How data science can help release emergency funds before a crisis

head shot of Monica Turner smiling to camera

Although data science is still a relatively new field, its potential for the humanitarian sector is vast and ever-changing. We caught up with one of MapAction’s Data Scientists Monica Turner to discover how data science is evolving, the impact of COVID-19 on her work and how predictive modelling could see disaster funding being released before a disaster has occurred. 

Interview by Karolina Throssell, MapAction Communications Volunteer

How did you get into data science?

I have a background in Astrophysics but wanted to transition into data science, so I started volunteering with 510 global which is part of the Netherlands Red Cross. This was my first experience in the humanitarian sector, and I was immediately hooked. After working briefly as a data scientist at a technology company, I began working at MapAction in March 2020. As part of my work, I am seconded to the Centre for Humanitarian Data in the Hague, which is managed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

What is the role of data science at MapAction?

Even though one of MapAction’s primary products is maps, these are created by combining different data sets. So, while the explicit presence of a data scientist at the organisation is new, MapAction has fundamentally always been doing data science on some level. With this new role, the hope is to both formalise the current data science practices, and expand our analytical capability, ultimately shifting our role from data consumer to having an active role in the development and improvement of humanitarian data sets. 

As a data scientist, you often have to wear many hats – from data cleaning to model development to visualisation. With the Moonshot project, we are looking to automate the creation of seven to nine key maps for 20 countries. One of my first tasks is to design and build a pipeline that downloads, transforms, and checks the quality of all the different data sets that make up these key maps. The details of this pipeline will be the subject of a future blog post. 

How has COVID-19 impacted on your work?

One of MapAction’s strengths is the field work that we are able to do during an emergency as well as the remote support we provide. However, as COVID-19 has limited the ability to travel, the paradigm has shifted and we need to rethink how we respond to emergencies overall. In particular, we are working to expand the types of products that we offer to our partners, as the demand increases for more remote-oriented products such as web-based dashboards. 

At the Centre for Humanitarian data, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, we’ve been developing a model relating to the spread of COVID, to help low- and middle-income countries plan their responses.

A female medic wearing a facemask takes the temperature of a smiling man before he enters a clinic
Photo: Trócaire 

One of the main challenges of modelling COVID-19 is the novelty of the disease. Since there is no historical data, model validation becomes much more challenging. Additionally, the number of cases and deaths is a crucial input to the model. With higher income countries, more testing is done so the data we need is there, however the availability and quality of this data in low- and middle-income countries poses a further hurdle. Nevertheless, even with these caveats it is still very valuable to provide low- and middle-income countries with a tailored scenario-building tool for developing their COVID response.

Where is data science heading?

Predictive analytics will play a much larger role in the future of data science. The UN is currently working on a huge project to provide funding for predictive models that will enable it to release funding from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), to help communities prepare and protect themselves from disasters before they occur. After a successful pilot project in Bangladesh, we plan to extend our model validation to other types of disasters such as cholera and food insecurity.

At MapAction, the Moonshot will lead a shift towards preparedness and enable us to develop methods to assess the completeness and quality of the data going into our maps. Our hope is that with this emphasis on data analysis, we will be able to provide meaningful contributions to a wide array of humanitarian data sets. Additionally, we are hoping to build an analytics team, and will be recruiting data science volunteers in early 2021, so check our website and sign up to our newsletter to find out how you can apply. And if you can contribute in other ways to our data science work, please contact us!

MapAction’s Data Scientist is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

MapAction’s Moonshot – origins and ambitions

By Juan Duarte, Technical Director, and Monica Turner, Data Scientist, MapAction

Close up of left hand side of the moon
Photo: Adam Scott

History will always underscore how landing on the moon represented a significant milestone in the space race, yet what is often less spoken about is the number of technologies that might not have ever made it without space travel.

These include the all-important ability to take pictures on our phone, thanks to the technology originally created by a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the technique used to develop diamond-hard coatings for aerospace systems that can now be found on scratch-resistant spectacles. Inventions that originally started life with a bigger purpose but have filtered down into solving some of the challenges in our everyday lives.

