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Innovative Technology Needed to Improve Crisis Response

article by and images from Dr. Victor Soji Ladele

Humanitarian crises in general are affecting more people, for longer. One in every 70 people around the world is caught up in crisis and urgently needs humanitarian assistance. Food insecurity is rising, with the number of people experiencing crisis-level food insecurity or worse increasing from 80 million to 124 million people between 2015 to 2017. The number of forcibly displaced people rose from 59.5 million in 2014 to 68.5 million in 2017. Natural disasters and climate change continue to affect 350 million people on average each year and cause billions of dollars of damage. Pandemics — large disease outbreaks that affect several countries — are rising as a global threat and pose major health, social, and economic risks. (Source: United Nations Coordinated Support to People Affected by Disaster And Conflict)

Approaching the border between Liberia and Guinea.

My recent experience on the frontlines of a large-scale Ebola outbreak and many years of health emergency response, confirm that health system weaknesses in many countries are a source of global health insecurity. In an article in the influential New England Journal of Medicine in 2015, Bill Gates said, “There is a significant chance that an epidemic of a substantially more infectious disease (than Ebola) will occur sometime in the next 20 years. In fact, of all the things that could kill more than 10 million people around the world, the most likely is an epidemic stemming from either natural causes or bioterrorism.” In this interconnected world, a threat in one place is a threat everywhere.

Humanitarian action is intended to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity during and after crises and disasters, but often fall short of its lofty ideals in practice. The way it works is that most of the estimated $27.3 billion allocated to international humanitarian response comes from governments, but action is via proxies, the “humanitarian actors” (2017 Global Humanitarian Assistance Report by Development Initiatives). Humanitarian actors come from a plethora of UN agencies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, military branches, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local institutions and donor agencies.

Operations conference room in Liberia during the Ebola response.

In order for actions to be quick, agile, and impactful, coordination is paramount. Information management is the bedrock of coordination, and it is fair to say that this is one of the most important activities during a crisis response. However, in recent years, networks connecting humanitarians have expanded so quickly, that the volume of data flowing through these pathways — and the number of information sources — have become in and of itself a problem. Data comes fast and hard from many sources, and adoption of ICT applications to improve outcomes has been relatively slow. The innumerable NGOs that are working on international humanitarian issues cannot alone address needs of such magnitude and diversity. To tackle these complex problems requires deeper levels of collaboration between formal humanitarian organizations and tech communities like Data+Creativity.

An Ebola treatment center closes after the last patient is discharged.

Taking the relatively recent Ebola pandemic of 2014-2016 as a case study, nothing prepared the health emergency responders, myself included, for the difficulty of containing the outbreak.  With its many intense “waves of transmission”, dealing with the deadly pandemic challenged assumptions like never before, but at the end established a new nexus of cooperation among traditionally dissimilar groups like – community chiefs, epidemiologists, pastors, imams, hobbyists, doctors, financiers, anthropologists, logisticians, politicians, computer scientists, and technologists.

map_smBetween its start in 2013 in Guinea’s dense forest, and end in 2016, the Ebola pandemic, which originated in a remote village, spread south to Conakry, Freetown and Monrovia, east to Lagos, north to Bamako, northwest to Dakar, and by jet to the United States, Spain, the U.K. and Italy. The virus killed at least 11,315 people in seven countries and caused more than 28,600 known infections. Beyond the immediate horror and loss of life, the usual routines of daily life in the most affected countries came to a halt: population movement was restricted, harvests interrupted, markets closed, and volume of trade contracted. Reduced commercial activity in the surrounding region reversed recent economic gains. An estimated $2.2 billion was lost just in 2015 from the gross domestic product (GDP) of the three most affected countries. This regional economic decline in turn caused a widespread crisis of food security, affecting hundreds of thousands of people and turned into a separate humanitarian situation of itself.

A meeting with several partners, including local health authorities in Lofa County.

Prior to Ebola, I had been active in medical humanitarian assistance and health emergency relief for many years. Having gained experience both in tiny, poor village health centers and at higher strategic levels with responsibility for broader policy decisions. I was already convinced of the effectiveness of tackling complex problems with complementary, cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary teams. The idea is gaining broad acceptance in the humanitarian and global development community, but this model of cooperation is yet lacking a purpose-built Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) tool. During the Ebola outbreak, I served as information management officer in addition to my role as team lead with the World Health Organization. Then and now, a framework for blending local knowledge and expert knowledge is absent. The lack of an effective platform to harness local expertise within the humanitarian affairs coordination framework has brought about a shocking amount of missed opportunities in humanitarian crisis response.

Despite the sorrow and devastation, as Bill Gates has noted, “perhaps the only good news from the tragic epidemic (Ebola) is that it may serve as a wake-up call. We must prepare for future epidemics of diseases that may spread more effectively than Ebola.” The world is at greater risk than ever from global health threats. We may not know what the next epidemic will be, but we know that one is coming. Disease threats can spread faster and more unpredictably than ever before. People are traveling more, food and medical product supply chains stretch across the globe, and biological threats as well as drug-resistant illnesses pose a growing danger to people everywhere.

During crises, professionals tend to avoid novel approaches that have not yet been tried and tested. They instead reach for familiar and trusted ways. As a result, humanitarian relief operations often deploy older technologies. Due to poorly adapted tools, training, and strategies, responders are increasingly ill-prepared to produce useful knowledge from the flow of information and data. There is thus an urgent need for innovative groups to engage early with humanitarian organizations, explore joint projects, and strengthen relationships before crises occur. These sorts of engagement will help both sides better understand each other’s modus operandi. As collaborations start to yield fruit, solutions will be developed and deployed to make all of us safer.

The first celebration of the end of the outbreak. Four days later there was a new case.

For startups and midsize companies, this presents an incredible opportunity and the timing is right. The timing is right because the biggest funding agencies are currently enamored with the idea of private sector engagement (PSE) as a strategic approach to international development and humanitarian crises response (USAID). Furthermore private foundations, traditionally a good source of funding for innovation, are getting more assertive and acting with more ambition. This is a good time for data practitioners, software developers, researchers, creative technologists and thinkers  to build relevant partnerships with humanitarian and international development organizations, who on their part have become more supportive of broader engagement to help forcibly displaced people, respond to natural disasters, and prevent pandemics.

The key to having impact quickly during complex emergencies is through cross-disciplinary collaboration. Funders realize this and are actively seeking for great ideas to get behind. To close with a quote from a popular author, Marianne Williamson: “Success means we go to sleep at night knowing that our talents and abilities were used in a way that served others.”

Dr. Victor Soji Ladele presented at the Data+Creativity Meetup in Oklahoma City, OK, on February 21, 2019. Watch the video archive here.

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