Data-Driven Humanitarian | MIT Technology Review


It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but its inhabitants are among the most vulnerable. Afghanistan’s snow-capped mountains and fertile foothills give way to arid plateaus, providing a contrast often described as austere and beautiful. A link between ancient East-West trade routes, this landlocked country is home to many languages, craft traditions and centuries of influence from Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu customs. It is also a place where an estimated 12.4 million people live in hunger, and where droughts, floods and conflict often make access routes impassable for humanitarian convoys.

The World Food Program (WFP) is working to end hunger for the Afghan people despite climate change and conflict. In 2020, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to WFP for these efforts. As the world’s largest humanitarian organization fighting hunger and promoting food security for 100 million people in 88 countries, WFP has set itself a goal of ending world hunger by 2030.

Villagers in Afghanistan collect food rations. (Photo credit: WFP / Teresa Ha)

“Saving lives is not enough,” says Lara Prades, who heads WFP’s geospatial unit. “We also have to change lives.” Most people think that WFP is “just giving up on hurricane aid,” but there is another side to its mission. “It’s actually participatory and we are working with communities to improve nutrition and food security.”

Prades speaks of a “dual mandate” – responding to the immediate food shortage and identifying the underlying problems to create long-term solutions. Prades and his team start with smart maps showing near real-time data on weather, supply routes and road conditions. They perform advanced analyzes to specify the exact challenges for each region. WFP’s outreach plans are reinforced by face-to-face conversations with local people, to discuss the concrete implications of what appears on the map.

In the town of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, celebrated for two monumental statues of Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the 6th century and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, Prades spent time drinking tea with the people who live there. “If the map tells us this area is very vulnerable, and on top of that, they’ve had these floods and droughts,” Prades says, “we’re going to meet the people and talk to them.

These conversations validate what the maps and analyzes say and help WFP planners understand the best intervention for each region, even allowing for seasonal or annual variations. It’s a crucial discovery and data process in Afghanistan and around the world, as WFP aims to end world hunger in this decade.

A map produced by the World Food Program, highlighting the potential recurrence of severe food insecurity.

Root cause mapping

Advances in geospatial technology to map, manage and automate the analysis of food insecurity data come at a time when the frequency and intensity of hunger-related emergencies are increasing due to climate change.

In the days and hours leading up to a severe storm or weather disaster, WFP teams use geographic information system (GIS) maps to quickly determine who will need support, where and how to reach them. Apart from emergency response, they apply GIS analysis to detect underlying threats, such as floods and droughts that have degraded farmland or conflicts that have closed transportation routes.

“We’re doing this in a pretty sophisticated way – how we combine geospatial data to identify where to position long-term programs to tackle recurring food insecurity and also disaster reduction,” Prades says.

Even with advanced mapping capabilities, range depends on local touch points. Prades and his team will ask people, “What are you most worried about?” These could be vaccines against firewood or goats, fear of camels getting sick, or preparations for harvesting maize. Concerns become layers of data, added to smart maps to recognize trends or hot spots, and indicate possible mitigation efforts.

“You have to see the links,” Prades says, “to see all of the links in how this translates into real benefits for the people we’re trying to help.”

WFP staff use this location information to determine where to deliver food rations and position programs such as flood protection, irrigation systems or nurseries. For the Afghan people, smart cards also help WFP staff negotiate access routes with government officials or non-state armed groups to reach remote or isolated areas.

Democratize ideas

When Prades started with WFP in 2008, the organization used GIS for basic data visualization to map the results of food security assessments. Now, geospatial technology supports advanced analytics generated by modern GIS and web applications for complex logistics and near real-time data sharing.

“We call it a spatial data infrastructure,” Prades says. “It really allows us to store, process and share all geospatial data and make it accessible at all levels of the organization. We all work with the same data. “

Every day, WFP coordinates an average of 5,600 trucks, 50 maritime expeditions, 92 planes and 650 warehouses around the world. Operational staff operate geospatial infrastructure to coordinate aid deliveries.

“We produce reference maps with the transport network to allow logistics staff to plan their routes and see which roads they can access with which trucks,” explains Thierry Crevoisier, GIS manager at WFP headquarters in Rome.

Teams in the field are constantly providing new information – what is happening with the roads, where the schools and markets are, where the security challenges are. New data synchronizes between routing applications for secure aid delivery. Live maps and dashboards are linked to automatic early warning systems configured to trigger a response before a weather event. What is most remarkable for Prades is the way in which the technology “is not driven by the technicians, but rather by the users, by the operators”.

Residents of each country served by WFP accept responsibility for updating information or contributing open source data, such as conflict maps. Live updates to dashboards and applications allow WFP staff to prepare for challenges and reduce risk when delivering aid or conducting assessments in the field.

Proactive and real-time logistics

When flooding recently hit South Sudan, WFP was working to deliver food to people stranded by flooding in Indonesia and the Philippines. With the increase in climate-related events, Prades highlighted the growing calls for a preliminary impact assessment to prepare resources for when and where disasters occur. This measure would reduce the scenarios in which WFP teams are called upon or mobilize reactively.

Geospatial technology enables such analysis, by overlaying a forecast storm track or earthquake epicenter with the locations of vulnerable populations prior to an event. Subsequently, WFP teams rely on these same smart cards – loaded with local data and satellite images – to deliver supplies.

“The humanitarian world is changing,” Prades says. “Once we know an event is coming, we have a two week window. What kind of intervention can we already implement during these two or three weeks to be able to mitigate the impact of the coming shock? “

In Mozambique, a country that experiences major flooding every few years, Prades and his team created flood risk models showing potential damage and people affected. Models can be run based on road safety and condition assessments as well as WFP resources. Seeing this geographic information before the actual floods shifted WFP planners from a response mindset to a preparedness mindset.

“They’re starting to change the way they think,” Prades says. “Where can we pre-position certain stocks according to areas at risk of flooding? What are the most efficient routes to take when this happens? Normally people tend to be very responsive – we don’t tend to think before the event happens. “

The possibility of zero hunger

The covid-19 pandemic has worsened food insecurity for the world’s most vulnerable people, those already plagued by conflict and climate-related disasters. WFP estimates that an additional 96 million people in 54 countries reached levels of acute hunger in 2020, on top of the 137 million recorded in 2019.

In its mission to end world hunger, WFP aligns itself with one of the Sustainable Development Goals developed by the United Nations and adopted in 2015 by the global community.

Although the pandemic has made this goal more difficult, Prades sees the collaborative work of several agencies as a way to step up the fight. And the geospatial tools it builds can strengthen that collaboration while continuing to fulfill the dual mandate of meeting immediate needs and addressing underlying causes.

“It’s a different approach, and it’s pretty promising,” Prades says. “My dream is that there is no more hunger.”

This content was produced by Insights, the personalized content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.



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