Leveraging Tech to Shed Light on the Humanitarian Situation in Ukraine

Humanitarian crises like the one currently unfolding in Ukraine are growing year by year: in 2021, a staggering 235 million people needed humanitarian assistance—food, water, shelter, and medicine, to start—as a result of natural or human-caused disasters, a nearly 40 percent increase over the previous year. The challenge of assessing what help is needed and where—and doing so quickly—is compounded by limited budgets for humanitarian aid. This means efficiency and precision are key.

With the growth and improvement in technology we see today—smartphone ownership and internet penetration, in particular—citizens themselves are able to participate in the direction and distribution of humanitarian resources. Elevating their voices enables the humanitarian community to execute with greater speed and efficiency while also holding humanitarians accountable to the populations they serve.

Popular apps like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram have been used for a decade or more to communicate breaking news to the world, but now they are also a source of valuable information used to help in a crisis. Humanitarian organizations can comb through tweets with photos of empty grocery stores to know if food security is deteriorating or try to understand where refugees are clustering as they flee dangerous situations. While those applications are enormously valuable, the tech industry is also providing newer, faster, and more accurate ways to understand a humanitarian crisis with input from people on the ground.

Nowhere has the world needed rapid, reliable data from the ground more than in Ukraine. Beginning on March 1, Premise, the global insights platform, asked its Contributors in Ukraine and neighboring countries to complete surveys and observational tasks on a variety of humanitarian-related topics including healthcare, displacement, safety, and the pricing and availability of fuel and food. In one month of data collection, we have been able to observe emerging trends, validate assumptions and challenge others.

Through self-reporting, we learned that a plurality (37.5%) of internally displaced persons are residing with friends or family as opposed to in temporary shelters or refugee camps. This has implications for how the needs of those displaced persons and refugees will be assessed and met.

As we track the change in perceived refugee needs by the host communities, we have also learned that the greatest concerns—family separation and feelings of distress—have largely remained consistent over time and indicate a high need for support for emotional trauma.

Regarding the food supply, we can see that flour and meat are some of the most unavailable goods in local markets. Since launching the survey, reports of sugar shortages have grown, surpassing meat shortages overall for the month of March. Geographically, reports of sugar shortages have been most significant in Kherson Oblast (60%), followed by Sumy (50%) and Kharkiv (47%) Oblasts.

Reporting on Food Access and Security

Worryingly, in the last month more than 800 Contributors said a member of their household went without healthcare in the last week, even when they needed it. This burden was highest in central and eastern Ukraine, with approximately 40% of respondents forgoing care compared with 27% in western Ukraine. The most common reason reported across all of Ukraine for why household members went without healthcare even when they needed it was, “it was too dangerous to travel to a health facility”. Additionally, more than half of the pharmacists we interviewed in Ukraine reported that prescription pain relievers and antibiotics have become scarce. A well-known humanitarian aid organization is now using that information to purchase and ship specific medications to the locations in need. 

As more assistance is sent to Ukraine, particularly in the form of cash, on-the-ground information will help the humanitarian sector understand the impact of aid and react in a timely way. Monitoring food prices, for example, will provide an indication of any emerging supply and demand issues. 

While the value of citizen-sourced data is undeniable, it does raise questions around safety and responsibility. While all social media and task-based apps like Premise rely on wholly voluntary contributions, the advantage of an app like Premise is that all tasks are designed with Contributor safety in mind and in conjunction with a well-established humanitarian organization. This means we don’t ask Contributors to go to specific locations, but rather allow them to choose where they feel comfortable going. We also ensure all data is anonymous, with any metadata that could be used to re-identify Contributors removed in accordance with UN standards—something not guaranteed with a TikTok video or a Reddit post. 

In closing, near-real-time data coming directly from citizens provides an important complement to traditional qualitative data sourcing (done through individuals hired by humanitarian agencies and NGOs). While the technology is still new—and does present some challenges—the benefits offered are game-changing: using tech to understand people’s needs and experiences has the power to drastically improve the way humanitarian responses are formulated and delivered.

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