With humanitarian crises among the biggest challenges the world faces today, innovators are looking to new technologies and big data to help make humanitarian aid and interventions quicker, more efficient and more effective. 

One body at the heart of this drive is located in The Hague, known as the city of Peace and Justice. As early as 2012, The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HIIL) launched the Justice Accelerator to scout and support the world’s best justice innovations. It has a yearly portfolio of 20-30 innovations. Since then, in 2017, The city of The Hague opened a EUR 600,000 ($660,000) fund to encourage and assist technological innovations within the field of peace, justice and humanitarian affairs, with a maximum possible funding per application of EUR 50,000. Some of the innovations to result from these kinds of projects have been immensely impactful. 

CrimeSync in Sierra Leone, founded by Sorieba Daffae, an electrical engineer and lawyer, as well as a 2019 Obama Foundation Africa Leader, is a software solution to help the management of legal cases and provide better transparency in the legal system. Founded in 2016, it is turning the justice system paperless, while raising accountability. With ever increasing prison populations, it is becoming more difficult for authorities to securely manage the records of criminals and inmates. CrimeSync is helping to overcome this using software that uses biometric information which helps manage and verify populations. Using the cloud-based technology, it eliminates maintenance and expenses such as ID cards, printers and kiosks. Digital badges are sent to visitors that can be scanned to verify their identity, and they can pre-register in advance to speed up the check in process, using biometrics to simplify and secure the process. Using the cloud, unauthorised or problematic visitors can also be added to a watchlist to ensure inmate safety and with an easily searchable records bank on the cloud, it is easy to see historical visits and relevant history.

Barefoot Law was set up in Uganda in 2012 by law student turned change-maker, Gerald Abila, who recognised the need to empower his population with knowledge. Human Rights Watch continue to express concern for injustices and abuses carried out on the civilian population in Uganda, where it is not unheard of to wait years for a trial or to even be jailed before trial for longer than sentencing times. Recognising the large numbers of Ugandans with smart phones, Abila set up the online legal service to offer free legal advice for the thousands of individuals and small businesses who would otherwise remain underserved, using easy to access portals such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype, to disseminate information.

Addressing common community questions such as how to apply for bail, what to do if a mother’s child is taken away by police, the organisation, made up of volunteer lawyers, uses technology to educate disadvantaged populations as well as offering walk-in clinics. The website even offers employment, contract and will templates to download free. The organisation has since won many awards, not only from HIIL but others including a $10,000 prize from the Uganda Communications Commission and the African Legal Award for Innovation. 

Viamo - a free advice app offering information on a range of topics from health to legal - was started in 2012 by a group of Ghanaian and Canadian engineers in Kumasi on the campus of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. With a rise in mobile phone usage, they saw a gap in the way to communicate public service information with those newly connected populations. A key goal, was to reach the rural populations, notably, women. Specialising in reaching underprivileged, illiterate populations, they added a voice (IVR, Interactive Voice Response) channel, which proved much more effective in their goal of “improving lives via mobile by reaching the most isolated populations and providing them with information to make informed decisions for a healthy, prosperous life”. Though started in Northern Ghana, Viamo’s influence is now far beyond West Africa, with more than 20 major markets in Africa and Asia, reaching more than 100,000 people per day and more than 10 million people from 2012 to 2017.

Through voice technology, the Lenali app which began in Mali, has tapped into the huge numbers of illiterate populations across the country, where access to education is minimal (literacy is 33%). Mamadou Gouro Sidibé set up the free oral app in 2017, to access the wide range of dialects spoken such as Bambara, Soninke, Songhai, Mooré and Wolof, as well as French, and tap into the populations unable to harness the power of written social media and its dissemination of knowledge. It already has around 60,000 users who can select their language, type in or record their name, and post and comment vocally without having to read anything. While vendors can advertise their produce, it has also been used by local non-governmental organisations, such as the National Network for the Development of Young Girls and Women of Mali, to share information on issues such as gender-based violence.

In India, Haqdarshak, founded by three Indians with a vision to use technology to change the lives of the poor, has so far screened over 100,000 citizens to help them apply for and access welfare support. With 55,577 applications processed and 21,956 citizens receiving benefits, the platform, which aims to help those living below the poverty line, has helped many more women access benefits they simply did not know how best to access before. The technology matches citizen profiles with scheme eligibility to determine a customised list of appropriate options. The platform’s research ensures that the information is relevant and up to date and has helped lower the application rejection rates suffered by the women. The trained team members, for a nominal fee, help the women apply for welfare, right up to the end of the process and ensure they get access to benefits rightfully theirs.

In Uganda, a passionate IT entrepreneur realised that the country’s people needed access to justice, having grown up in a community ravaged by crime and a painfully ineffective legal system. Founder of Justice2People, Rancy Bukenya, says many victims abandon cases because the current system is frustrating, slow and unreliable. He says: “We at J2P seek to address these issues through the system designed to make the process of accessing justice smooth, less tiring and easy.” 

Uganda ranked “weak” in terms of abeyance of the law according to the World Justice Project, the mobile app is a tool for community policing that allows the users to report crimes or accidents in real time and access expert advice as well as follow up cases reported. The Uganda Human Rights Commission warns human rights continue to be at risk in the country and mob action has been rife for years. However, with a wide range of categories including family issues, abuse and employment rights, victims of crime and injustice can get access via the app to a variety of experts offering services either for a small fee or pro bono. Victims can also access up to date information from authorities.

From victims of crime to those in need of financial help, technology is offering fast, effective solutions to alleviate some of the social and legal issues which abound in the developing world. Through funding such as that being given by the HIIL, innovators on the ground, those who know their communities and its unique needs, can forge the way for policy change through the use of mobile technology. Innovation not only empowers the illiterate and connects the isolated communities but also educates those without access to the basic information needed for survival in abject situations. 

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