What Might Humanitarian Organizations Look Like in the Near Future?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Chetan Deva, Climate and Society 2014

In a world where Google Earth allows us to zoom in around the globe, information travels at the speed of social media and storms can be tracked many days in advance, the opportunity for humanitarian organizations to adopt advances in science and technology is vast. While uptake of advanced technology is still in its infancy, projects like Crisis Mappers, which uses information from social media to visualize what is happening where in the aftermath of a disaster, offers a window into what humanitarian operations could look like in the future. See here for a fascinating TED talk on how this development came about following the Haiti earthquake.

Recent advances in the skill of seasonal climate forecasts offer another useful tool. In 2008, the Red Cross was able to use the International Research Institute for Climate and Society’s seasonal rainfall forecasts of above normal rainfall for West Africa to pre-position relief supplies, develop flood contingency plans and train volunteers to help communities cope with floods before they arrived.

(Source: Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center)

(Source: Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center)

At first sight this looks like a simple process, but translating rainfall forecasts into flood forecasts requires that disaster managers have additional information on river levels, topography and current flood protection at their fingertips.

To answer this need, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre is exploring crowdsourcing information through volunteers at a community level using the high penetration of mobile phones to figure out local conditions in remote parts of rural Zambia. What makes this crowdsourcing approach particularly unique, though, is the gamification of gathering information. Players earn points in the game through providing real time information on local conditions such as river levels and win by using forecasts to make the most accurate predictions about future conditions. You can read more about the game here.

Beyond absorbing technology, humanitarian organizations are also seeking to break new ground on the institutional side. Once a disaster manager has decided that the situation calls for action, funding must be found. This takes time, so organizations are exploring the idea of linking financing for operations with climate forecasts. A shift to forecast-based financing would provide a system boost to early warning and early action, improving outcomes and increasing the efficiency with which resources are used.

The above only skims the surface of the innovations that are currently being explored by humanitarian organizations. From new ways of visualizing data in real-time to new information on the climate of the future, humanitarian organizations are transforming the way they receive, respond to and think about data. Spending my summer internship translating seasonal climate forecasts, building a map room for heatwaves and creating training materials on the science behind them has been a great opportunity to be part of this effort.

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