This brings us onto MapAction’s own Moonshot initiative – an ambitious programme of work encompassing step changes in the way we use different technologies in the course of our work. This includes things like how we triage, assign and manage the requests for support we receive, and how we can automate certain repeat activities. 

One of the first projects we are working on within the Moonshot programme will enable us to produce seven to nine key maps for 20 of the world’s most vulnerable countries automatically, using technology we’re developing that will provide benefits for many years to come. This is being funded through our partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office.

In the humanitarian sector, a perennial challenge is access to high-quality data. This need is even more acute in the chaotic aftermath of a humanitarian emergency, when data and maps are crucial to make rapid sense of the situation and plan the best response to save lives and minimise suffering. 

In the early hours of a crisis, one of the first tasks facing our team is to produce standardised ‘core’ maps that will be used throughout the response, regardless of the nature of the emergency. These provide contextual and reference information about, among other things, the local environment, population and infrastructure. Sometimes they are created under difficult on-the-ground conditions or with incomplete information. Once they are in place, they are used to create additional situation-specific maps by layering on top evolving information about the extent and impacts of the emergency and the humanitarian response.

As MapAction has made maps in hundreds of emergencies, it has become apparent that, in creating these foundational core maps, there are many repeatable, generalised tasks that could be handled much more quickly by a machine, achieving in seconds what used to take hours. This would give humanitarian decision-makers the orientation information they need immediately, and free up our specialist volunteers for actively assessing and engaging with the situation at hand and performing the mapping tasks that only humans can do. 

Moreover, by shifting the focus from reactive to proactive data sourcing and map production, we can ensure we provide the best maps possible – not just the best maps, given the time and data available and the prevailing circumstances in the midst of a humanitarian emergency. 

Many countries, particularly low and middle-income countries, are likely to have data gaps, and they are often also the countries that may have the least resilience to emergencies such as droughts or earthquakes. Identifying and addressing these data gaps in advance is a big part of the Moonshot project, and something that will have benefits for the humanitarian sector as a whole. 

Like the proverbial needle in the haystack, important data can exist within a subset of a much larger dataset and accessing it can be tricky. Finding a gap is even more difficult, as you’re looking for an unknown entity that isn’t there. The technology we’re developing for the Moonshot will help us to identify the hard-to-see data gaps and quality issues that currently exist. By discovering these, we can pinpoint what information will be needed to ensure a complete map and then work with partners around the world to proactively put in place missing data or improve what currently exists. 

The initial goal of the Moonshot is to publish 180 core maps (nine for each of the 20 vulnerable countries identified at the beginning of the project). The same processes will then be applied to other countries and, eventually, to other types of automated maps beyond these core ones. This means we will ultimately be in a position to expand our understanding and quality assessment processes for more data types. New opportunities and routes of travel are likely to emerge as the project develops.

The ambition is big, but the possibilities that will result from achieving this goal will fundamentally change the way we approach map creation in the humanitarian sector in the future.

In a series of blogs over the next few months, we will share the story of this work as it unfolds, as well as diving down deeper into specific elements of it.

COVID-19 modelling with the Centre for Humanitarian Data

Since March this year, a MapAction data scientist has been based at the Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague, supporting its workstream on predictive analytics. The aim of this important work is to forecast humanitarian emergencies and needs in order to trigger responses before a disaster occurs.

One of the projects the Centre’s predictive analytics team is working on, in partnership with the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and individual country offices of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is the development of COVID-19 modelling tailored for each country’s specific context. This seeks to predict the scale, severity and duration of the outbreak within each country, including its likely effects on particularly vulnerable groups, such as people at risk of hunger or those using solid fuel indoors for cooking.

The project is also modelling the effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) such as curfews, travel bans and face masks, according to what is locally viable.

The inclusion of country-specific factors, looking at projections for specific vulnerable groups as well as the general population at a sub national level, can make this work particularly helpful for governments and humanitarian organisations to inform their COVID planning.

