Converting big data into meaningful messages can shape the future of humanitarian action. That’s why the Netherlands Red Cross founded its own in-house technological startup, 510. We checked in with the initiative’s founder, Maarten Van der Veen.
510 aims to put big data analysis in the hands of humanitarian relief workers, decision makers, and affected populations. This way, they can better prepare for and cope with disasters and crises. “510 aims to make smart use of data to make humanitarian aid faster and more cost-effective,” Maarten Van der Veen summarizes their mission.
Their success stories include the use of artificial intelligence 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 helps us to prioritize our immediate relief operations.”
510 million square kilometers
“510 refers to the world’s surface in square kilometers,” Maarten explains. “And it’s telling for the way in which we view our work. When we come up with data solutions, we require them to be scalable. We want our products to be globally applicable, or ‘510’. This is key to our work.”
Creating a technological startup environment within an NGO is a new approach. “This is an entirely new idea that we’re experimenting with,” Maarten says. “Of course, non-profits can choose to collaborate with startups. But it turns out that, in practice, there’s a big vacuum between startup solutions and the realities that these organizations are actually dealing with on the ground.”
“Big data is a trend for all humanitarian organizations, because it can empower a more coordinated and efficient response” – Maarten Van der Veen, initiator of the Netherlands Red Cross 510 initiative
Lost in translation
“NGO thinking and programming mostly starts from a social frame of reference. This tends to be vastly different from they way in which technological startups approach their work. That’s why it’s hard to translate startup solutions to the field meaningfully. The two domains are tremendously difficult to reconcile. It tends to require a tremendous investment of time and resources.”
A team of external data expert volunteers is part of the 510 startup environment. Most of the volunteers are involved on their own behalf. Some are out-sourced by companies that are sympathetic to the Red Cross’s mission. “When a company wants to help out, we ask for their best data experts to work with us for one day a week,” Maarten explains. Also, a large number of graduate students are directly involved in 510’s data innovation projects.
But, ultimately, the Red Cross’s 510 starts from internal knowledge and expertise. Their techies are in direct contact with teams on the ground. This helps them to understand the challenges they face from the inside out. Also, Maarten’s leadership helps in this regard, “I have experience in emergency relief myself to build on.”
Into the future
For the moment, 510’s core business focuses on collecting, organizing and analyzing data sets. “Big data is still hard to come by within the Red Cross. The organization doesn’t naturally have a history of collecting operational data,” Maarten explains. “This is now changing quickly as a result of mobile data collection, the use of satellite remote sensing technologies, and by opening up proprietary systems to contribute to the open data trend.”
“Our initiative has so far experienced tremendous growth, which we expect to continue. We expect the use of data to become a core component of humanitarian aid. In the future, smart data use will help us make better decisions faster.”