Big Data is becoming a trend for all humanitarian organizations, particularly because it can empower a more coordinated and efficient response. Among national societies, the Netherlands Red Cross has been at the forefront of how the Red Cross Movement looks at Big Data, through its 510 initiative. The ambition of the 510 initiative is to shape the future of humanitarian action by converting data into understanding, and putting it in the hands of humanitarian relief workers, decision makers and affected populations, so that they can better prepare for and cope with disasters and crises. Find out more about this project through this “Join the Conversation,” featuring Maarten Van der Veen, the initiator of the project.

You work for the Netherlands Red Cross, which is very active in humanitarian innovation. How would you explain the NLRCs involvement in this field? The root of the NLRC’s drive towards innovation lies in Dutch culture, which is typically to be forward looking and always on the look out for better solutions. When you combine this with a good education system and a very motivating work environment, which pushes people to thrive, you get a great foundation for innovation. The NLRC is a national society that is eager to keep the Red Cross movement relevant, and we want to be at the forefront of developments that could impact our work: this means to be among the first to pilot and realize new ideas. We accelerated our innovation capacity in 2015 when, together with partners in the Netherlands, we established the Dutch coalition for humanitarian innovation (DCHI). This also increased the NLRC’s commitment at the management level to invest in innovation, which gave birth to several new initiatives. And, of course, the setup of the 510 global initiative is a leap forward in the technical innovation capacity of the NLRC.

The NLRC has launched the 510 global initiative. What is it and who is involved? 510 aims to make smart use of data to make humanitarian aid faster and more cost-effective. A team of volunteers, students and staff, supported by companies and knowledge institutes is part of our data start-up environment, which gives the NLRC the flexibility and freedom to develop and test new ideas, and to bring them into the operations of the Red Cross. 510 currently mainly uses an insourcing model. If a company wants to help out, we ask for their best experts to work with us for one day a week. If a knowledge institute wants to join, we work with their students under the supervision of a faculty member. We are increasingly embedding our data products and services in the international programs of the NLRC, and are working with IFRC, ICRC and other national societies to find ways in which we can collaborate, or bring our products, services or data expertise into movement wide programs.

Could you share examples of application big data analysis in humanitarian contexts? What is the scale of impact? Big data is still hard to come by within the Red Cross. Most national societies do not have a history of collecting operational data. Currently, this is changing rapidly with mobile data collection, the use of satellite remote sensing technologies and by opening up proprietary systems to contribute to the open data trend. Our success stories include the use of artificial intelligence (e.g. machine learning) techniques to predict damage of natural disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes and floods. Based on historical damage data we are increasingly able to predict the impact of a disaster, just hours after it happens. Official damage counts can still take weeks for completion, so this initial data can help us prioritize our immediate relief operations. We have successfully tested this technique during Typhoon Haima that occurred in 2016 in the Philippines.

Another example of innovative use of data is the community risk assessment toolbox we developed, which uses the well-established INFORM risk framework to understand risk at a community level and identify the most vulnerable communities. Data from multiple data sources are combined to give us an integrated understanding of which communities to target in our humanitarian programs. These applications have been tested in multiple countries, but we have a long way to reaching scale, mainly due to data poverty in many of our areas of operations. Increasing understanding and appreciation for the potential of using data within the Red Cross movement is going to be one of the driving factors to increase our impact.

The use and management of data brings the question of protection of said data. How does the 510 global initiative take this essential parameter into account? We take protection of data very seriously, but we are not paralyzed by it. Currently we are finalizing our data responsibility policy, which is a guideline for our team and NLRC to understand risks of using data, and how to cope with them. It is important to us that every team member has a basic understanding of data-related risks, and can thereby signal early on if something is potentially harmful. Thus far we have mainly worked with aggregated de-personalized open data. We are always consulting our partner national societies to understand potential risks that they see for a data project. We have decided not to implement projects, such as satellite-based mapping projects, in a few countries where the national society was not comfortable with the risks the project could impose.

How do you think this initiative will evolve? And more broadly, how do you see big data impacting humanitarian action and development in the future? This initiative has so far experienced a very fast growth curve, which we expect to continue for at least 2 years. However, establishing a big data team in the Netherlands is not an objective per se. We very much encourage other national societies to build data capacity, to link to us directly in a networked form, and we are willing to support this process. Our dot on the horizon is a network of teams like 510 across the globe.

It is our expectation that the use of data as a core component of humanitarian aid will be more accepted in the next few years, and that it will remain so in our humanitarian work. This will help us make better decisions faster, maybe even bridge some very time consuming tasks with fast and efficient data and digital solutions, and help us scale up other innovations such as forecast based financing and peer-to-peer cash transfer programming.

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For more information about the 510 Initiative, have a look at their website here.