Projected total infections per 100,000 inhabitants in Afghanistan on 2020-08-03. Projections are obtained by simulating local transmission in each district in Afghanistan and expected spatial and temporal spread between districts. Country-specific risk factors are included in the simulation at the subnational level.
German Humanitarian Assistance logo

The initial model was developed for Afghanistan and is now being extended to other priority countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Sudan. 

We’re grateful for the support of the German Federal Foreign Office which funds MapAction’s data scientist role.

Supporting refugees in Northwest Syria

Earlier this year, MapAction was asked by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to send a team to Turkey. Their mission was to provide assistance to humanitarian teams there and in Northwest Syria who are supporting the very large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people that arrived in the region during the first three months of the year following an upsurge of fighting in Aleppo.

The request was to work with two groups of organisations collaborating to collectively manage around 900 refugee camps; the Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) Cluster, and the Shelter /Non-Food Item (SNFI) Cluster.

Days before the MapAction team was due to travel, the UK and Turkey went into lockdown. Consequently, the team was compelled to switch rapidly to a remote-working approach.

Since late March, they have been helping the Clusters to get a better understanding of the locations and sizes of the camps and the needs of the people arriving and living in them. Camps vary enormously; from just a few tents to up to 93 separate sites within a single camp, and from long-term, static settlements to temporary ones.

As well as cross referencing, checking and cleaning data about camp locations received from numerous sources, the MapAction team developed some simple tools to help do this quickly and easily in future, which will also have benefits for other areas of work undertaken by the Clusters. One tool validates the location coordinates of camps recorded by teams within Syria, another matches them to Syrian administrative areas.

The MapAction team has also been locating aerial images of the camps on OpenStreetMap and using these to develop 900 map polygons showing the shape and size of each camp. As well as helping the Clusters to understand and meet the existing needs of people in the camps, this work will help to inform them about their population densities, which is particularly important in the context of COVID-19.

MapAction helps create UK COVID strategic planning sytem

The Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCS EP) is leading a collaborative initiative to establish a UK-wide coordination system for civil society organisations and charities participating in the country’s domestic response to COVID-19. It aims to provide support to people in vulnerable situations who aren’t able to get help locally. The initiative, which is backed by the UK government, is a huge undertaking and draws on expertise from a broad range of people and organisations.

The concept is based on a number of ‘tactical cells’ located around the four countries of the UK and made up of experts from across the voluntary and community sector.

These cells will oversee, coordinate and represent the voluntary and community sector’s response to Covid19. Each cell aims to identify the unmet need of people in the most vulnerable situations by linking information gathered from teams delivering front-line support to strategic decision makers. This rapidly changing information is used to ensure resources go to where they are most needed, for example by identifying where demand for support outweighs the local capacity available, or where needs are of a particularly specialist nature.

A four-person MapAction team has been supporting the VCS EP to set up, test and run the information flows and coordination systems for the tactical cells. Our input was solicited because of our team’s experience and knowledge of the challenges of creating and delivering a robust information management process across multiple countries in a complex and rapidly evolving crisis situation.

The VCS EP is co-chaired by the British Red Cross and the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA).

The new system is being rolled out this week and will be in place for the rest of the spring and summer. 

Helping WHO with mapping in Libya and Chad

MapAction volunteers have been supporting the World Health Organization (WHO) in Libya and Chad to process and map data about health and sanitation services, in order to support the response to COVID-19.

The volunteers have been working remotely, alongside each country’s health cluster (networks of WHO partners that work together to relieve suffering and save lives in humanitarian emergencies). They have been helping to identify and map what healthcare, water and sanitation services and aid are being provided, by whom, when and where. This is known as 4W mapping and is important to help identify gaps and avoid duplication.

We are now looking at providing similar assistance to WHO in other parts of North and Central Africa.

COVID-19 government measures dashboard

We’ve helped ACAPS to put together a dashboard showing government measures being taken around the world. Data can be filtered by region, country, type of measure and timeframe.

