CCGL9061 Global Issues

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

[This course is under the thematic cluster of ‘The Quest for a Meaningful Life’ / ‘Universe and the Question of Meaning’.]


[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 photographic assessment of how walkable Hong Kong streets are for elderly people and children. Finally, you will cultivate a critical and creative eye, reflecting on the benefits but also on the possible negative outcomes of current digital practices.

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 digital maps and ‘deep style transfer’ pictures.
  6. Create 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 9
Reading / Self-study 50
Assessment: Quizzes 4
Assessment: Reflective diary 8
Assessment: Individual tasks 14
Assessment: Group project and presentation 14
Total: 123

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Quizzes 10
Individual presentation 15
Individual mini-project 20
Group project and presentation 35
Reflective writing 20

Required Reading / 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

  • 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: Digital approaches to global health issues

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):

Week 5: Collaborative mapping of emergency areas

Week 6: Mapping social issues in the city

Week 8: Online communication and influencing

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

Week 10: Digital approaches to global health issues

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