Navigating big disasters with big data: how data-driven humanitarian models could help people in crisis

Population movement is higher than ever. Buoyed by freedom of movement on one side, and critical events such as armed conflict and the European migrant issue on the other.

In fact, population movement has now reached record levels. There are currently more displaced people globally than during the whole of the Second World War.

Why is population migration coming to a head now, and how can we fix it?

It is that there are things that can be done to tackle today’s humanitarian relief problems that have not been universally done before, primarily around the use of big data and analytics.

The key is the ability to improve understanding and visibility of what’s happening at any given time. Technology is needed to better track events in real time, spot trends and allocate resources in the most efficient way possible.

And this technology needs to be something that is easily used by those that haven’t necessarily had the deep statistical training required to make sense of humungous data sets.

Using visualisation to prevent disasters

Visual Analytics solutions, for example, can quickly spot (unusual) trends and therefore predict issues before they emerge. These tools are perfect for humanitarian purposes so that organisations can get the right resources to the right areas before it’s too late.

This can ensure more time, money and resources are dedicated to helping people in most need, and less is lost to logistics, research and planning.

A great example of this is SAS’s work with the Internal Organisation for Migration (IOM). SAS helped IOM following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines – using SAS Visual Analytics, IOM can see where the high-risk shelters are.

For example, it was found that there were higher concentrations of diarrhea, fever and skin disease among older people, so specific medication required to tackle those diseases could be sent to the right locations.

It’s not just data collected in real time that can prove crucial to humanitarian efforts. For example, an incredible data resource is UN COMTRADE, which gives access to more than 300 million rows of detailed, global UN trade data dating back to 1988.

Having the right technology to gather insights from this data is a vital step forwards, so we worked on providing UN COMTRADE Insights software. Users can get access to the data for as little as $25. Yet it could be highly valuable for any organisation needing to quickly get answers buried in all this trade data.

UN COMTRADE data was key in helping relief efforts following the Nepal earthquake. For example, the IOM used it to help with the building of temporary shelters for displaced people.

The data allowed the IOM to understand where and how to quickly procure sheet metal roofing before monsoon season, which saved the organisation masses of critical time that would otherwise have been spent researching via other means.

These examples show how the insights garnered from data can be valuable in solving humanitarian crises. For countries currently handling a population influx, one of the biggest problems is not being able to tell where people have been displaced from without any official ID or documentation. 

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However, it’s possible to identify where they’re from by tracking cell phone usage. Using this data, it may also be possible to track both legitimate population shifts and unofficial movements engineered by people traffickers, for example, which could be a vital piece of the puzzle when tackling growing population challenges.

Ultimately, one of the key takeaways from the conference was that the current model for providing humanitarian relief is broken. The world’s mentality is still focused on short-term fixes. Just setting aside lots of money to help with relief is not enough.

With more disasters and conflicts across the world, more people are being displaced than ever before.

Organisations across the globe can make much better use of the technology and innovation available today. They can extract insights, key trends and meaning from available data to provide faster relief and help staff on the ground to solve problems.

This is the foundation to building a new humanitarian model that is more suited to addressing the challenges of today before they escalate into a crisis.

Find out more about using data visualisation technology by reading this short report.

Sourced from I-Sah Hsieh, global manager, International Development, SAS

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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