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  • Text: Corine Schouten
  • Picture: Oli Scarff, Getty Images

Data science relieves humanitarian suffering

During the past decade, the number of people in the world who live in a crisis situation, whether conflict, drought, famine or natural disaster, has almost doubled. Spending on humanitarian aid has increased threefold. How can resources be deployed more effectively and the effects made more sustainable? Tilburg University is working alongside aid organizations to maximize their impact using data science.

Data Science for Humanitarian Innovation is a program set up by two Tilburg University professors, Hein Fleuren and Conny Rijken. It involves a number of projects in which the university’s scientific knowledge is placed at the disposal of humanitarian aid organizations working throughout the world. Fleuren and Rijken are keen to make a real difference for the people who need it most. They believe that data science can have a very significant positive impact for large sections of the world’s population.

More mouths fed

Hein Fleuren used to be concerned with ways to help large commercial organizations maximize their profits. As Professor of Operations Research, he has spent many years working to optimize logistic chains for research clients such as TNT Express. His proposals not only resulted in major cost reductions but also cut CO2 emissions by some 250 million tons per annum. His focus has now shifted to helping non-profit organizations maximize their positive impact.

It was the former CEO of TNT Express, Peter Bakker, who introduced Fleuren to officials at the EN World Food Programme. At first, they were skeptical: what did a mathematician have to offer? Their doubts were dispelled when Fleuren had his students produced a data management model with which the UN could optimize its entire food supply chain. The unique feature of the model is that it was based on the daily nutritional requirement of an individual, rather than the dimensions or contents of a standard food parcel. It then became possible to put together flexible ‘food baskets’, the contents of which would vary depending on the availability of products and transport, cultural preferences and many other factors.

Food programs in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ethiopia have been vastly improved in this way. In most countries it has been possible to feed more mouths with no increase in budget, thus compensating for the reduction in overseas aid imposed by many countries following the global economic crisis. In Syria, four million people received emergency food aid in 2015. A year later, this figure had increased to 4.5 million with little or no increase in costs. There have also been benefits for science: every new challenge results in new and improved methods to collect and analyze large volumes of data.

Prey for sex traffickers

Another Data Science for Humanitarian Innovation project is concerned with the position of refugees in large European cities. There are some serious issues which have yet to be given the attention they deserve. Conny Rijken holds the chair of Human Trafficking and Globalization. She and her students are now collecting relevant data to determine the number of refugees involved, the conditions in which they are living, why they are not receiving official assistance, and what they are doing to rebuild their lives in their new surroundings. Students have already visited Athens and Thessaloniki to gather data; the study will eventually be extended to include Italy, Turkey and Rwanda. The research data will be compared and combined with that gathered by Eurostat, Frontex, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in order to fill the gaps in current knowledge.

Rijken wishes to create a complete picture of the situation. “We know from past research that urban refugees are often in a very precarious situation. Because many are undocumented and have no formal permission to be in the country at all, they can be exploited in all sorts of ways. They have to find sources of income in order to survive, which can make them easy prey for sex and drugs traffickers. We are working with CARE, a non-governmental aid agency, to identify the various mechanisms at work, what governments can do, and especially what support should be given to humanitarian aid organizations which are trying to help the urban refugees.”

Conny Rijken is an ardent champion of good research with real impact. That is also the aim of the Data Science for Humanitarian Innovation program. Its research findings will be used in the real world to give refugees a free and safe existence in keeping with international law, human rights agreements and moral justice.

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