Andrew Zolli is Chief Impact Officer at Planet.

Building the Humanitarian Stack


In a crisis, actionable information is the most valuable resource — and often, the scarcest. The ‘fog’ that follows an earthquake or a typhoon, or that is intentionally imposed by parties to a civil conflict, can greatly hamper humanitarian response.

Now, new tools and technologies promise to lift that fog, and make it possible to see, coordinate and respond to such crises in ways never before imagined. A new “humanitarian stack” of data sources, applications and users is emerging, integrating new kinds of data (from satellites, UAVs and citizen journalists), enabling new kinds of analysis (by both human beings and algorithms), and empowering new kinds of constituencies (citizens, volunteers, and others) to participate in humanitarian efforts.

Questions around the humanitarian stack abound: How do we ensure information is accurate? How do we distill useful insights from an overflowing ocean of data? How do we ensure those who need it most get it in a timely way? And how do we minimize its potential for abuse?

In September, 2014, with the support of Humanity United, Planet Labs convened a network of social innovators and front-line relief organizations for a multi-day, deep-dive discussion about using satellite and aerial imagery, open datasets, crowdsourcing, the cloud, mobile devices, machine learning, and related tools to improve humanitarian response efforts worldwide. We convened at the renowned Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, part of Columbia University. Representatives from organizations as diverse as Amnesty International, UNITAR, the World Bank, Amazon, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative participated.

In the fluidly evolving world of digital humanitarianism, no one data set, organization, or approach will predominate. So the goal of the gathering was to identify shared opportunities that could move the sector forward, not just Planet Labs. We explored ideas like open-sourcing feature-identification algorithms for humanitarian response, developing new ways to integrate data from many kinds of sources, undertaking new approaches to harm minimization, and developing a better interoperability framework for private-sector organizations involved in humanitarian efforts. Already several of these ideas have begun to take flight, and we’ve already started creating pilots, prototypes and services based on them. We’ll have more to share on these efforts in the coming months. Watch this space!