How the Red Cross is using data against disasters

By Nicolas Zahn

How 510, an internal start-up of the Netherlands Red Cross, is helping humanitarian workers to make the most of their resources.

Image: WikipediaCC BY 2.0

Data is vital for humanitarian agencies battling natural disasters and it might just prove to be one of the things helping a sector that is caught between more and more crises on one side and higher expectations from citizens and shrinking resources on the other side.

As Marc van den Homberg, scientific lead of 510, a data analytics unit of the Netherlands Red Cross explains: “There is an overall understanding in the humanitarian aid sector that something has to change. Somewhat radical innovation is necessary to improve.”

Van den Homberg and the 510 team are working hard to push the adoption of a data-driven approach to humanitarian work. “The idea is that with the smart use of data, we can really make humanitarian response more effective and more efficient.”

Early warning, early action - made possible by data

The central idea is to shift resources from the response phase to the preparation phase using data. “Once we have all this data, you can go from what the weather will be to what the weather will do and you can start with what we call early warning, early action.”

One example is evacuating people, livestock and fodder several days before a flood hits instead of helping the population after the flood. As Van den Homberg explains: “Every dollar spent on response can be much more effective if you invest it in the preparedness phase.”
“Every dollar spent on response can be much more effective if you invest it in the preparedness phase.”
This is where 510 comes into play. The “start-up within the Netherlands Red Cross” was brought to life about 2.5 years ago by a project manager. He had just been to flood-struck Malawi and experienced first-hand that decisions were taken that turned out to be “not optimal”. Back at home, he wanted to change that and advance the use of data analytics in the decision-making process.

The name reveals the aspiration behind the project. “510 stands for 510 million square kilometres which is roughly the surface of the earth", says Van den Homberg.

Harnessing small and big data

The unit gathers open data nationally and globally, and also more generally big data, like phone records and satellite imagery. It uses machine learning to yield new insights from this data, like predicting the impact of floods. “If you talk to an old person in a village, you can ask him about the floods in the past and he will remember certain indicators. The same you do with machine learning. We use the historical data to see patterns.”

The team has built a Community Risk Assessment Dashboard that collects disaster information from 14 countries, calculating risk scores across countries and certain subnational regions. These help identify communities that are most vulnerable and exposed to certain disasters, Van den Homberg explains. Going forward, 510 wants to further improve these tools to better predict the impact of disasters, in collaboration with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

510 not only uses technology to analyse the data but also to gather it. “Especially if you want to go down to the really low granular level, it can be really a struggle, as the data is often simply not there.” In Malawi, the Red Cross plans to leverage the ubiquity of mobile phones to communicate with local volunteers via WhatsApp to gather data on the impact of floods. There are plans to use drones for more advanced data collection from water resources across large areas.

But while technology is an enabler of the data-driven approach, it also poses challenges. Countries that can benefit the most often have poor IT infrastructure and lack digital literacy. “Often we found that all the data is not stored on a central repository”, says Van den Homberg.

The Red Cross movement actively addresses this challenge through the Digital Divide initiative, connecting Red Cross IT teams across different countries to learn from each other. However, often the issue is not technical, but rather data availability.

Finally, experimenting with new technologies and generating new insights is very interesting. But the Netherlands Red Cross nevertheless remains an organisation with a mission to save lives. The team at 510 is all too conscious of this: “Are we doing something to shine with new technology or are we doing something because it is the best way to help communities?”. Van den Homberg makes it clear that the latter is the case.

Spreading the model around the globe

Despite these challenges, 510 has come a long way. From humble beginnings, the team has grown rapidly to over 40 people, but it still manages to keep its start-up spirit of collaborative innovation with young team members and a flat hierarchy. To remain cost-effective, 510 works with a lot with students and volunteers who help to bring in particular know-how and the flexibility needed for field missions.

And the team wants to grow further and promote the adoption of the data-driven approach to humanitarian work. “Our idea at 510 is not that we are going to serve the whole world, but that it is much better to have this kind of capacity within each country”, says Van den Homberg.

Back where it all started, this is already the case: the Malawi Red Cross now has its own data team of three people. And there are plans to do the same in Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya.

“But of course in the end our goal is that these teams become self-sustainable by having a data component in each new project that a national Red Cross society sets up,” he says.

Until one day, all 510m sq km of the earth can be assisted by data-driven humanitarian action.