Big data’s big role in humanitarian aid

Hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed into Europe in 2015 from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Some estimates put the number at nearly a million.

The sheer volume of people overwhelmed European officials, who not only had to handle the volatile politics stemming from the crisis, but also had to find food, shelter and other necessities for the migrants.

Sweden, like many of its European Union counterparts, was taking in refugees. The Swedish Migration Board, which usually sees 2,500 asylum seekers in an average month, was accepting 10,000 per week.

“As you can imagine, with that number, it requires a lot of buses, food, registration capabilities to start processing all the cases and to accommodate all of those people,” says Andres Delgado, head of operational control, coordination and analysis at the Swedish Migration Board.

Despite the dramatic spike in refugees coming into the country, the migration agency managed the intake — hiring extra staff, starting the process of procuring housing early, getting supplies ready. Delgado credits a good part of that success to his agency’s use of big data and analytics that let him predict, with a high degree of accuracy, what was heading his way.

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“Without having that capability, or looking at the tool every day, to assess every need, this would have crushed us. We wouldn’t have survived this,” Delgado says. “It would have been chaos, actually — nothing short of that.”

The Swedish Migration Board has been using big data and analytics for several years, as it seeks to gain visibility into immigration trends and what those trends will mean for the country. Delgado says its Qlik Technologies analytics tools gave his agency, and Sweden, the ability to prepare for the rush of refugees in a way it couldn’t have years ago.

“We [once] looked into the future with our back toward the horizon. That wasn’t really a good form of control of the operations,” Delgado says. “We wanted to turn around 180 degrees and look into the future. We got a tool that would give us the capability to gather information [and] process all this data and look into predictions of the upcoming year so we could be three or six months ahead in our planning.”

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The Swedish Migration Board’s success in anticipating, and thus being able to prepare for, the refugee crisis of 2015 is impressive enough. But that’s only the start of the story. The real story lies in what this agency and other humanitarian organizations are starting to do with big data and analytics. Like their corporate brethren, humanitarian and peace-building organizations are harnessing data to gain insight into the people and problems they’re tasked with handling. And just like the for-profits, they’re finding that their efforts are paying off.

“Can big data give us peace? I think the short answer is we’re starting to explore that. We’re at the very early stages, where there are shining examples of little things here and there. But we’re on that road,” says Kalev H. Leetaru, creator of the GDELT Project, or the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone, which describes itself as a comprehensive “database of human society.”

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The topic is gaining traction. A 2013 report, “New Technology and the Prevention of Violence and Conflict,” from the International Peace Institute, highlights uses of telecommunications technology, including data, in several crisis situations around the world. The report emphasizes the potential these technologies hold in helping to ease tensions and address problems.

The report’s conclusion offers this idea: “Big data can be used to identify patterns and signatures associated with conflict — and those associated with peace — presenting huge opportunities for better-informed efforts to prevent violence and conflict.”

That’s welcome news to Noel Dickover. He’s the director of PeaceTech Data Networks at the PeaceTech Lab, which was created by the U.S.;

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