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Mobile Technology, Cloud Services and Geographic Information: Improving the Effectiveness of Humanitarian Work

By Carol Bothwell, VP & CIO, Catholic Relief Services

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Carol Bothwell, VP & CIO, Catholic Relief Services

The growing ubiquity of mobile networks spawns new ways to use technology in humanitarian work. Indeed, the combination of  mobile technology, cloud services, and geographic information offers us countless opportunities to improve the effectiveness  of our operations. Take three examples:

Health–Imagine conducting a nation-wide, paper-based malaria survey in rural Africa. Survey agents travel through dirt roads  to remote villages to administer paper surveys, return to field offices where clerks key survey data into computers, and make return trips to clean up errors. By the time health workers finally analyze the data, two years pass and another million African children die from malaria.

Imagine the same scenario with mobile devices and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Survey agents collect data off-line, synchronize it to a central data store when connected, and results are immediately displayed on an online map. Health workers analyze survey results within days. With cloud services, all this is done without investment in local infrastructure. The  availability of geo coded survey data in near real time to make decisions is transformational.

Geospatial analytics allow health officials to easily answer questions such as: Are health clinics easily accessible by road  in areas hardest hit by malaria? Are bed nets being used? Are children being vaccinated? Have villagers received malaria prevention education? Which prevention measures have the greatest impact? Think how many children might be saved by refining  prevention activities throughout the course of a two year malaria eradication campaign rather than waiting for a follow-on  campaign to begin!

Agriculture–2.8 Bn people live on less than $2 dollars a day. Over 70percent live in rural areas, depending on agriculture for their livelihood. For years, humanitarian organizations and governments have provided agriculture extension services to  small farmers to help improve their productivity and access to markets. However, the ratio of extension workers to farmers  has grown and exceeds 1:3000 in some countries. Field agents have shifted attention away from individual farmers to farmer  groups whose leaders help provide advisory services. Imagine working without maps and tools that track the location of such  groups and their members, the delivery of advisory services, and their impact over time. It is very difficult to gauge which  extension services are benefiting communities.

Relief workers assessed the devastation caused by the Haiyan Typhoon using phones, tablets, to capture information and share  it using cloud-based mapping platforms

Now imagine field agents using GPS-enabled mobile devices to register farmers and farmer groups, to map their locations, to  educate their leaders, and record changes in group productivity and income. Imagine farmer group leaders accessing geospatial information using smartphones to advise members and answer questions such as: What affects my productivity (soil condition,  weather patterns, and infestation)? What crop varieties are locally available and appropriate? How much seed and fertilizer  do I need? Where are potential suppliers and buyers? What are their current prices? What profits can I expect? Imagine  supervisors viewing this data on a map to understand which populations are being served and which advisory services are  effective and make adjustments accordingly. All of this is rapidly becoming feasible with today’s technology.

Emergency Response–Mobile technology, cloud services, and geographic information have been invaluable in responding to recent natural disasters. Take a note of San Diego County’s online emergency map. During the recent wildfires, citizens were kept  apprised of the location of fires and shelters and were able to avoid evacuation zones and road closures in their daily  commutes. Now add a “9-1- 1” service such as Ushahidi established in Haiti in the hours following the Haiti earthquake.  Citizens used mobile devices to report locations where relief services were desperately needed. Relief workers viewed these  reports on an online map and responded. Now, picture relief workers from different organizations using that map to coordinate their activities, as they did in the Philippines. Hundreds of relief workers assessed the devastation caused by the Haiyan  Typhoon using mobile phones, tablets, and even unmanned aerial vehicles to capture information and shared it using  cloud-based mapping platforms.

Matching Technology with Needs. Where should one start in planning to use geographic technology in humanitarian work? In some ways, it is no different from  planning to use other technologies. You start by identifying:

• The problems and issues to be addressed (e.g., low farmer productivity and income),
• Current and desired practices(e.g., pest control, financial planning, market opportunities),
• Change management strategies (education, advisory services),
• Key stakeholders (e.g., field agent supervisors, extension workers, farmers),
• Related information needs (e.g., disease resistant varieties, input sources, market prices, changes in yields and income  levels). 

You then determine:

• Potential information sources (e.g., research institutions, supply companies, market information services, field data collection),

• Processes to gather and disseminate that information (e.g., beneficiary registration, baseline and impact surveys, advisory services, publication of online geographic information products),

• Data standards needed to support data sharing (e.g., standard definitions for plot size, varieties, yields),

• Integrated technology solutions that can support these processes (e.g., mobile devices, local network services, cloud-based data collection, management, reporting, mapping, and analysis services, cloud-based portals for sharing geospatial  information).

Given challenges in the environments in which humanitarian work is carried out, however, here are a few additional tips:

(1) Whenever possible, plan to collect data using mobile devices with an integrated GPS capability to easily capture the  location of data samples.

(2) Don’t depend on persistent connections for data exchange - there are areas where full network coverage does not exist or  where network quality is sporadic.

(3) Use cloud-based software services to collect, map and share data. Most humanitarian organizations do not have facilities  like those of commercial hosting centers which meet robust security and privacy standards or the IT resources to build and  maintain applications.

(4) Develop a strategy for sharing data that takes advantage of open data standards and embodies data privacy and security  controls and respects local regulations.

We are only beginning to see the transformational impact that geographic information has on humanitarian work when integrated with mobile technology and cloud services. And the growth in the use of such technologies will be likely to continue to  outpace everyone’s expectations over the next few years. What an exciting time!

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