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Created Sep 13 2016, 5:00 AM by Travis Heneveld

Big data may be the latest buzzword in the digital evolution, but what exactly is it and what does it mean for humanitarian operations?

Technological advancement has connected continents and communities in ways we never imagined possible. Today, people are no longer mere consumers of information, but have become creators and disseminators of content. And they are doing so with unrestrained ease.

For example, within 24 hours of Hurricane Sandy, over 3 million tweets had been sent. Over US$ 5 million was pledged via text messages after the earthquake in Haiti. That’s just the power of a single social media channel.

When disaster strikes, information comes streaming in through myriad sources: email; sms; messaging apps; mainstream and social media; images; video and audio recordings; UAVs; sensors and alarms. This information can prove invaluable to agencies responding to a crisis, but it can also be overwhelming – particularly when time is of the essence and resources are stretched.screens.jpg

The vast volume of information gathered needs to be verified, filtered and integrated in real-time. Even that is not enough. To be useful, this data has to be converted into actionable intelligence. And this is what big data is all about: it involves using sophisticated data analytics in order to present information visually and intuitively so that it’s easy to understand and share.

Impossible? No, in fact it’s already happening.

two_screens.jpgAutomating tasks for faster, more informed decision-making
Unstructured data such as photographs, video, speech and audio can be stored on a computer easily enough, but in order to be understood and interpreted, complex algorithms are needed. Thanks to data analytics - which enables trend-mapping and forecasting - human functions such as decision-making can be automated so that critical intelligence gets delivered to the right person at the right time.

For example, automated video analysis tools such as Agent Vi can detect events in real time, alerting users to potential incidents when certain events occur. In addition, they can detect and extract events or important data from surveillance footage, saving on valuable man-hours spent sifting through recorded video footage.

Big data is also comprised of structured data - such as tables, graphs and records - which are more easily processed by a computer. The combination of historical analytics (data which is processed over a period of time) with real-time analytics (data processed as it comes in) creates a broad ecosystem of knowledge. Once it’s stored in a central repository, this intelligence becomes more easy to access and it can drive collaboration, sharing and collective learning.

Gaining new insights and identifying trends
While real-time data can provide new insights that improve situational awareness as events unfold, the ability to review and access historical data is key to making planning decisions. Solutions such as Command Central Analytics can offer customisable dashboard reports on incidents, showing activity timelines, the nature of an incident and the area in which it occurred. These reports can be shared via email or automatically - across devices and operating systems - enabling trends to be identified for major issues.


Of course, capturing data in the field is also of vital importance – be it the photographs and fingerprints of beneficiaries, managing and reporting on the distribution of food or emergency supplies and supporting interventions. The mobile software platform Scene Doc is designed to simplify the collection, organisation, management and sharing of data. It stores all data - including forms, diagrams, notes, photographs, audio recordings and high-resolution video – in one secure location and maintains functionality, even when there’s no network connection.

Building the digital humanitarian network
As community engagement in dealing with humanitarian crises increases, social media platforms are playing an important role in both disseminating and providing information. Facebook’s Safety Check feature has proved helpful in enabling people to establish quickly whether their loved ones are safe, Google’s maps helped citizens in Chennai to navigate around flooded streets and Twitter was used by victims whose homes were flooded to send SOS messages to rescue workers. And after the earthquake in Nepal, social media platforms were used to appeal to citizens to help overloaded aid workers with the clean-up.phone.jpg

One example of citizen engagement is the UN’s co-founded Digital Humanitarian Network. The DHN is harnessing the power of digital communication by crowd-sourcing volunteers around the world to monitor, analyse, map and trace events. These range from outbreaks of disease such as the Ebola virus, to locating victims after a natural disaster, ascertaining the extent of damage, as well as helping to determine where aid needs to be delivered or tracking vehicles.

user.jpgThe ability to collaborate with local communities can have a tremendous impact on the effectiveness of humanitarian operations but it also gives rise to new challenges which must be faced. These include threats to privacy, data integrity and security.

Through more reliable and affordable connectivity – be that GPS tracking, GSM, satellite, LTE, or two-way radio – and mobile applications that enable individuals to contribute and interact more smartly and securely, organisations such as Motorola Solutions can help humanitarian operations turn big data to their advantage.

As a stakeholder in the network of humanitarian innovators, we’re committed to working with aid agencies to facilitate better monitoring, more accurate and faster data collection, greater transparency and improved efficiency.

Travis Heneveld

Director: United Nations & International Accounts, Motorola Solutions

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