Resilience, Peace and Security

Why mobiles could be key to solving humanitarian crises

A Haitian woman charges her mobile using solar panels after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

With 8 billion users globally, mobile networks have the information rescuers need. Image: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Elaine Weidman-Grunewald
Senior Vice-President; Chief Sustainability and Public Affairs Officer, Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

As the months of 2017 went by it became clear that the scale of humanitarian disasters was outpacing the international community’s ability to respond. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are some 130 million people globally in need of humanitarian assistance. Devastating storms in the Caribbean and protracted conflicts in countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Syria and South Sudan means need for support has never been greater. A combination of innovative thinking and greater corporate engagement will be game-changers in our ability to care for the world’s most vulnerable people in the years ahead.

Data that enables rapid response

After more than a decade working closely with humanitarian organizations, I know that two of the first questions they ask when responding to a crisis are: how many people are affected, and where are they? The goal is to get aid to people in crisis as swiftly as possible, and to do so it’s crucial to know their location. But this can be extremely challenging information to gather when a disaster disrupts a location, or when people are fleeing a conflict.

The massive growth of mobile networks in the past decade has prompted suggestions about how phone data could be used to inform the humanitarian community about the locations of affected people during a crisis. Today, there are close to 8 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, making a subscription more common than access to a toothbrush or a toilet in many parts of the world. In light of this, call data records are a crucial source of information.

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Exploring the options

Mobility data can provide real-time information about how and where populations are moving, and explorations are taking place around how these insights can be used for humanitarian purposes. In the same way we use data to estimate and improve traffic congestion, we should be able, for example, to predict where a disease might spread, to pinpoint exactly where aid should be delivered and to show where people are trapped in an earthquake.

To make access to these basic data points a reality, more support is needed from the private sector to enable government and industry efforts to find ways to address regulatory barriers – for example by anonymizing data. The GSMA’s Humanitarian Connectivity Charter is one initiative in this vein. At the same time, a more dedicated effort is required among governments and other stakeholders to explore ways to ease restrictions in the midst of a disaster, without compromising individual rights such as privacy.

A woman makes a phone call after an earthquake in Ussita, Italy, 2016.
A woman makes a phone call after an earthquake in Ussita, Italy, 2016. Image: Reuters/Max Rossi

Analytics, automation and the Internet of Things

Mobility and connectivity are just the starting points for improved humanitarian response. Analytics and automation are enabling a variety of services that will transform the humanitarian landscape in the years to come, by making disaster information quickly available to responders, improving collaboration among relief organizations, promoting faster and more proactive responses and providing better visibility of how aid is allocated and spent. And then there is the internet of things. With sensors connected to IoT platforms in disaster-prone areas, we will be able, for example, to predict storms and changing weather patterns with greater accuracy, and provide alerts sooner.

The possibilities are seemingly endless. Having a well-considered digitalization strategy will help humanitarian organizations improve their operations and response times, making it possible for them to do what is vital and save more lives.

There is a big role for the private sector to play in this. In our work with the World Food Programme, the Red Cross and many other organizations, we can see that, just as digitalization is occuring across many major industries, there needs to be a global strategy for digitalizing the humanitarian sector. The first organizations to realize this will be the first to capitalize on the benefits.

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