Data-driven disaster relief: Measuring the impact of emergency response

With natural disasters picking up in frequency and intensity, the role of NGOs in disaster relief is picking up as well. A key requirement for all NGOs is transparency, and applying data-driven techniques may help.

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Hurricanes don't really have birthdays. But if they did, August, 17 2017 would mark the official birthday of hurricane Harvey, when the system became a tropical depression in the east of Barbados. From that point on, Harvey wreaked havoc everywhere it hit, leaving behind destroyed properties and infrastructure, and people in dire need of help.

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Notwithstanding state and federal backed disaster relief, the role of privately backed Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the wake of emergencies has been key. Whether that is a good thing is a matter of perspective, and one of the things that play a part in this discussion is transparency.

With state and federal organizations, in theory at least, there is a certain level of trust and mechanisms for auditing. With NGOs, however, the need to showcase to donors and to the public at large how their money is spent is perhaps even more pronounced.

Team Rubicon's Open Initiative

One of the organizations at the forefront of the post-Harvey cleanup was Team Rubicon. Team Rubicon is an NGO focused on disaster relief, founded by US Marines William McNulty and Jacob "Jake" Wood. Team Rubicon has a double bottom-line: It uses disaster response to help reintegrate veterans into civilian life.

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Team Rubicon was formed in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, and it has participated in a number of disaster response efforts since. As Team Rubicon grew, its team has identified the need for accountability, and initiated its Open Initiative to address this.

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State and federal organizations such as FEMA are also expected to inform the public about their activities. (Image: FEMA)

In the spirit of being open, Team Rubicon created a space to share key data points, ranging from financial support and impact to membership growth and operational metrics. These data points help Team Rubicon make deliberate investments, draft operational planning objectives, and ensure it delivers impact to communities affected by disasters.

Team Rubicon has partnered with Qlik, a vendor providing data analytics software, to deliver its Open Initiative. Julie Whipple, Qlik global head, of Corporate Responsibility, told ZDNet the collaboration began when she met several members of Team Rubicon at a NetHope conference in Atlanta in 2017.

Whipple says that Qlik quickly recognized Team Rubicon's dual mission and began projects to support their work:

"Qlik teams designed and built the Open Data Initiative portal in about four weeks leveraging Qlik software and skills from across Qlik. We feel this is an investment in Team Rubicon, as well as an exciting opportunity to advance how all humanitarian organizations collect, review, and report data," explains Whipple.

According to Whipple, the Open Initiative predates Harvey. The work was already planned. However, Harvey greatly increased the need for the project due to the size of the response that Team Rubicon encountered in ramping and managing for the disaster.

Measuring value

Looking at the metrics publicly available on Open Initiative, they all seem to focus on capturing the impact Team Rubicon's efforts have. We asked Whipple whether there are more data that could possibly be shared with the public in terms of Team Rubicon's funding.

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Although it is possible that this data is available via budgets, balance sheets and such, it would probably help to publish it on Open Initiative, too.

"Team Rubicon has a goal of 100 percent transparency and is continually making enhancements. The unique aspect of Team Rubicon's Open Data Initiative is their use of data (e.g. from the insurance industry) to calculate the value of their training, volunteer labor hours, and supplies.

We are impressed that Team Rubicon uses best practices from companies like Farmers Insurance to show how a donation translates into several magnitudes of value to the beneficiaries, communities, government agencies, private sector, etc. This calculation of value is truly innovative and very special about Team Rubicon's approach to transparency."

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Data points can be just as useful for operational purposes, not just for analytics and reporting. (Image: Team Rubicon)

Unfortunately, we don't know much about Team Rubicon's use of operational data internally. For example, it would make lots of sense to use maps and real-time data to show information such as where the needs are, what teams and resources are deployed to address them, to coordinate with other efforts, and so on.

Many NGOs are facing challenges with their funding and manpower, and left to struggle with issues larger than they can cope with. Whipple says that Qlik works with a variety of NGOs around the globe, and they have seen some very great examples of the industry becoming tech savvy and leveraging data to its greatest extent.

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"Some NGOs are working to improve collection in the field, while others, like Team Rubicon, have large amounts of data and want to showcase it in a new and innovative way. We are seeing tremendous advances across the sector. However, Team Rubicon is leading and that is very exciting for Qlik from a partner standpoint," Whipple says.

Data-driven NGOs

Speaking of coordination, this is always a very important aspect of disaster relief, especially where many different organizations are involved. Qlik has some experience there, as it works with over 400 nonprofits around the globe, donating products and services through its Qlik Software Grant program.

Whipple says the program launched eight years ago with a focus to leverage Qlik's software, services, and training to support organizations working to "make the world a better place." Qlik partners with organizations looking to further their mission using data and analytics to reach more vulnerable people, faster, and most often with limited resources.

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When asked, Whipple noted there is a great deal of collaboration across the sector:

"Many NGOs work together to share ideas, best practices, and sometimes data all to further the work of the sector, especially within common regions. One relevant example is Medair. Qlik supports Medair, which is leading a refugee response in Jordan and Lebanon. Medair collects data and share with other NGOs operating in that region to maximize the efficiency and opportunity to positively impact as many lives as possible."
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Team Rubicon's Open Initiative is an effort to increase transparency in NGOs by sharing data. (Image: Team Rubicon)

Sharing is good, obviously, although we do not really know exactly how this is done at present. Ideally, integrating data from disparate systems using standards and APIs would boost the efficiency of NGOs. But with NGOs being typically underprivileged, we cannot assume that even having a data-driven system in place is a given at this point.

As far as Team Rubicon's efforts are concerned, Whipple notes that Qlik launched a corporate responsibility focus on climate change in 2018 that aligns to Team Rubicon's work in Houston and Puerto Rico: "We have a partnership is place and intend to support Team Rubicon with their ongoing analytical needs."

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Even though there are only so many grants to go by in a world with increasing needs, such efforts are commendable.

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