This week’s blog is a guest entry by Gabriela Alvarado, the WFP Regional IT Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Gaby lead the IT Working Group in Haiti, which provided support to the humanitarian response through the provision of ETC Connectivity Services. The team from the Regional Bureau worked with mVAM and Flowminder to supply valuable time-bound information to the operation.
Supporting Emergencies through Technology & Joint Efforts
It’s now been just over a month since Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Haiti, devastating the western side of the country. The hurricane has affected an estimated 2.1 million people, leaving 1.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance.
In the days following the hurricane, a rapid food security assessment was carried out to determine the impact of the hurricane on the food security of households and communities in the affected areas. In the most-affected areas, the départements of Grande-Anse and Sud, people reported that crops and livestock, as well as agricultural and fishing equipment, were almost entirely destroyed.
We all know the challenges we face at WFP when looking to collect information, in order to determine what would be the best response under the circumstances on the ground. In the aftermath of the hurricane, which had destroyed infrastructure, caused flooding, and temporarily knocked out telecommunications, gathering information from affected areas was especially difficult. So, WFP’s Information Technology team in the Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean reached out to Flowminder, a non-profit organization that uses big data analysis to answer questions that would be operationally relevant for government and aid agencies trying to respond to emergencies. Thanks to an existing agreement between WFP and Flowminder, WFP was able to quickly establish a working group and start data collection one day after the hurricane struck Haiti.
Flowminder aggregates, integrates and analyses anonymous mobile operator data (call detail records), satellite and household survey data, which helps to estimate population displacements following a crisis. Displaced people are some of the most vulnerable following a hurricane, and knowing where people have gone helps to provide more effective assistance.
By 24 October 2016, Flowminder estimated that 260,500 people had been displaced within the Grande Anse, Sud, and Nippes départements. In Les Cayes, the major city in Sud, the population grew by an estimated 42% in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew according to Flowminder analysis. In fact, Flowminder analyses suggest that many people moved toward cities, even Jérémie and Les Cayes, which were severely damaged by the hurricane.
So how exactly did Flowminder make these estimates with so many areas barely accessible? By analysing anonymized call detail records from Digicel, one of Haiti’s major cell phone network providers, and comparing where people placed calls before and after the hurricane, Flowminder was able provide an estimate of the number of displaced people. Flowminder uses algorithms that look at where the last “transaction” (phone call or sms) took place each day in order to identify the place where people were living before the hurricane and then subsequently moved afterwards. . It makes sense – the last few calls or texts you make at night are often from your home. While Flowminder does not get exact locations from the call data records, they can identify a general home location using the closest cell phone tower. After identifying the home location, Flowminder needs to determine how many people each phone represents. In poorer areas, not everyone may own a phone, or many people may not be able to charge and use their phones after a natural disaster like a hurricane. Flowminder uses formulas which takes these factors into account, and translates the number of phones into an estimate of the number of people who are displaced.
How will this further help?
With the information provided by Flowminder, WFP is able to estimate:
- possible gaps in assistance in areas of the country which were not damaged by Hurricane Matthew, but which are experiencing an influx of people in need of food assistance following the hurricane;
- use and community ‘acceptance’ of the use of mobile money (one aspect is the availability of the service, while the other aspect is if it is being used in that area);
- the prevalence and spread of diseases (including Cholera, which continues to pose a risk in the aftermath of the hurricane).
It has been a very challenging yet incredible opportunity to see where and how technology can be used to further support an emergency response under difficult conditions and to ensure that WFP can reach the most vulnerable after a disaster.