it’s a part of every basic data communications class.  The seven layers describe different technical boundaries of a communication system – from the lowest, physical (layer 1) elements, to the highest elements of an application (layer 7).  In learning the OSI model, you quickly learn that there are the “unofficial” layers 8 and 9 – money and people.  It’s the latter that I want to focus on now.

We have learned that connectivity is a social force in an emergency.  During Hurricane Sandy in the United States, people would migrate to seek wifi access and power to recharge their mobile phones.  In Europe, Syrian refugees wanted the Internet so badly that they’d literally stop a riot in the camp so our teams could work.  The ability to get online (or lack thereof) has social ramifications.  There is a human reality in play, here.

Except no network engineering class I’m aware of ever teaches that.  And I’ve taken plenty!  You can take all the CCIE bootcamps you want, learn the ins and outs of routing, switching, etc, but as network engineers, our view of the world is really driven by making the bits and bytes get to where they need to go.  Generally speaking we don’t care what those bits represent.

I would argue that when we are trying to connect a population in crisis, we need to care about those social dynamics, at least a little bit.  We need to care about what our networks mean for people on the ground.

The Gender Divide

What does this look like?  Take gender for example.

In the refugee camps in Europe, it is not uncommon for there to be gender segregation.  Women and children in one part of the camp, men in another. Unaccompanied children or other especially vulnerable people in still another part of the camp where they can have greater security.  In many of these communities, there is a great disparity between men and women when it comes to smartphone access.  For example, on one crisis we are looking at, the ratio is 8 men with phones to every 1 woman who has a phone.

So as a network engineer in a refugee camp, if you decide to merely put connectivity into the most obvious places where you see people congregate, you will most likely connect the men disproportionately, because as one researcher recently told me, “Public spaces are male.”  It takes conscious thought and intention to make sure that everybody gets the opportunity to benefit from the connection and information that Internet access can bring.

At the same time, I’m not a sociologist or anthropologist.  I have exactly zero professional training on gender-in-tech issues.  I also think that there may be some ethical issues when a third party (us) designs a network to influence the social dynamics of a crisis affected population without the express consent and partnership of the agency who has primary authority of that facility.  The social and human reality on the ground is really the responsibility of the aid organizations running that facility, and the crisis affected population themselves.  Getting it wrong can be damaging and erode trust in the response community.

A special area for vulnerable people at a refugee intake facility. Chios island, Greece. How do we ensure the most vulnerable have access too?

That said, I think we can at least bring the conversation to the table.  These are the questions I’m starting to ask myself in the early stages of network design…

  1.  Who are the people that need to be connected?
  2. What social/cultural differences are there between people when it comes to access to endpoints?  Do some ethnic/gender groups tend to have more devices than others?
  3. What gender differences are there in the facility (or is it quite well integrated?)
  4. Consent and informational messages should be in the languages that are understood by the population – what languages predominate?
  5. Are there special populations or especially vulnerable people who could greatly benefit from access who might be otherwise overlooked?

These are questions we should answer in partnership with the people who are running the refugee camp, or the evacuation center – the people who can best tell us about the human element and articulate priorities.

The digital divide is a real issue across many societies.  But in a crisis, the digital divide can complicate who gets access to information and the ability to communicate.  In my opinion, if communications is aid, we owe it to disaster-affected populations to make sure that as much as possible, everybody has a chance to realize the benefit of information and communication that the Internet brings without bias or favor to any group.  Every individual life has worth and dignity, and as network engineers who are delivering humanitarian aid with our connectivity, our responsibility is to make sure that is reflected in our technical designs and implementation.


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