CCGL9061 Global Issues

Digital Humanitarianism: Can You Save the World with Your Computer?

This course is under the thematic cluster(s) of:

  • The Quest for a Meaningful Life / The Universe and the Question of Meaning (UQM)

[This is a certified Communication-intensive (Ci) Course which meets all of the requirements endorsed by HKU’s Senate, including i) the teaching and assessment of written, visual and digital communication ‘literacies’; and ii) at least 40% of the course grade assigned to communication-rich assessment tasks.]

Course Description

In recent years, digital humanitarians have been on the rise. In particular, a new generation of ‘online’ volunteers have been taking advantage of digital technologies to play a role in emergency situations and to address social problems. From mapping areas struck by natural disasters to analyzing social media messages during crisis events, from digital activism to big data, it seems that everyone can today “save the world with their computer”. But is this really the case? What are the benefits, the limits, and possibly the dangers of these new approaches?

During this course, you will investigate digital humanitarianism from various perspectives. You will learn more about how humanitarian action was born and has evolved through time, what are the main actors and the key historical events that have led to today’s ideas and practices. You will discover how recent technological progress is gradually changing the way expert humanitarian actors, but also people ‘like you and me’, can help others in difficult situations. You will learn to use some of the tools available and get truly involved by participating in two projects: i) a crowd-mapping project aimed at offering better maps of remote regions to humanitarian field workers (no prior experience necessary!), and ii) a project aimed at investigating with digital tools and measures (e.g. GPS locations, digital pictures…) – and possibly improving – the everyday living conditions in Hong Kong. Finally, you will cultivate a critical and creative eye, reflecting on the benefits but also on the possible negative outcomes of current digital practices.

This course is certified as communication-intensive and through a range of different activities and assignments, you will get the opportunity to develop your communication skills with feedback from the teachers and your peers.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

  1. Describe the main trends, actors and recent technological developments in the field of humanitarianism.
  2. Analyze the complexity of real situations and of possible digital responses.
  3. Critique the current approaches in digital humanitarianism.
  4. Reflect on the notion of global citizenship in the light of humanitarian endeavors.
  5. Synthesize and communicate information effectively and creatively with means such as digital maps, infoboards and ‘deep style transfer’ pictures
  6. Create rich visual outputs such as short videos and ‘deep style transfer’ pictures
  7. Produce textual outputs (reflective diaries, online petitions, project reports) delivering facts and personal reflections with thoughtfulness, accuracy and impact.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

First semester (Wed)

Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 24
Tutorials 10
Reading / Self-study 35
Assessment: Quizzes 2
Assessment: Reflective diary 12
Assessment: Individual tasks 6
Assessment: Group project and presentation 15
Assessment: Group video production and presentation 20
Total: 124

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Quizzes 10
Individual presentation 15
Group project and presentation 20
Video production 30
Reflective writing 20
Participation 5

Required Reading and Viewing

A number of sources – news articles, reports or scientific publications, but also digital resources such as websites or videos – will be given for each lecture. Some of them will be required reading or watching, others – usually more complex materials – will be optional recommendations.

Preliminary reading program:

Week 1: General introduction to the course

No required reading

Week 2: Humanitarianism and humanitarian action

  • International Committee of the Red Cross. (2004). What is International Humanitarian Law?
  • Rysaback-Smith, H. (2015). History and principles of humanitarian action. Turkish Journal of Emergency Medicine, 15(Suppl 1), 5–7.

Week 3: Looking beyond the surface: challenges, critiques and ideologies

Week 4: The digital revolution of humanitarian action

  • PLoS Medicine Editors. (2012). Digital humanitarianism: Collective intelligence emerging. PLoS Medicine, 9(7), e1001278. 
  • TED Conference. Digital Humanitarians: Patrick Meier. TEDxTraverseCity. From

Week 5: Collaborative mapping of emergency areas

Week 6: Mapping social issues in the city

  • Brandusescu, A., Sieber, R. E., & Jochems, S. (2016). Confronting the hype: The use of crisis mapping for community development. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 22(6), 616–632.

Week 7: Analyzing social media in crisis situations

  • Imran, M., Mitra, P., & Castillo, C. (2016). Twitter as a lifeline: Human-annotated Twitter Corpora for NLP of crisis-related messages. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation, LREC 2016. Portoroz, Slovenia. [pp. 1638-1643]
  • Kumar, S., Barbier, G., Abbasi, M. A., & Liu, H. (2011, July 17-21). TweetTracker: An analysis tool for humanitarian and disaster relief. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. Barcelona, Spain. [pp. 661-662]

Week 8: Online communication and influencing

Week 9: From human analysis to machine learning and AI in humanitarian action

  • Meier, P. (2015). Digital humanitarians: How big data is changing the face of humanitarian response (1st ed.). Routledge. [Chap. 5 Artificial intelligence for disaster response, Chap. 6 Artificial intelligence in the sky]

Week 10: Verifying online information

  • Lahlou, Y., El Fikhi, S., & Faizi, R. (2019). Automatic detection of fake news on online platforms: A survey. Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Smart Systems and Data Science (ICSSD)
  • Urbani, S. (2019). First Draft’s Essential Guide to Verifying Online Information. First Draft.

Week 11: Ethical challenges of digital humanitarianism

  • Johns, F. (2017, July 23). Digital humanitarianism – Possibilities and challenges. UNSW Sydney. From
  • Ong, J. C., & Combinido, P. (2018). Local aid workers in the digital humanitarian project: Between “second class citizens” and “entrepreneurial survivors”. Critical Asian Studies, 50(1), 86-102.

Week 12: Wrapping-up

No required reading


Required Websites

Week 2: Humanitarianism and humanitarian action 

(For the input in the reflective diary):

Action Against Hunger

Humanity and Inclusion (UK) (also known as Handicap International)  

International Committee of the Red Cross 

MSF Hong Kong 

Oxfam HK

Plan Hong Kong


Week 5: Collaborative mapping of emergency areas

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) 

Micro Mappers

Week 6: Mapping social issues in the city

Anti Eviction Map

L.A. Clean Streets website

Week 8: Online communication and influencing

Avaaz’s website’s website

Week 9: From human analysis to machine learning and AI in humanitarian action


UN Global Pulse

Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr C.D.M. Coupe
School of Humanities (Linguistics), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 2872
Teacher(s) Contact
Dr C.D.M. Coupe
School of Humanities (Linguistics), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 2872