Data in action: The role of data in humanitarian disasters

A map that shows remote communities located on Nicaragua and Honduras borders, where ECHO and Oxfam work to help the population prepare for disasters. Big data and open data are becoming increasingly important in planning and preparing for as well as responding to disasters. Photo by: Silvio Balladares / European Commission / CC BY-ND

For nongovernmental organizations responding to humanitarian disasters, big data and open data are more than just buzzwords — they are fast becoming a necessity in saving lives.

In World Vision International’s case, the availability to pull and share data helped save lives when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in March this year. Working in the country since the early 1980s, World Vision has made data gathering a critical part of project planning and reporting. This includes gathering, collecting and creating demographic, infrastructure and environmental data.

Data has been critical not only to analyze the impact of programs, but also to evaluate the resources that will be required following an emergency.

Andrea Swinburne-Jones, communications manager at World Vision International, believed the availability and use of technology and data limited the number of deaths from Cyclone Pam to 11, despite it being one of the worst cyclones on record. The groundwork that went into ensuring communities, the government and NGOs were prepared limited deaths and shows a zero casualties aim is a realistic expectation. More data to help to plan, prepare and respond will assist in making this possible.

Philippine-based news website Rappler, meanwhile, launched Project Agos in 2013. Project Agos is a platform combining information from the government with that from the community to aid in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. As part of the project, an alert mapping system has been developed to maximize the flow of critical data before, during and after a disaster.

Rappler has wanted to launch the project since it was established in 2010. Now, Project Agos has been growing rapidly, and has been receiving funding and support from various sources, including the Australian government.

What lessons can World Vision and Rappler share for civil society organizations that may want to get involved in the data revolution and leverage data as a disaster and emergency response tool?

Preparing for a disaster with data

World Vision engaged the services of Gerard Kelly, a geospatial surveillance and mapping specialist who recently worked with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to map Vanuatu’s Tafea province as part of a malaria eradication project, Swinburne-Jones told Devex.

The collected data was helpful for World Vision to prepare targeted funding proposals for projects it intends to implement in Tafea. Following Cyclone Pam, the same data was also able to show the international NGO exactly where in the province disaster response is needed.

For Project Agos, an important part of its function is to build communities. Training people on the ground on how to use social media and tools to access information before, during and after an emergency is one part of this. But the other aspect is taking advantage of new technology to build online communities of subject matter experts.

“People need to be linked together to share knowledge about natural disasters,” Gemma Mendoza, who serves as the link between Rappler’s editorial and technical teams, told Devex.  “Creating Facebook communities, which bring together disaster managers, scientists and NGOs help to share knowledge. Technology can help bring people together and facilitates collaboration.”

Sharing data is important, as is involving communities

As part of the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team, which also includes the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, CARE, Oxfam and Save the Children, World Vision works with the government of Vanuatu to identify the worst-affected areas and respond promptly to all in need following a disaster.

For the Cyclone Pam response, Swinburne-Jones believes the ability of these agencies to work together to create a more effective roll out of support saved lives.

“Sometimes you hear that NGOs don’t collaborate but this is not true,” Swinburne-Jones said. “We worked with all agencies that had a presence.”

And sharing data was critical to this success. During the first week, each organization conducted a rapid assessment in the area they worked.

“World Vision reviewed other agency assessment data that was made publicly available, such as the World Food Program assessment report and National Disaster Management Office assessment report,” Swinburne-Jones said. “These were either shared bilaterally or made available on”, a platform provided by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as a means to help responders coordinate their work on the ground, made available information on the Cyclone Pam response through a cluster system focusing on five key areas — education, food security, logistics, health and nutrition, and water, sanitation and hygiene.

Government data on roads, accessibility and population numbers were enhanced with data gathered as part of NGOs’ development work, including the geospatial data World Vision collected for its malaria eradication project.

“The data was not publicly available but was useful in terms of accessing fairly accurate numbers of people per village, which were disaggregated by sex and age, and was also used to map planned distributions,” Swinburne-Jones said. “There was a lot of data and maps flying around.”

For Project Agos, information coming in from the community is just as critical to responders as information going from responders to the community.

“It is a two-way street,” Mendoza said. “In real time we can find out what is happening online through social media and relay critical information to responders.”

Find the best way to disseminate information

World Bank data shows that in 2013, the rate of ownership for mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people in the Philippines was 105. So when it comes to disseminating information, solutions involving mobile phones is almost guaranteed to reach 100 percent of the population.

“The aim is to enable information to be relayed to the last mile,” Mendoza said. “Almost everyone has a mobile phone in the Philippines. Getting information out by SMS and ensuring mobile friendliness of information is very important.”

But in Vanuatu, there are only 50 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 persons. Further, during Cyclone Pam, infrastructure could not be relied upon to disseminate information.

“We assumed mobile phones would go out during Cyclone Pam and had satellite phones ready,” Swinburne-Jones said. “To disseminate key messages to communities, the plan was to use radio.”

Established relationships are critical

Both Swinburne-Jones and Mendoza agree relationships are critical in being able to gather and share data for emergency response.

Having worked in Vanuatu for 30 years, World Vision has established strong ties with communities and the government, so collecting information and communicating with those affected are relatively easy to do.

“We know the communities and government,” said Swinburne-Jones. “Having a pre-existing relationship means we don’t have to explain ourselves or our work. We can disseminate information easily to get on with the job.”

In the case of Cyclone Pam, for instance, it was easy for World Vision to find out which official to get in touch with to get updated government data and work with government agencies to gain access to better data.

Project Agos also understands the importance of relationships and is working to establish strong ties with government and communities. During an emergency event, a Project Agos team will work with responders at the main operations center.

To establish confidence, the Project Agos team is separate from Rappler’s media arm. And the team has been steadily building trust with the government: The Philippines’ Office of Civil Defense is now among the government agencies using its services.

“It is better than it was two years ago,” Mendoza said. “Then the government didn’t see the value of social media.”

‘Reaching the last mile is critical’

The demand for data is making the job of responding to disasters in developing nations easier. In the Philippines, the government directive for open data means more data is becoming available and in accessible formats, which can be delivered to the public through technology such as Project Agos.

“We started in silos, with government, private enterprise and civil society working separately,” Mendoza said. “Now there is dialogue building and greater demand through citizen action groups.”

And for Swinburne-Jones, the rapid growth of technology plays a critical role in aiding better data collection and dissemination, which will enable even better responses in the future.

“We would not have been able to achieve this 20 or 30 years ago,” Swinburne-Jones said. “Today we can share information instantaneously. Not that long ago we were still reliant on the post.”

But neither takes their work lightly, saying much more needs to be done, especially in training communities, which are the true first responders during a disaster.

“Community building is very important and we are working on workshops to get this information out,” said Mendoza. “Reaching the last mile is critical.”

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About the author

  • Cornish img

    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.