NTS Bulletin February 2020

Organisation: NTS, RSIS

Research Themes:
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief
Type: Newsletters
24 February 2020


HADR in the Time of the 4th Industrial Revolution

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

With the dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution (IR) in Southeast Asia, it seems timely to assess the current state of humanitarian affairs in the region and how they may be affected by this significant disruption. Southeast Asia is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, with some of the most devastating global disasters of the 21st century- the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013- having taken place here. Together with climate change and the increased global uncertainty, the region is facing more humanitarian challenges than ever before. As such, the 4th IR and its characteristic advanced information systems and future-oriented technologies could be used to enable the region to further enhance its humanitarian mechanisms.

Artificial intelligence, big data, advanced robotics and blockchain- these are all hallmarks of the 4th Industrial Revolution, as well as technologies that the ASEAN member-states are extremely eager to adopt. Particularly useful for the humanitarian sector in the region, 4th IR technologies can be used to lessen the effects of humanitarian disasters as well as aid in recovery. Mobile networks can allow access to life-saving information or even content for educating children without access to formal systems. They can also be used to better coordinate relief efforts and recovery efforts. For example, Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) has collaborated with Jakarta-based company Qlue to use their app to allow people on the ground to report and map city damage during the floods in Bima and Nusa Tenggara, which were then followed up by officials. This sped up the recovery period significantly. However, this relies heavily on internet and mobile access-access which may not always be available.

One of the biggest proponents of 4th IR technologies are, perhaps not unsurprisingly, militaries. Un- like other regions, militaries in Southeast Asia form the backbone of state response to humanitarian disasters. As seen by the 2019 expansion of the partnership be- tween Singapore’s Defence, Sci- ence and Technology Agency and the US Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre to include cooperation in developing AI capability to support HADR operations, they are also increasingly eager to adopt these new possibilities.

On the other hand, this adoption of advanced information systems and technologies must be explored with caution. With the advances in data management, data sharing across space and time has become easier. This has also made data gathering and analysis easier for those who work in HADR, by nature a trans-boundary field. While useful in the humanitarian context, this gathered data is also likely to contain sensitive and strategically-valuable    information, which could be used by actors who are not bound by humanitarian principles.

The 2018 discovery of the vulnerabilities of Red Rose, a popular aid distribution system used by several INGOs including Oxfam, is a stark reminder of the possibilities of data leakage of al- ready-vulnerable populations. In this age of constant data breaches, how certain are humanitarian organisations that they are able to keep this valuable data safe in the face of actors actively attempting to exploit vulnerabilities in their systems?

The 4th IR has the power to disrupt every area of human life- from society to the economy. Breathing life into what was formerly only theoretical, its technologies also have the potential to improve the lives of the millions affected by humanitarian disasters. However, humanitarian actors must take care not to adopt advanced tech- nologies wholescale without thorough consideration of its potential implications. If used strategically and carefully, the age of the 4th Industrial Revolution will indeed prove a boon for the HADR sector.