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June 13, 2022

The Power of Technology in Times of Humanitarian Crises

On February 24, 2022, the world watched in disbelief as Russia invaded Ukraine. The conflict is one of the largest humanitarian crises Europe has faced in recent history, with over six million refugees fleeing Ukraine and another seven million internally displaced (IDPs). 

As a real-time information company, Dataminr was forged in and built for crisis. The first few weeks of the conflict kept our Social Good team working overtime, creating hundreds of new accounts for our partners at the United Nations, and adjusting account settings for NGOs so they could ensure the safety of staff, IDPs, and critical food and medical aid. 

The work was nonstop, but each time I checked in with the team, the answer was the same: we need to keep at it. While friends and family sat around their television sets watching the conflict unfold and feeling helpless, our team felt privileged to support, even if in a small way, the heroic humanitarian efforts on the ground.

Now, as we pass the 100-day mark of the continued invasion, I can't help but to reflect. On the scope and scale of Ukraine’s needs. On how technology companies respond in crises. And on how we at Dataminr, as part of the greater tech community, can continue to evolve to meet these needs.

What are the needs of the people we serve?

Too often, technologists and technology-users work backwards. We start with the tech—AI, virtual reality, mobile apps—then try to identify a need to suit it.

With Ukraine, the needs are many, complex and far-reaching, but with a firm grasp on this landscape, the tech community can align and ensure resources are used effectively. Below are a few of those needs and what the tech community is currently doing to meet them.

Safety and (cyber) security 

Big tech has already taken action to bolster safety and security for Ukrainians, including disabling live maps and privatizing follower information to prevent bad actors from using it, as well as supporting cybersecurity monitoring and intervention of key targets.

At Dataminr, safety and security is at our core. Our real-time alerting allows NGOs on the frontlines to know first and act faster to protect staff and beneficiaries. 

Our partner, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has been working to provide Ukraine with medical support, essential items and safe passage for civilians. In the early days of the conflict, we heard about an ICRC team in Lviv that was closely monitoring security in the city during a period of heavy airstrikes. While local authorities, radio, television and colleagues on the ground were vital sources of information, the “track stories” features in Dataminr’s First Alert product provided timely and comprehensive updates on specific incidents, emergency services’ response status, government statements and the termination of the alarm phase once the air raids ceased. 

“Dataminr’s alerts allowed for cross-checking, triangulation and comparison of information, which gave my colleagues a valuable reference on which to assess decisions, such as how long to remain under cover and what actions to take to support local authorities handling the emergency,” said Robert Whelan, Security and Crisis Management Advisor for ICRC.

Food, water, shelter and medical aid

In response to the overwhelming demand for essential items, the tech community offered to connect refugees with free short-term housing, and provide software to identify and connect Ukrainian agencies with key suppliers to meet their most pressing needs.

Direct Relief has been using Dataminr’s real-time alerting to better understand where and what medical aid is most needed. Our alerting topic lists help it filter thousands of alerts a day, to zero in on the most relevant data. For example, alerts on utilities infrastructure help Direct Relief identify and maintain visibility of threats and damage to the electrical grid, so it can deliver the right resources at the right time, such as knowing which Ukrainian hospitals need generators. Real-time alerts have also enabled timely information on damage to healthcare infrastructure (direct strikes on hospitals), as well as risks to refugees; both are critical in determining which areas are high-need.

“When Direct Relief needed to track where the Ukrainian refugees were crossing the border into Poland, our very first signal came through the Polish press. It was an article that we discovered via Dataminr,” said Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief VP of Research & Analysis.

“Through one article we were able to geocode the border checkpoints and refugee reception centers over a week and prior to that same information being published through the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).”

Human rights accountability

Prior to the conflict in Ukraine, Dataminr’s Social Good team has been partnering with the UN Human Rights Office. We provide detailed, real-time alerting to their team members, who leverage our wide variety of public sources—across 100+ languages, audio, video and text—to gain a fuller real-time picture.

Dataminr is proud to support the United Nations’ 3,500-plus users in their work to champion human progress and promote peace. As our partners at UN Global Pulse explained, “UN decision makers are using Dataminr to detect signals that help shed light on the longer term global impact of the Ukraine crisis—from potential food shortages in Africa, to migration issues and impacts on climate change agreements.”

What’s next for Social Good @ Dataminr

There are other humanitarian needs I have yet to touch on, including connecting refugees with critical services to: help them find jobs, enroll their children in school, or find a midwife. And there are other tech players I have yet to mention, including a vibrant IT community in Eastern Europe already working to address these needs.

Looking across this vast landscape—both intimidating and inspiring—I can identify three takeaways that should drive the next round of tech-enabled crisis response:

  1. Be beneficiary-led. Constantly seek the feedback of your users; what are their needs and pain points? 
  2. Expand access. A large amount of work is being done by smaller, local organizations and individuals on the ground. How do we equip them?
  3. Focus on coordination. In crises, there are always multiple stakeholders, so creating a clear communications framework that allows for greater collaboration and sharing of information is key.

To this end, I am happy to announce that we will be launching two new Social Good programs this year. The first is designed to expand access to Dataminr’s real-time alerting for smaller, local organizations responding to crises on the frontlines. The second is a social innovation engine that will tap into the deep knowledge of nonprofits to identify and collaborate on game-changing ideas for how to leverage Dataminr’s real-time information for the benefit of people and planet. Stay tuned for more information.

As a human, and the great-granddaughter of Polish and Ukrainian refugees, my hope is that the war in Ukraine will soon end, and that all those who have been forced to flee will be able to return home and begin rebuilding. Until then, we at Dataminr will continue to use our AI for good.

Topic(s): Social Good

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