Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Humanitarian Studies Initiative and Applied Technologies

Each year, Harvard University’s Harvard Humanitarian Initiative team up with the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University to offer the Humanitarian Studies Initiative. This includes a weekend-long field exercise/simulation:

After spending two weeks in the classroom learning the nuts and bolts of humanitarian work from conducting a rapid health assessment and managing the logistics of a field operation, to understanding human rights law and the drivers of gender-based violence, students discovered how difficult it can be to transfer classroom learning into practice in the field.

For the simulation, students were assigned to a non-governmental organization such as Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders and given responsibility for a task such as shelter or medical services. While spending the damp weekend camping and dining on field rations, the students worked in teams and in partnership with competing agencies to develop a service delivery plan for the refugees, who were played by volunteers.

McGill University is also affiliated with the HSI, having incorporated the exercise into the McGill Humanitarian Studies Initiative.

We’ve blogged about the HSI before at PAXsims, but in this particular case I wanted to flag an interesting paper written by Jennifer Chan in November 2010 (which I’ve only just seen) that examined the integration of ICT and crowdsourcing methods into the simulation:

Information communication technology (ICT) and mapping have revolutionized the way humanitarian actors understand crises and the changes in the environment. Current fieldworkers are beginning to learn the importance of these applied technologies and humanitarian training programs are now, in advance, preparing future humanitarian responders by incorporating ICT, termed here as “applied technology” into the curriculum. In 2010, the Humanitarian Studies Course incorporated applied technologies into the coursework for the second consecutive year. During a three‐day simulation of the humanitarian emergency in Chad/Darfur, ninety students and a team of nine volunteers were able to practice and experience applied technologies. Specifically, students, acting as humanitarian workers, 1) acquired geo coordinates for select locations 2) viewed GIS maps during mock UN headquarter meetings and 3) became end‐users feeding crisis information to the Ushahidi‐HSI platform. Students participated in crowdsourcing crisis information and in GIS activities during the simulated emergency, while learning the traditional skills needed of humanitarian responders.

The goal of this evaluation report is to reflect upon and determine the next steps for the Applied Technology Learning Module and to better understand its impact on participant learning during the 2010 Humanitarian Studies Course. This evaluation concludes that improvements in 1) didactics and preparation 2) integration of crowdsourcing and GIS technology 3) satellite communications and 4) volunteer capacity resulted in a successful educational experience for future humanitarian responders.

The report (which you can download here) is a solid application of evaluation methods to an educational and training program, something that isn’t done often enough with simulation-based training.

Interestingly, the study also says something implicitly about the utility of basic communications modes compared to more sophisticated capabilities, with students ranking simple mobile phones as much more useful than GPS, GIS mapping, or Ushahadi crowd-sourcing. While some of this was probably a function of familiarity and field implementation—goodness knows in real life operations GIS and GPS can be invaluable— it might also sound a cautionary note about an uncritical embrace of new enabling technologies in the field.

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