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Crisis and Media Event – Ayesha Khanna Transcript and Video

March 11, 2011

While every humanitarian crisis inflicts enormous pain and suffering, the media doesn’t give them similar attention and they aren’t covering them still. Why not?

CauseShift and Oxfam International gathered leaders from the humanitarian aid sector together with innovators inside and outside the sector for a special two-hour event in NYC.

To begin the evening, we assembled four different people to share their perspectives. Rejecting the traditional panel approach, we convened what we term a “Conversation Gauntlet”, which is a consecutive series of one-on-one interviews with the same moderator. Here is the first of four conversations:

BRIAN REICH, SVP and Global Editor at Edelman Digital:
Before I start asking you questions, why don’t you introduce yourself and explain what the Hybrid Institute that you run does, and then we’ll launch right into the conversation.

AYESHA KHANNA, Principal at Hybrid Realities: First of all, thank you so much for having me here, Scott and Brian. It’s great to be here with you. The Hybrid Reality Institute is a think/do tank that I founded last year and it’s based here in New York. I’ve been working in technology and innovation strategy for over ten years. What I realized was that we were moving from what we commonly know as the Information Age, where we begin very easily exchanging large amounts of data, to what I think is appropriately deemed the Hybrid Age.

We’re now entering an age where we’re not just using gadgets but we will experience life amongst technology, where technology will proliferate with sensors all around us, when machines become more intelligent, and technology will go back to its original meaning, which was before the Web, which is T-technology with a capital T, which includes all the sciences and biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics, and what will happen is that this age will be full of a lot of disruptions. Some of these disruptions we’ve already seen.

For instance, the music industry has suffered a lot, in ten years. Its revenue is halved. We’ll see something very similar in the publishing industry – just three years after the Kindle came out, Borders declared bankruptcy. We’ll see something similar in the manufacturing industry. We’ll see a lot of these disruptions, and there’s no guide for people telling them how to deal with these technologies that we tend to have adopted very fast. There’s no guide for the social implications or the emotional and psychological implications of these technologies. What the Hybrid Reality Institute does is study these different facets of the hybrid age.

I think it’s apparent that society is very different and changing very rapidly because of the influence of the Internet and technology in all its forms. Because we’re now connected, the severity and the impact that humanitarian crises – whether they are an earthquake or a spread of disease or whatever it is – is much more widely felt, or much more widely appreciated from a global standpoint. But it doesn’t seem to be that the response to humanitarian crises has significantly evolved or changed in the context of this hybrid reality. We are still looking at technology as largely a basic communications delivery tool. We’ve seen some instances where technology has directly resulted in the saving of lives. What do you see as the hybrid reality response to a humanitarian crisis? What is it that we’re not doing that we should be starting with because we have these tools now widely available?

I look at the near future – so some of the things that I’m going to talk about are not completely prevalent now but will be within the next couple of years so it’s good for the crisis community to start thinking about them.

One of these things is the Internet of things. Right now, we’re very dependent on people responding to things, and there’s a kind of slacktivism where you can just express your grief on Twitter, but as you rightly pointed out in your four questions, that doesn’t really translate into response. I think that what translates into response when we are able to gather vast amounts of information, overlay information on each other, and then provide guidance for people – exactly how they should respond.

If there’s a – I’m originally from Pakistan – an earthquake occurs in Pakistan, I’m devastated. What can I do? I can just go on Facebook and call my friends and I’m constantly whining about it and upset about it. But if there were some way to identify that I’m in New York versus being in Lahore or being very close to the earthquake site, which through my phone the crisis NGO should be able to do, then they would be able to guide me on what exactly I should be doing. Whether I should be selling coats – sending clothes – or giving money. I think what we need is to use technology in a much more integrated fashion, to give people very particular things that they can do.

Part of the problem in that discussion is that people look at the technology as the solution. It’s very easy to say and I think everyone knows that technology is not the answer to the question. But that does not seem to have stopped us from putting technology into the role of providing the answer to the question, which we don’t necessarily know how to ask, right? The public doesn’t know the range of options that it needs to provide in response to a humanitarian crisis so they go onto platforms that they’ve been trained or experienced into going onto and whatever answer pops up first seems perfectly reasonable so they go for it. Part of it is certainly a different use of technology, but also part of it is almost a cultural change in the way that technology is seen. What is going to be required for us to do both of those things – to not only use the technology differently, but to look at the technology differently in the context of what we as individuals or we as communities are supposed to be doing.

AYESHA: You know this used to be a big problem. All the years that I was consulting on Wall Street, cultural change was very important. But what I find very interesting in the last couple of years is that when technology works well, we adopt it very quickly now. For instance, if these apps were integrated into Twitter and into Facebook, and what you saw was that everytime you had a hashtag, then you were given a personal message that told you what to do exactly, I think people would very quickly respond to it. I don’t think this is the age where there’s a big lag and there needs to be cultural shift. I think culturally, we are very used to being in a deluge of data and the filtering is the problem over here. But I do think adaptation – adoption is very fact.

