Data: A Vital Form of Aid in a Time of Crisis

In an increasingly data-driven world, technology has made it possible to turn data quickly into informed decision-making. When a crisis occurs, this means data has become another vital form of aid for non-profits on the ground, in some ways no different than either goods or cash resources. One such organization has figured out how to share this information resource effectively with partners, creating the basis of a new model for crisis response.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to escalate, with countless injuries, thousands killed, and millions of Ukrainians displaced to bordering countries and beyond. And, with so much uncertainty surrounding the end to the conflict and the aftermath, there needs to be collaboration across government, health, and non-profit sectors to plan for the near- and long-term impacts and response.

The question of relief in a crisis of this nature extends beyond the basics of food, shelter, and medical assistance. The influx of refugees across Europe, forced to quickly flee with little or nothing, has already exceeded five million. And, in most cases, this is not a temporary situation, many will have to permanently re-establish their lives. Where will children go to school? Will there be language barriers or a lack of community support? How will they pay for medical insurance and secure employment?

This is where another vital form of aid comes in: the power of data.

During the response to COVID-19, Direct Relief, and colleagues at Harvard School of Public Health, formed a partnership called CrisisReady to carry out analysis of anonymized data collected from mobile devices, principally through the Facebook application, to understand population dynamics in near real-time during crisis events. Later, when the invasion of Ukraine happened on February 24, data on human mobility was already available at scale based upon data sets that were already being pulled for the long-term Covid response. That data, viewed from a different angle, illustrates changing population densities in areas receiving a significant influx of refugees from Ukraine.

This data helped to fill in some of the picture on how people move, so the team published situation reports as static pdfs to share with organizations involved in this humanitarian effort. The reports assisted in planning frameworks for situational structure on this vast movement of people throughout the entire European Union. However, generating these reports is a highly manual and time-consuming process and reports are static, while the need for real-time trend analysis is vital.

Now, working with Qlik to create a public dashboard, the information flow is automated and updated in real-time, enabling the Direct Relief and CrisisReady teams to share accurate information quickly with other leading NGOs, while focusing their material aid distribution efforts inside Ukraine. The dashboard also allows different organizations such as WHO and UNICEF to select aggregated data sets to help them make and optimize quick decisions on where and how much of their services and supplies are needed at any given time.

Andrew Schroeder, VP of Research and Analysis of Direct Relief, shares, “This dashboard not only serves my team, but provides our partners with vital information as a leading indicator, allowing them to make quick decisions such as pivoting strategies or reallocating resources.”

One such example is a data sharing pipeline set up for UNICEF to help build a strategy to support schools across the European Union. UNICEF doesn’t have the full capability to curate this data on their own. They can now take this same data from the dashboard, push it into different web services that allow them to consume it directly and view which areas might need greater attention in terms of funding for school-aged children. A similar data sharing arrangement feeds analytical applications in Mercy Corps.

This is just one example of how this solution is helping to fill the gap. Andrew adds, “This is why we wanted to make this data as available as possible to the widest audience, because it can be applied in so many different and helpful ways.”

Direct Relief’s activity was focused principally on shipments and services into Ukraine itself. This data was not permissible to share for Ukraine itself because of the security situation and the possibility that high resolution mobility might have dual use for targeting. One of the reasons this dashboard on refugee flows was conceived was because under these terms, information itself could became a form of assistance.

While Direct Relief as a medical aid distributing institution necessarily had to focus on the medical situation within Ukraine, the informational dimensions being made available through the dashboard could at the same time contribute in meaningful ways to the refugee crisis by helping partner institutions frame questions and make improved decisions as part of a collective humanitarian effort.

The sharing of information for the refugee crisis can serve as a model for humanitarian efforts across the globe. While it is an unfortunate fact that there will always be a need for crisis relief, the fact that institutions can now share data and analysis for more efficient decision-making is a game changer for those who are in crisis. This model shows how institutions can step out of information silos and come together as a networked humanitarian community, highlighting the collaborative spirit of those who desire to create change, overcome challenges, and encourage hope.


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