Guest post by Max Baiden, Project Manager on the Climate & Environment, Infrastructure and Livelihoods Professional Evidence Applied Knowledge Services Framework in DAI’s UK office, with contributors from Data-Pop Alliance

Before my time at DAI, I spent several months in India, working for a local nongovernmental organization on multidimensional poverty reduction projects. One of the projects had me walking through a tsunami-affected village on the southeastern coast of India. Witnessing first-hand how damaging hydrometerological events can be really galvanized my desire to work in the sector. I talked to local fisherman about how their boats were destroyed and how they had to leave their village behind in the impending wake of the storm. They despaired at the lack of early warning information to help them prepare for and understand the effects of such a disaster.

Four years later, I find myself smiling at the possibility that these fisherman might have to counteract these problems in the future. My role at DAI is to develop and manage ideas that the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) has for commissioning small pieces of work relating to climate, environment, infrastructure, and livelihoods—a rapid-response resource center aptly named Evidence on Demand. The smile started when a call from DFID came in asking about how Big Data—which revolves around an ecosystem of behaviors and beliefs generated by digital devices, powerful computing tools, and a vibrant community of actors—can make communities more resilient. My thoughts immediately turned to the ability to use the power of data, overlapping weather-forecasting and mapping analytics, to develop early-warning systems useful to the people who need it most.

Setting to work, we put forward numerous teams, with DFID selecting Data-Pop Alliance, a global coalition on Big Data and development that brings together researchers, experts, practitioners, and activists to promote a people-centered Big Data revolution through collaborative research, capacity building, and community engagement. It was my job to facilitate the establishment of a workshop in London between the 11 pilot studies commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Data-Pop Alliance team, and DFID. One of the pilot studies uses advanced data analytics on tide gauges, seismic frequencies, and GPS data to model the characteristics of waves as they travel. This can help to assess the likelihood of flooding in coastal areas, which can give accurate data to feed into early-warning systems. The Data-Pop Alliance team was able to draw out key lessons from the pilot studies to enable DFID, NERC, and ESRC to continue the investment into scaling-up Big Data pilot studies.

Data-Pop Alliance highlighted four needs emerging from the pilot studies: building resilience through crowdsourcing; using mobile data networks to understand actions and behaviors; improving statistical methods to define disaster risk; and using communication technologies to improve preparedness and disaster management. I was impressed by the positivity around the workshop, with development researchers and practitioners from different backgrounds pulling toward a common goal: improving the conditions of people living in vulnerable communities.

With the report whipping up such a positive response, the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) connected with Data-Pop Alliance to see if panel discussions could be held at the 21st annual Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris. The team put on a great event, with private sector development and nongovernmental organizations showing off their Big Data systems and providing in-depth discussion and analysis. The report also served as a foundational paper for a side event at the World Humanitarian Summit, where Data-Pop Alliance and partners discussed the applications and implications of data and Big Data for reducing vulnerability and managing risk. The event focused on the potential and limitations of real-time information and new and emerging data to improve decisionmaking, as well as areas for future investment with a focus on strengthening local capacities. The report feeds into larger conversations on frameworks for resilient/sustainable cities, such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and its projected implementation.

Everything that was discussed through the workshops and pilot studies was focused on real projects that could work for vulnerable people, where they could be proactive in the face of an impending disaster instead of reactive. This has to be a huge leap not only for early-warning systems but for any practical use of Big Data to better help those vulnerable communities that have to deal with environmental and manmade disasters. I can feel the fishermen smiling right now.