If filtering is the need, who ultimately needs to filter? One of the big criticisms that’s coming out now is that Google, for example, has a filter bubble. The technology is so smart – it picks up your papers, it starts to recognize the things that you traditionally go looking for and it provides them more readily. It makes total sense. Except that in all likelihood, you’ve never experienced a humanitarian crisis on the scale that we’re seeing more and more. If you’re stuck in your filter bubble, the technology is not actually going to provide the proper filter to get you the proper information. So what is the solution? Is it another technology or is it a human component? What is the filtering need that isn’t being met?

I think this is where NGOs and the United Nations will continue to be very important actors. But I think the technology that they use is not that sophisticated. Really what we need are mash-ups. We need the video that somebody takes with the geo-spatial mapping from the sensors that are probably going to be increasingly in people’s phones – information’s coming from there – than sensors that are bridges, that otherwise can predict that maybe some humanitarian crisis is going to happen.

All this information is coming and what needs to be done is that very good software engineers need to be hired or be part of the philanthropic projects of a lot of companies like Google. Google, for instance, has committed to giving 1% of its annual revenue to charity. Yeah, that’s good, but honestly I would take 1% of its engineers’ time. I think that would go a very, very long way in intelligently filtering, organizing this information. Remember, people think it’s Internet penetration – Internet penetration is not a problem. Everybody has mobile phones, expect 70%-80% mobile penetration number of these countries, so all the work, all that digital crunching is being done in the cloud, and then it just comes back to your mobile phone.

Two questions and then I’ll let you out of the hot seat. One, it seems to me that people who are really nerdy and spend a lot of time either thinking about humanitarian crisis or about technological development and all of the interesting social ways that it can be used are having this conversation. That’s maybe ten thousand people in the entire world. And then there are billions of people who, up until the point that a major humanitarian crisis emerges, could care less, and then are either overwhelmed by the data or so inexperienced with the types of actions that we need them to take that the response gets muddled.

Is there a way with the engineers, or with the behavior shifting that technology can influence, to prepare people in a constructive way so that if and when a humanitarian crisis evolves it’s not a matter of then training and directing and pointing, but really just turning on the population because they already know what to do? Very much the same way when I was in elementary school, they taught us to stop, drop, and roll. I imagine that if I am ever caught in a fire, “stop, drop, and roll,” would just come naturally to me. Is it possible to pre-ordain in this hybrid reality age a set of behaviors that people will take when it comes up?

Yes, what we’re seeing now is that technology has what is called persuasive capabilities. At Stanford University, Professor BJ Fogg has pioneered this amazing study called “Persuasive Technology”. He studied Facebook and Zynga, which is this amazing company that produces games, and people really become addicted to these games. That’s not to say that’s how we should influence behavior, but there are some basic behavioral psychology that you can study and use technology like a mobile phone.

For instance, if you have an avatar on your mobile phone and it looks kind of like you and it tells you to go to the gym, research has shown you will go to the gym more often than if Oprah Winfrey or somebody else is telling you. It’s very powerful to have technology, and that’s why I mean – it’s the hybrid age – because technology is not just a dumb piece of equipment in your pocket, or a smart phone. You respond emotionally to technology.

Sherry Turkle from MIT has done amazing work on this. You need to take advantage of the fact that we respond emotionally to technology. These crisis organizations need to begin to think of how we can interweave these kind of persuasive technologies in everyday application like Facebook, Twitter, Google or anywhere else. I think we’d find that the CEOs of these companies are quite nerdy, and they’re also very results-based. I was reading, so if you don’t know, Google had an organization called One of the reasons it kind of lost affection from the founders was because, they were, it was very ‘loosey goosey’ and it wasn’t really metrics-based.

That sounds very weird in a humanitarian crisis. You know, I worked in a lot of villages and jails in Pakistan, so I know one thinks the human life is what matters, but at the end of the day, you can now measure success and you can now measure influence, and I think that is a compelling argument to make to these people.

Very quickly, I think there is any number of things that we can do, but there are probably some things we need to stop doing — the things that are standing in the way of actually achieving some kind of different approach or breaking through some barrier. If you had to take one thing that you wanted us to stop doing in the context of responding to a humanitarian crisis, what would be that thing be in order to make other things possible?

This is kind of not a particular criticism of it, but I do think we should stop thinking about the recent social media hype. It has been very useful, but on the other hand, it has made us think that crowdsourcing is the way to achieve a lot of things. And it is, it’s very important, but now we can add another layer on top of it, which is to add censors and other technologies and really, in partnership, so people don’t need to do so many things. You know, that’s a lot of pressure if you’re on the ground and you have to send something and make it make sense, and there’s a lot of information overload. I think what we need is, in the cloud, we need to focus on building our capabilities and the cloud, and that will eventually feed back into humanitarian efforts.

BRIAN: All right, you are off the hot seat. Thank you, Ayesha.


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