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Data-driven humanitarianism



Data-driven humanitarianism

It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but its people are among the most vulnerable. Afghanistan’s snowy mountains and fertile foothills give way to arid plateaus, offering a contrast often described as stark and gorgeous. The nexus of ancient East-West trade routes, this landlocked country hosts many languages, artisan traditions, and centuries of influence from Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu customs. It’s also a place where an estimated 12.4 million are living in hunger, and where droughts, floods, and conflict often make access routes impassable for humanitarian convoys.

Working to end hunger for the people of Afghanistan, despite climate change and conflict challenges, is the World Food Programme (WFP). In 2020, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to WFP for these efforts. As the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security for 100 million people in 88 countries, WFP set a goal for zero world hunger by 2030.

Villagers in Afghanistan gather food rations. (Photo credit: WFP/ Teresa Ha)

“Saving lives is not enough,” says Lara Prades, who leads WFP’s geospatial unit. “We also need to change lives.” Most people think WFP is “just dropping aid from planes in the event of a hurricane,” but there’s another side to its mission. “It actually is participatory, and we work with communities to improve nutrition and food security.”

Prades speaks of a “dual mandate”—respond to immediate food scarcity and pinpoint underlying problems to create long-term solutions. Prades and her team start with smart maps showing near real-time data about weather, supply routes, and road conditions. They perform advanced analytics to specify the exact challenges for each region. WFP outreach plans are reinforced by face-to-face conversations with local people, discussing real-world implications of what appears on the map.

In the central Afghanistan city of Bamiyan, celebrated for two monumental Buddha statues carved into the side of a cliff in the sixth century and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, Prades spent time drinking tea with people who live there. “If the map is telling us this area is highly vulnerable, and on top of that, they have had these floods and droughts,” Prades says, “we go and meet the people and talk to them.”

These conversations validate what the maps and analyses say, and they help WFP planners understand the best intervention for each region, even accounting for seasonal or yearly variations. It’s a data and discovery process crucial in Afghanistan and around the world as WFP aims to end world hunger within this decade.

A map produced by the World Food Programme, highlighting the potential recurrence of severe food insecurity.

Mapping root causes

The advances in geospatial technology to map, manage, and automate the analysis of food insecurity data comes at a time when the frequency and intensity of hunger-related emergencies is escalating because of climate change.

In the days and hours leading up to a heavy storm or weather catastrophe, WFP teams use maps from a geographic information system (GIS) to quickly determine who will need support, where, and how to reach them. Outside of emergency response, they apply GIS analysis to detect underlying threats—such as floods and droughts that have degraded farmland or conflict that have closed transportation routes.

“We’re doing this in a quite sophisticated fashion—how we combine geospatial data to identify where to position long-term programs for tackling recurring food insecurity and also disaster reduction,” Prades says.

Even with advanced mapping capabilities, the outreach depends on local touchpoints. Prades and her team will ask people, “what worries you the most?” It may be firewood or goat vaccinations, a fear of camels getting sick, or preparations for the maize harvest. The concerns become data layers, added to smart maps to recognize trends or hotspots, and point to possible mitigation efforts.

“You need to see the linkages,” Prades says, “to see all the connections of how that is translating into actual benefits for the people who we are trying to help.”

WFP staff use this location intelligence to determine where to deliver food rations and position programs such as flood protection, irrigation systems, or plant nurseries. For the people of Afghanistan, smart maps also help WFP staff negotiate access routes with government officials or non-state armed groups to reach far-flung or isolated regions.

Democratizing insights

When Prades started with WFP in 2008, the organization was using GIS for basic data visualization to map the results of food security assessments. Now, geospatial technology supports advanced analytics generated by a modern GIS and web applications for complex logistics and near real-time data sharing.

“We call this a spatial data infrastructure,” Prades says. “It’s really allowing us to store, process, and share all the geospatial data and make it accessible to all levels of the organization. We are all working with the same data.”

On any given day, WFP coordinates an average of 5,600 trucks, 50 ocean shipments, 92 aircraft, and 650 warehouses across the globe. Operational staff tap the geospatial infrastructure to coordinate aid deliveries.

“We produce reference maps with the transportation network for logistics staff to plan their routes and see what roads they can access with what trucks,” says Thierry Crevoisier, GIS officer at WFP headquarters in Rome.

Teams on the ground constantly provide new information—what’s happening with the roads, where are the schools and markets, where are security challenges. The new data syncs across routing applications for safe aid delivery. Live maps and dashboards link to automatic early warning systems set to trigger intervention before a weather event. Most remarkable to Prades is how the technology “is not driven by the technical people, but instead by the users, by the operators.”

People in each country served by WFP accept accountability for updating information or bringing in open source data, such as conflict maps. The live updates to dashboards and apps allow WFP workers to plan against difficulties and lower risks when delivering aid or conducting field assessments.

Proactive and real-time logistics

When floods recently struck South Sudan, WFP was working to deliver food to people stranded by floods in Indonesia and the Philippines. With climate-related events on the rise, Prades highlighted increased calls for preliminary impact analysis to make resources ready when and where disasters strike. This measure would reduce scenarios where WFP teams are stretched thin or mobilizing in reactive ways.

Geospatial technology enables such analysis, overlaying an anticipated storm path or earthquake epicenter with the locations of vulnerable populations before an event. In the aftermath, WFP teams rely on those same smart maps—loaded with local data and satellite imagery—to route supplies.

“The humanitarian world is changing,” Prades says. “Once we know there is an event coming, we have a window of two weeks. What kind of interventions can we already implement in those two, three weeks to be able to mitigate the impact of the upcoming shock?”

In Mozambique, a country that experiences major flooding every few years, Prades and her team created flood-hazard models showing potential damage and people affected. The models can be run against security assessments and road conditions as well as WFP resources. Seeing this location-based insight ahead of actual flooding moved WFP planners from a mindset of response to one of preparedness.

“They start shifting the way they think,” Prades says. “Where can we pre-position certain stocks based on the flood-risk areas? Where are the routes that are most efficient to take when this happens? Normally people tend to be very reactive—we don’t tend to think before the event happens.”

The possibility of zero hunger

The covid-19 pandemic deepened food insecurity for the world’s most vulnerable people, those already racked by conflict and climate-related disasters. WFP estimates 96 million more people in 54 countries reached acute hunger levels in 2020, adding to the 137 million accounted for in 2019.

In its mission to end world hunger, WFP aligns with one of the Sustainable Development Goals developed by United Nations and adopted in 2015 by the global community.

Though the pandemic has made this goal more difficult, Prades sees the collaborative work of multiple agencies as a way to strengthen the fight. And the geospatial tools she builds can empower that collaboration while continuing to serve the dual mandate of meeting immediate needs and addressing underlying causes.

“It’s a different approach, and it’s quite promising,” Prades says. “My dream is there’s no more hunger.”

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.


The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush



The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan



The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI



Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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