Open Data and the Refugee Crisis

By Kennina Ip

As debates over the freedom of movement and the tracking of human bodies intensify, technologies continue to rapidly develop to accommodate an increasingly digital world. These technologies have been used in the swift mobilization of material and logistic assistance to respond to natural disasters and to increasing refugee populations. Last year alone, armed conflict in Syria, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo brought the worldwide number of refugees to a staggering 68.5 million.

In response, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called for a reexamination of the current approach addressing forced displacement, including difficult-to-track human migration patterns. With limited resources and plentiful bureaucratic red tape, governments are often overwhelmed and unable to adequately analyze the abundance of data that is available. This translates into insufficient support for refugee populations.

For this reason, intergovernmental organizations have looked for way to expand their processing power within a limited resource environment – and some are turning toward open data as a solution. Open data – data sets and databases that are freely available to the public – allows other organizations to  contribute to processes they would normally be excluded from.

Formal organizations have then been able to provide support to these crowd-sourced initiatives and build upon them. One such example is the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT).

It conducts open data analysis with tools and platforms such as GISCorps, which solicits Geographic Information Systems professionals to carry out satellite imagery analysis of UN open data, and Open Street Map, which engages volunteers to create geospatial data that is then made available under a Creative Commons license. Supported by an army of global citizenry, UNOSAT is able to sift through massive amounts of data that it otherwise could not have without significant time and expense. The program has had tremendous success in mapping refugee camps, forecasting migration flows, and exploring the possibility of using VR and AR technology to help people design and build infrastructure for refugee settlements.

If non-governmental, non-profit organizations also engage global citizens in collaborative thinking and sharing, it is conceivable that the blueprint for responding to refugee situations will evolve into greater interoperability between different states’ systems and lead to more robust long-term solutions.

Of course, greater tracking of human beings raises valid privacy issues, and these concerns are compounded by the fact that migrant populations are often scapegoated and subjected to significant human rights violations. The need for strong protections against misuse of this data and guarding human rights is serious, but it should be balanced with potential benefits. Continuing to openly share collected data contributes to efficiency and transparency regarding how that data is used.

Greater public access to data has also helped make a real difference in other sectors. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has utilized open satellite data from Landsat, MODIS, and other satellite instruments to help migrating birds survive with its BirdReturns project. Improved access to data has also been a boon in the healthcare industry, empowering patients to take a more active role in maintaining their health.

There is great promise in applying open data policies to humanitarian relief. The key is in striking a balance and maintaining the highest professional integrity amongst entities utilizing the data collected.

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