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Opportunities for Natural Language Processing in Humanitarian Relief

By Guest Writer on October 12, 2023

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Natural language processing (NLP) is a rapidly evolving field at the intersection of linguistics, computer science, and artificial intelligence, which is concerned with developing methods to process and generate language at scale. Modern NLP tools have the potential to support humanitarian relief action at multiple stages of the humanitarian response cycle.

Both internal reports, secondary text data (e.g., social media data, news media articles, or interviews with affected individuals), and external-facing documents like Humanitarian Needs Overviews (HNOs) encode information relevant to monitoring, anticipating, or responding to humanitarian crises.

Yet, lack of awareness of the concrete opportunities offered by state-of-the-art techniques, as well as constraints posed by resource scarcity, limit adoption of NLP tools in the humanitarian sector.

The paper, “Natural Language Processing for Humanitarian Action” provides a pragmatically-minded primer to the emerging field of humanitarian NLP,

  • Reviewing existing initiatives in the space of humanitarian NLP,
  • Highlighting potentially impactful applications of NLP in the humanitarian sector,
  • Describing criteria, challenges, and potential solutions for large-scale adoption.

NLP in Humanitarian Relief

Both technical progress and the development of an overall vision for humanitarian NLP are challenges that cannot be solved in isolation by either humanitarians or NLP practitioners.

Understanding which humanitarian problems could be better addressed with the support of NLP technology requires humanitarians, who are familiar with needs and challenges of humanitarian action, to interact with NLP professionals, who are aware of concrete opportunities and constraints of existing technology.

Even for seemingly more “technical” tasks like developing datasets and resources for the field, NLP practitioners and humanitarians need to engage in an open dialogue aimed at maximizing safety and potential for impact.

Space to Interact

For these synergies to happen it is necessary to create spaces that allow humanitarians, academics, ethicists, and open-source contributors from diverse backgrounds to interact and experiment. Experiences such as DEEP, Masakhané, and HuggingFace’s BigScience project have provided evidence of the large potential of approaches that emphasize team diversity as a foundational factor, and welcome contributors from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds.

The development of HUMSET also provides a concrete example of how qualitative insights contributed by domain experts can be fruitfully combined with quantitative insights to deliver tools that can address the concrete operational needs of humanitarian organizations.

How does one go about creating a cross-functional humanitarian NLP community, which can fruitfully engage in impact-driven collaboration and experimentation? Experiences such as Masakhané have shown that independent, community-driven, open-source projects can go a long way.

Participatory events such as workshops and hackathons are one practical solution to encourage cross-functional synergies and attract mixed groups of contributors from the humanitarian sector, academia, and beyond. In highly multidisciplinary sectors of science, regular hackathons have been extremely successful in fostering innovation. Major NLP conferences also support workshops on emerging areas of basic and applied NLP research.

There are other, smaller-scale initiatives that can contribute to creating and consolidating an active and diverse humanitarian NLP community. Compiling and sharing lists of educational resources that introduce NLP experts to the humanitarian world—and, vice versa, resources that introduce humanitarians to the basics of NLP—would be a highly valuable contribution.

Similarly, sharing ideas on concrete projects and applications of NLP technology in the humanitarian space (e.g., in the form of short articles) could also be an effective way to identify concrete opportunities and foster technical progress.

Funding for Sustainability

For long-term sustainability, however, funding mechanisms suitable to supporting these cross-functional efforts will be needed. Seed-funding schemes supporting humanitarian NLP projects could be a starting point to explore the space of possibilities and develop scalable prototypes.

With this paper, we hope to motivate humanitarians and NLP experts to create long-term impact-driven synergies and to co-develop an ambitious roadmap for the field.

A lightly edited synopsis of Natural language processing for humanitarian action: Opportunities, challenges, and the path toward humanitarian NLP by Roberta Rocca, Nicolò Tamagnone, Selim Fekih, Ximena Contla, and Navid Rekabsaz

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One Comment to “Opportunities for Natural Language Processing in Humanitarian Relief”

  1. Emmanuel kinet korir says:

    It is a great initiative. Service to humanity. Also, initiated community based organization to attend to children with cancer.
    Looking forward to joininng such initiative