Why the Crisis Mapping Community Needs 'People Protection Standards 1.0'

Response by the Satellite Sentinel Project Team at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to Recent Comments Concerning the Global Brief Article Entitled: Crisis Mapping Needs an Ethical Compass

When Nathaniel Raymond, Caitlin Howarth, and Jonathan Hutson wrote our argument for the development of comprehensive ethical and technical standards for the crisis mapping community, we were aware of last year's meeting hosted by World Vision in Geneva and the 2010 meeting in Phnom Penh hosted by Oxfam Australia on Early Warning for Protection. It is because of these various meetings, papers, working groups, and blog posts about issues related to the responsible use of information communication technologies (ICT) for disaster early warning, civilian protection, mass atrocity documentation, and humanitarian response that we wrote our article.

These efforts are laudable, much needed, and constructive. They are also by themselves insufficient to address the challenges that our field and those we seek to assist face as a result of the work we all do. While important initial steps, the meetings, protocols, and blog posts regarding these issues do not create a comprehensive code of ethics and technical standards by themselves. The issue is not whether there have been meetings or working groups. The issue is whether the crisis mapping community will decide to self-regulate in a proactive way before serious lapses by any of us put civilians in jeopardy.

Our article should not be read as an attack on any organization or individual. Instead, it is a call to action for every individual, agency and group using ICTs to protect human security and realize human rights to work together with one common purpose: Ensuring that we do no harm as we seek to do good.

Some responses to our article have made much of the development of data protection standards. We endorse both the steps taken in this area and the steps proposed. However, data protection standards are but one component of the broader architecture of professionalism and accountability we believe is currently absent from the sector we collectively inhabit and shape.

What is urgently required most of all are people protection standards which include but also transcend how we collect, secure, and release data obtained through the use of ICTs during disaster and related settings. Through our experiences monitoring civilian populations in Sudan by satellite over the past 14 months, we have encountered firsthand the critical lack of doctrine, training, and protocols available to help us ensure that we do not inadvertently cause harm to those we aim to assist.

The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), like all of our colleagues in the crisis mapping community, has had to learn as we go and invent the procedures and capacities we need to do our jobs as we are doing them. In our exhaustive review of the literature in this field we have found no body of work that adequately addresses our community's need for binding ethical guidance. The current paradigm is not sustainable for any of us, operationally sound, nor safe for those on-the-ground.

We, each one of us, can and must do better together, and we must do it now. No one group, individual or approach seeking to protect civilians affected by conflict and crisis using a variety of technologies has a monopoly on the answers, let alone has identified the vast universe of possible questions. All of us face the same challenges and will suffer the same consequences collectively from our individual successes and failures alike.

Now is a time where responsible leadership and respectful cooperation is required from those of us who seek to apply technology, virtual communities and new networks of individuals to the protection of civilians. The following steps outlined below are a course of action we call on all of our colleagues to endorse and implement together:

1. We will seek to convene a diverse and inclusive meeting of stakeholders from across the crisis mapping community in 2012 to articulate a process for developing a comprehensive and binding code of ethics and technical standards for our field.

2. We will immediately form an ethics and standards task force that is representative of the multiple individuals, communities, and groups that contribute to our field.

3. We will seek out and convene experts from other, related disciplines such as ethicists in the field of human subjects research, the international humanitarian law community, and other professions to advise us in this process and share lessons learned from other, similar efforts in different contexts.

4. We will commit to ensuring that the input and voices of those we seek to assist are enfranchised as we define and carry out this enterprise.

The proposed steps above are urgently and inevitably required if we are to mature as a sector, regardless of whether we engage in this work as paid professionals or self-selecting volunteers. None of us can do our work alone. It is time we take our next major step to grow together as a field with a shared mission. To do so, we must forge an agreed legal, ethical, and technical foundation that is enforceable, teachable, and scalable. Let's be clear: This is a daunting challenge but one we will successfully surmount only if we face it together.

-The Satellite Sentinel Project operations team at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative:

N. Raymond, B. Davies, I. Baker, B. Card, B. Wang, Z. Achkar, J. Heck, L. Capelo, S. Bane, C. Howarth, S. Juntenen