Screenshot of government measures dashboard

We will be updating this twice a week. In the meantime ACAPS, MapAction and other organisations are looking at further topics to develop analysis for. 

New partnership with German Federal Foreign Office

MapAction has formed a new partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO) Humanitarian Assistance to help improve the use of technology and data in humanitarian decision making.

As part of the broad-ranging programme, MapAction is working on greatly reducing the time and effort required to create maps and data products needed in many emergencies, by automating repeat processes. It is also extending its capacity to have specialist personnel in emergency situations for longer periods to support information management and decision-making processes, and placing a data scientist in the Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague to facilitate knowledge sharing.

MapAction Chief Executive Liz Hughes said, “This is an exciting programme which will help to keep us at the vanguard of humanitarian response missions, but also, vitally, to overhaul our technical offer. This will enable us to continue to help ensure the best possible outcomes for people affected by disasters and humanitarian emergencies. We are very pleased to be working with GFFO and looking forward very much to getting stuck in to this important work together.”

Sharing insights at INSARAG meetings in Chile

This week, a MapAction volunteer has been participating in discussions and strengthening relationships with our partners at the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) Information Management Working Group and Team Leaders meetings in Santiago, Chile. These conversations enable us to continuously improve how we visualise data collected by INSARAG teams.

Thanks to the USAID Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance for supporting our participation, as part of our joint programme to improve the ways in which geographical information systems (GIS), mapping and spatial analysis are used in humanitarian emergencies.

Assessing communities’ needs in Afghanistan

After years of conflict, natural disasters and drought, a large proportion of communities in Afghanistan are in crisis and many people have fled their homes in search of safety and security.

Since last year, MapAction has been working with partners including REACH and ACAPS in Afghanistan to support country-wide assessments of humanitarian needs, including hard-to-reach areas.

Two MapAction volunteers have spent the past two weeks in Afghanistan working with the local REACH team to support REACH’s largest needs-assessment survey of the year across the whole of Afghanistan. They have been collaborating to analyse and present assessment findings and help plug information gaps. This will greatly help those working to assist communities that are caught up in what is one of the most complex humanitarian emergencies in the world.

We’re grateful to the UK’s Deprartment for International Development for supporting this important work.

GIS training for disaster preparedness in Kazakhstan

A programme of training for disaster management teams across Kazakhstan has been continuing this week. Employees of the Department for Emergency Situations of Almaty, the East Kazakhstan and Pavlodar regions have been learning about geographic information systems (GIS), data management and mapping on a course jointly provided by MapAction and the region’s Center for Emergency Situations and Disaster Risk Reduction (CESDRR).

The training is part of an ongoing programme of work which sees CESDRR and MapAction collaborating to enhance the use of mapping and information management to improve and expand disaster preparedness, relief and recovery activities across Central Asia. We’re very grateful to US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) for funding this work.

Three MapAction volunteers are currently in Ust-Kamenogorsk in East Kazakhstan. Next week they will move to Atyrau in the West of the country to repeat the course with another group of local emergency management personnel. In August, two further courses will take place in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Read about our other recent activities in Central Asia.

Humanitarian mapping training in the Caribbean

Together with our partner the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), members of MapAction’s Caribbean and European teams are providing humanitarian mapping training to local disaster management teams from the Eastern and Central regions of the Caribbean this week and next .

Pictures by CDEMA

Disaster management personnel from nine Caribbean nations, as well as CDEMA staff, are attending one of two courses, one in Antigua & Barbuda and the other in Barbados. These courses follow on from similar workshops that took place last year: a regional one at CDEMA’s headquarters in Barbados and one for the North-Western Caribbean in Jamaica. 

Participants are improving their GIS (geographical information system) skills and we are working with them to help understand their national data and information management needs and capabilities, where the gaps are and how MapAction can help to ensure they are filled. This will assist them to effectively prepare for and respond to disasters.

This is part of our ongoing joint programme of work with CDEMA and is funded by US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).