Big Data can improve the response to humanitarian crises by enabling earlier detection and distributing warnings to potentially affected groups.
Data services like Mobile Money are also transforming response, according to the World Food Programme’s Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski.
These findings were revealed during a panel discussion on Humanitarian Connectivity and the Mobile Industry which took place during Mobile World Congress 2016. Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya, CEO, South Asia at Axiata Group, one of the signatories of the GSMA Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, outlined Axiata’s four stage national plan for improving mobile operators’ responses to humanitarian catastrophes and crises.
Stage 1 covers early detection. Axiata believes that installing sensors to monitor tsunamis following earthquakes can save lives, citing the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, in which an estimated 230,000 lives were lost in 14 countries. Since 2004 sensor coverage been greatly extended in the region and the operator believes that the impact of subsequent tsunamis has been reduced as a result.
Having a large network of sensors which automatically transmit data back to a central data processing location provides a far more detailed and wide ranging picture of an unfolding disaster than human observation. Data from a wide range of different locations can be processed and co-ordinated much faster to provide a more accurate picture of the seriousness of the situation and to predict where the impact will be greatest. Small differences in local topography can make a huge difference to the impact of an earthquake or tsunami.
The means operators can move to Stage 2 of the national plan - early warning - significantly earlier than was possible before big data. Moreover, the entire early warning process can be automated with SMS, USSD, email and voice alerts all triggered by the system. Saving even a few minutes in the warning distribution process can make a huge difference to the number of people who survive a crisis.
Stages 3 and 4 of the plan - early response and post disaster recovery can also benefit from a wide range of big data applications. The benefits flowing from the use of big data are even greater in these areas because, as Elaine Weidman-Grunewald of Ericsson reminded us, man made problems hugely outweigh natural disasters when it comes to humanitarian disasters.
Jacob Korenblum of Souktel reminded everyone that “Even though communities are affected by crisis, people are still people, they are still mobile users, they still have the same needs and desires that someone sitting in this room has. They want to listen to music, take photos, do social, in fact it’s a way of coping with the crisis surrounding them.”
A striking example of how mobile technology is transforming humanitarian crisis response was provided by Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski of the World Food Programme (WFP). Where in past disasters, responders such as the WFP needed to focus on sourcing and delivering food supplies, with population movement tracking provided by mobile technology and big data analytics, it is now possible to locate the places where food supplies are available and to deliver messages directing people to them.
Moreover, WFP is able to provide the means for people to purchase available food supplies themselves with mobile money, rather than going through the process of purchasing food on behalf of stricken communities and delivering it to them. The dual benefits of this data and communications driven strategy are that it reduces dependency and encourages communities to be proactive in the recovery process, while increasing the numbers of people and the speed at which WPF is able to help.
The use of big data raises concerns over privacy, data security and data sovereignty. Addressing these concerns particularly in an emergency humanitarian crisis, underlines the importance of planning and preparation. It is essential to ensure that both governments and data regulators are involved along with operators in disaster preparedness planning.
One of the key developments in humanitarian connectivity during the last year was the adoption by the UN Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) of the ETC 2020 Vision. The ETC 2020 Vision fundamentally changes the focus and priorities of humanitarian connectivity from the provision of communications services for responders, to include also the provision of services for governments and, crucially, for those directly affected by crises.
The significance of this can't be overstated. The ETC 2020 Vision is a formal recognition by the United Nations of the central role of mobile network connectivity in enabling faster and more effective allocation of resources and facilitating the recovery processes during crises. Put simply, if you get mobile networks working as a priority, people are better able to help themselves and find solutions to their problems, they need less outside intervention and assistance, and the impact of crises and catastrophe is reduced.
It is clear from the discussion that there is a great deal of work to be done to achieve the objectives outlined in the ETC 2020 Vision. Network resilience is easy to talk about but there are many complex issues to be addressed. Key among these according to both Telefonica's Eduardo Puig Aznar and Axiata's Wijayasuriya is energy to power equipment at every stage of the communications process. Renewable energy - solar and wind - provides a much higher degree of network resilience according to both operators. New technology may also help build in network resilience. 5G promises better latency, higher capacity and lower energy requirements than older network infrastructures.
Aid today is not limited to safety, warmth and shelter, food and water. As anyone who works in a refugee camp will know, after these the next most important thing in people's lives is the ability to communicate - which in reality means their mobile phone. Among the very first questions that refugees today ask in any humanitarian crisis, conflict or natural disaster, is where can I charge my phone, what network can I connect to, and what's the wifi password.
The significance of this for the mobile industry can’t be underestimated. The products and services the mobile industry delivers and the thing it provides - the ability to communicate and to access information wherever you are - is up there alongside food and water, shelter and safety in its value to people's lives. As an industry we should be proud of the fact that we are able to provide the technology that makes this possible as well as conscious of the responsibility that it places on us.