More than 700,000 people died as a result of disasters between the years 2005 and 2014. In 2017, the American Red Cross delivered more relief support than it had in the previous four years combined, responding to 242 significant disasters in the US alone.

Technological innovation is bringing digital solutions to sectors that have previously lacked access to technology, including the non-profit community. The rapid pace of this change suggests that one of technology’s most meaningful benefits for society may lie in the humanitarian sector, which must reach large numbers of people, in remote and dangerous locations, to provide critical resources fast and efficiently.

From aerial robotics to big data analytics, technology presents the opportunity to expedite and magnify the impact of humanitarian relief efforts through greater efficiency and responsiveness; reaching more people, sooner, more cost-effectively, and saving more lives. For example:

Technology can go where people cannot and where rescue efforts puts the lives of responders at risk

Aerial robotics, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aka drones, show tremendous potential to transform humanitarian aid. Using this technology, organizations can map terrain more effectively, assess damage in real time, increase situational awareness through high-resolution mapping and deliver items faster, cheaper and more efficiently. Lower in cost, lighter in weight (as little as three pounds) and quieter than helicopters or planes, with pre-programmed routes that enable them to fly in life-threatening conditions, these “digital responders” provide access to otherwise unreachable areas. In addition, infrared cameras and advanced listening systems enable UAVs to uncover survivors from rubble or among flames and live-stream night footage, increasing the success of critical rescue efforts.

For example, global non-profit WeRobotics’ programme, AidRobotics, identifies local humanitarian needs and incubates robotics solutions via regional Flying Labs™. Following extensive flooding in 2017, its Peru Flying Labs formed the Mision PIURA multistakeholder consortium to create high-resolution aerial images of more than 7,000 hectares (nearly 17,300 acres) in just three days. These maps provided humanitarian agencies with a detailed understanding of the region including infrastructure damage, locations of stranded communities, safe areas for resettlement, and efficient routes for aid delivery. Digital elevation models enabled the government to continually monitor water level changes throughout the region.

Technology breaks down barriers to enable connectivity when we need it most

In times of disaster, basic connectivity is a form of aid that connects people to the resources critical for survival and enables humanitarian organizations to quickly deliver life-saving information.

Cisco’s Tactical Operations (TacOps), for example, takes advantage of the latest mobile networking technology, including cloud-controlled Meraki technology, to establish connectivity when disaster strikes, often faster than government or local providers can. The TacOps team, comprised of highly-skilled internet infrastructure specialists and supported by a global network of volunteers, can be ready to assist anywhere within a few days. From the refugee crisis in Uganda or Nepal’s 7.8 earthquake to Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria, since 2005, TacOps has responded to 45 disasters on six continents.

Camp beds are set up at a convention centre for Caribbean refugees whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Irma, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 14, 2017.  REUTERS/Alvin Baez - RC14373F5390
Camp beds set up at a convention centre for people whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Irma, in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Image: REUTERS/Alvin Baez

In response to the refugee crisis alone, more than 600,000 devices have connected to TacOps’ networks in refugee camps across Europe. Additionally, in Puerto Rico, TacOps has brought efficiencies and speed to relief efforts with more than 66,500 unique clients (relief organizations and the public) and nearly 46 terabytes of data transferred within two months of installation.

Mobile solutions, social media and digital communities provide a new way for organizations and their beneficiaries to communicate

Today, through the proliferation of mobile and social media solutions, relief communications have evolved to the benefit of all. This includes the development of a feedback loop through which information collected is applied to develop a deeper and more real-time understanding of both sector and service user needs, leading to faster, more efficient responses which ultimately supports beneficiaries.

For example, the World Food Programme (WFP) is challenged to assist 80 million people across 80 countries worldwide each year, moving three million tons of food. WFP’s Mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) uses mobile technology to address the barrier of aggregate and manual data collection, that often leads to outdated and inefficient data collection. Deployed in more than 30 countries, mVAM delivers 20,000 surveys per month for an annual cost saving of $5 million and a 75% reduction in the time spent collecting surveys.

The WFP and Cisco partnered to explore the use of SMS and voice response technology (IVR) to collect data directly from beneficiaries, making it possible to gather responses from some of the world’s most vulnerable communities rapidly and in an affordable way. This year, the partnership will pilot the use of chatbots for even deeper interaction between beneficiaries and organizations.

“We’re receiving information in near real-time and, for a humanitarian organization, that helps us save lives,” says Jean Martin-Bauer, Food Security Analyst for the WFP.

Through mVAM, WFP now has a detailed view of the food security situation on the ground, enabling them to respond quickly – and save lives.

Big data analytics creates a new era of intelligence for disaster response

Vast amounts of data are created during times of disaster including personal and medical data, the geolocation of roads, the tracking of survivors, and more. Managing this data presents challenges, but when effectively employed, it provides crucial information on which to act, prioritizes and optimizes response efforts and, via crowdsourcing, enhances situational awareness.

Ushahidi, for example, is an open-source crisis-mapping software that creates a database of geotagged and time-stamped reports gathered via email, SMS, or tweets. From this information, it builds a comprehensive, real-time picture of what is happening on the ground. Today, Ushahidi V3, or “Ushahidi in the Cloud”, can be accessed by anyone, even non-developers. The platform has been used in 140 countries, reaching more than 20 million people through more than 100,000 deployments.

Additionally, the American Red Cross’ RC View, built on the ESRI data visualization platform, informs situational awareness by providing crucial data on water levels, shelter mapping (locations, number of available beds), road closures and more. Via RC View, Red Cross can respond faster, with fewer resources, and provide aid and financial assistance while evacuation is still taking place. In many cases, it allows an area to be surveyed without ever having to step foot there. In less than two months, the Red Cross responded to more disasters than they have in the last four years combined.

In Puerto Rico, global non-profit NetHope has partnered with Facebook to provide enhanced disaster response by effectively targeting social media audiences. Complex data analytics enable the organization to target the right messages to the right audiences, including information from third parties such as FEMA, Doctors Without Borders, and local non-profits.

In many cases, technology is the easiest part. The challenge is to create a long-term, digital foundation for humanitarian organizations that enables them to invest in, test and scale technology solutions prior to disasters so they are prepared when they need it the most. For example, Cisco is entering a five-year, $10 million dollar partnership with MercyCorps that will reach 11 million people and fill critical gaps, transforming how the already tech-savvy organization applies digital solutions to humanitarian aid.

While technology cannot replace the vital resources people need in disaster – food, water, shelter, or comfort from loved ones - it is transforming disaster relief efforts and paving the way for an evolving approach to international aid: one that can reach more people, faster, and help communities to develop resilience for when the next disaster strikes.