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16 January, 2018
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3 keys for Big Data and Humanitarians

The current incursion of Big Data, propelled by the Internet of Things (IoT), places humanitarian organizations in need of considering three major concerns: to be able to keep up to speed of data collection processes, to have the means and capacity to consume and digest all the data that is being collected to produce information value, and the need of such value to be scalable and downgraded to suit older and sometimes deprecated technologies.

In countries where Internet access is available to the communities, the Internet of Things produces several amounts of information, at the disposal of those who might be interested. Demographic aspects, weather, social media users interests and more. For humanitarian organizations, with the help of new technology at their disposal, real-time surveys for distribution of malaria prevention Nets, counting number of patients who received vaccines for polio and countless of data collecting activities that have been automated, thus, accelerating the pace in which these are performed. However, with so much data happening in real time, most of which becomes unusable and outdated really fast, it still takes lots of time, capacity and resources to analyze such data and transform it into real value. In the best case scenario, even if we are able to appropriately gather every piece of information in one place, there is another issue to address regarding the use of big data in humanitarian context: how to produce information value.

For every context and situation, information gathering must follow procedures and protocols in order to maximize its use, sift “the noise” out of the bulk and guarantee its security. In response to emergencies, governance communications or simply gathering information on social workers or volunteers who are deployed in the field, tons of new information are generated by the second. Using automated systems, software and even low-key technologies such SMS messaging, the humanitarian aid workers and the communities can transmit this information to their supervisors, data centers or decision makers to respond or act accordingly.

Once it is received, this information needs to be ‘read’, understood and translated into actions, replies, budget approvals or any kind -the only kind- of response that is expected to save lives or help those in need. As simple as it seems, staff and communities need to be able to work together in the comprehension of the data that is being collected, its significance to the communities reality and the way it can be transformed into a case study or lessons learned for the next emergency setting. However, none of it matters if this information value fails to reach the community or the source where it was generated in the first place.

With technology growing faster than our capability to apply it and use it, it comes with zero surprise that most of our advances in communications are not supported or become deprecated within a few year and sometimes mere months of use. It is also known that developing hardware and software that is compatible with current or past technologies presents challenges and prejudices of its own, like refusing to embrace change or that removing compatibility out of the equation might drop the costs of a production release in a significant amount. In spite of that, in humanitarian context, this situation needs to be taken into consideration, even if it means to adopt new technologies at a slower pace. The purpose of data collection is to provide insights and information value to help those where such information was gathered and to be put to use. At the moment, tons of data are collected and derived from regions where deprecated technologies and outdated hardware/software prevent aid workers from taking immediate response and communities from becoming more resilient. Failure to achieve this in time or failing at all has proven to have devastating results, setting back entire deployments, cancelling useful programs or perpetuating preventable emergencies.

In addition to these three aspects, considerations regarding information security and the current status of technology advances in some areas is crucial. It is especially paramount to gain and keep the trust of the communities and local authorities to achieve the maximum support. Therefore, we need to guarantee that the information being collected is safe. In the same sense, we cannot underestimate the global reach of Social Media and include a larger community with the right capacity to create a sustainable and useful workforce which could help in lowering the costs of creating bridges between the old and the new, minimizing the need to rely on big donors or the private sector.

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