Time for a Humanitarian Black Box?

Published: November 23, 2015 | By Christina Wille

Christina Wille is Director of Insecurity Insight, an organisation dedicated to generating data on the impact of insecurity on people’s lives and wellbeing. She is an advisor on the e3e monitor developments and runs the Aid in Danger.


At least sixteen hospitals were bombed in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen over the past few weeks. Powerful nations carried out the aerial bombing campaigns that damaged infrastructure and killed humanitarian staff and civilians. However, the circumstances are usually disputed. Perhaps it is time the humanitarian community installed black boxes to record such events? This article presents a device that records forensic evidence of what happened where, when and who did it. It is a call to the humanitarian community to take part in generating the evidence that will force states to take their responsibilities in protecting humanitarian work seriously.

The humanitarian black box is called the e3e (extreme energy events) monitor and has been designed to record the acoustic signals of explosions and gunshots. The prototype is a brick-sized device capable of recording the sounds of explosions and other noises within a radius of two to three kilometres. The device analyses the sound signals for the unique “acoustic signature” of explosions and gunshots, and can distinguish these from benign sounds, such as the slamming of a door. It creates an accurate record of when and where an explosion or gunshot occurred.

e3e image1

Because the black box records events in sequence, it can provide evidence on whether any shots were fired before, during or after an explosion. This would have been important information in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. According to a statement by the Pentagon, on 3 October, US forces called in air support after US troops were fired upon by the Taliban. According to MSF, there was no fighting in the vicinity of the hospital that would have justified the bombing. If a humanitarian black box had been in place, visualisation of these acoustic signatures could have been released as evidence of the sequence of events.

In other cases where humanitarian infrastructure is damaged, warring parties often blame the opponent. If there are several black boxes in the area, triangulation can determine the direction from which the sound signature came. Viewed against publicly known facts, such as where conflict parties are based, and whether they have air or ground explosive delivery systems at their disposal, the black box can provide important evidence on which conflict actor most likely caused the damage.

For the moment, the humanitarian black box e3e is a prototype. Scientists at CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) developed it as part of the THE Port project, which makes its technology available to the humanitarian community. Best known for its work at the frontier of particle physics, CERN has also generated a number of spin off technologies that have made an enormous contribution to society, including the World Wide Web and developments in touchscreens and solar panels.

Take a look at a presentation on the e3e monitor which took place at THE Port Hackathon on 4th October 2015.

Over the next months, the e3e prototype will be tested in real life situations. Scientists at CERN are inviting the humanitarian community to play an active role in the testing phase to ensure that end product can meet the requirements of humanitarian users.

e3e image2

The e3e vision is to build a global network of detectors covering locations at risk from explosions. The detectors are made from readily available components, which should cost under $50 when sourced at scale. They are small and can easily be deployed in an office or project site. This should enable rapid adoption by a wide range of humanitarian organisations, UN peace monitoring bodies, journalists, and private civilians. As the global network grows, it should be possible to monitor events online and in real time, linking evidence from the acoustic sensors to Twitter activity in the vicinity that might corroborate evidence of an explosion and provide information on the human impact.

Over time, the existence of the humanitarian black box will protect humanitarian work. Knowledge that the sequence of events can be independently verified by reading the sounds stored by an e3e device, could serve as a reminder to states to take due precautions before launching air strikes in civilian areas.

However, there are also issues that need to be carefully thought through. There will have to be sufficient safeguards that the information generated by the e3e is not misused by military actors, for example to verify that strikes hit a certain target. For humanitarian agencies, there are issues around perceived neutrality. In some contexts, humanitarian agencies might be accused of spying if the device was found. These concerns make it even more important that humanitarian agencies feed into the development process as early as possible to ensure that the whole system around the e3e is one that supports and not hinders humanitarian security.

If you or your organisation would like to get involved in this project, please get in touch and a link to the e3e team can be facilitated through the author.


Carter: Full Investigation Underway Into ‘Tragic’ Kunduz Airstrike, 3rd October 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/621744/carter-full-investigation-underway-into-tragic-kunduz-airstrikeChromeHTML/Shell/Open/Command

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Gen. Campbell in the Pentagon Briefing Room, 5th October 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/621848/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-gen-campbell-in-the-pentagon-briefing-r

Public Release of Initial MSF Internal Review, 5th November 2015, https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/sites/usa/files/msf_kunduz_review.pdf