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Big Data and Humanitarianism

02 June, 2015

big dataWhile on-foot rescue teams, ground aid workers anddisaster relief volunteers are flocking to Nepal in their thousands, the nation is also being watched over by a new era of aid – big data.  Referring to the newfound power of gathering mass information from an assortment of sources, ‘big data’ is being used in data centres to analyse, inform, connect, coordinate and strategize. In the wake of Nepal’s devastating earthquake we’ve decided to take a look at how big data is starting to play an integral role in humanitarianism efforts across the globe.

Big data to the rescue

While from the ground Nepal may be in chaos, big data is helping humans make sense of the scenes and enhance all four stages of the disaster management process - prevention, preparation, response and recovery.

Drones and UAVs

Soaring high over the scenes of the devastation, drones and UAVs represent a new form of disaster relief. Using high resolution cameras and video recorders the machines can gain a birds’ eye view of the areas of impact. This can be used to develop 3D maps, plot rescue routes and gain imagery of sites that can’t be reached by helicopter, vehicle or foot. Some drones were even equipped with heat sensitive cameras in order to detect survivors buried in the rubble.


Social media is an incredibly power tool with a scope that now extends to post-disaster relief efforts. Just hours after the earthquake hit Facebook’s People Finder system was already helping family members and friends track, trace and contact missing loved ones.

Government support

The potential for big data is enormous and global governments aren’t in the dark. In 2014 the National Science Foundation and Japanese Science and Technology Agency funded a joint US$2 million research program focusing on data-driven solutions in the wake of natural disasters.

Volunteer networks

Big data is being used to harness the manpower of those who want to help but aren’t physically present in disaster struck zones. For example, thanks to the use of an online volunteer network the international Red Cross now has over 700 volunteers analysing its satellite images.


Today, companies such as Terra Seismic use advanced technology to monitor satellite data and predict earthquakes before they hit. 


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