LAUSANNE Medair, a Swiss aid agency, is using innovative technology to help refugees.
Ever since international relief agencies began becoming more involved with helping refugees and other crisis victims worldwide at the end of the 1970s, much of their response has been focused primarily on traditional food, shelter and medical aid. More recently, however, some have been zeroing in on innovative new technology for improving their response. This includes the use of drones and GIS mapping by Medair, an international relief NGO based in Ecublens outside Lausanne.
Even though some NGOs are concerned that humanitarian information could be misused by military intelligence organizations, such data is already proving indispensable for enhancing overall relief. According to Medair, which seeks to help crisis-affected populations in remote and devastated parts of the world, such as the frontier zones bordering Syria or rural Afghanistan, it has been leveraging innovative technologies to improve aid agency coordination. “This will maximize our ability to meet desperate humanitarian needs,” said Rob Fielding, a Medair technology and innovations officer.
In the Philippines, Medair has been working with Drone Adventures, another Lausanne-based NGO, that promotes the civilian use of drones, particularly for humanitarian, conservation, cultural and search-and-rescue purposes. By deploying unmanned ‘e-Bee’ aerial devices, they have been taking hundreds of high resolution aerial images of Tacloban, Dulag and Julita, all three towns severely affected by last year’s Super Typhoon Haiyan. The drones themselves, which weigh barely 700 gms and have a wingspan of less than a meter, are produced by SenseFly, a Swiss company also based in Lausanne.
The team then merged the images to create detailed 2D and 3D terrain maps before distributing them free to local leaders. Many communities have been relying on hand-drawn or out-of-date Google maps taken before the storm to coordinate recovery efforts. “Drones do not have a good reputation – people associate them with the military and think of them as weapons,” said Fielding. “But they can be used for good.” Given that this part of the Philippines is not linked to conflict, the use of drones is not perceived as worrisome. They also take highly accurate images.
However, any suggestion of a link to the military use of information gathered for humanitarian purposes has provoked concern, particularly among groups such as Medecins sans Frontieres, as this could affect operational independence and neutrality, and even threaten the lives of aid workers. In 2011, the US Civil-Military Fusion Center tried to encourage relief organizations operating in conflict zones, notably Afghanistan and Iraq, to collaborate more readily with the military, but it met with considerable resistance. Fielding noted that Medair is “very concerned” by any potential abuse. He stressed that all its data is password protected and encrypted. “We take extreme care with regard to access rights and physical location of data storage,” he added.
Other innovative approaches include “Last Mile Mobile Solutions,” or LMMS, which Medair is conducting together with partner organization, World Vision. This is an innovative mobile application recently introduced among informal Syrian refugee settlements to improve on-the-ground needs’ assessments for relief distribution. LMMS uses tablet computers to input biographical refugee details into a secure database. Refugees then receives a photo ID card with a bar code number for their settlement, allowing relief workers to track refugees and distribute aid more efficiently.
According to World Vision’s Jay Narhan, whose agency designed the software, this not only “preserves dignity in how emergency aid is received,” but “the systems are helping to introduce new levels of operational efficiencies…”
Medair is also collecting and managing detailed data by mapping settlements using Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, in the Bekaa Valley, plus training other agencies to map Lebanon’s four other refugee regions. It’s GIS team conducts monthly sweeps of all settlements and combines these with data compiled from parts of the country.
To facilitate the sweeps, Medair is collaborating with Esri Inc., a US software company using the ArcGIS platform. This adapts mapping technology to a mobile application that users can access on mobile digital devices. The data is then uploaded by UNHCR in Geneva to a Google Earth application. UNHCR, which is responsible for coordinating humanitarian response for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, uses the data and maps to improve operations and track interventions.
Finally, in order to capitalize on the LMMS and GIS innovation approaches, Medair’s corporate partner, Qlik, is building an application to merge the two data sets as a means of providing more effective analysis. This will give Medair “a better overview” of the settlements by streamlining its work and targeting the correct locations, noted Peter McQuade, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility at Qlik.