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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 Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23



The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23

Overall ranking



The overall rankings tab shows the performance of the examined
economies relative to each other and aggregates scores generated
across the following four pillars: ocean environment, marine activity,
technology innovation, and policy and regulation.

This pillar ranks each country according to its levels of
marine water contamination, its plastic recycling efforts, the
CO2 emissions of its marine activities (relative to the size
of its economy), and the recent change of total emissions.

This pillar ranks each country on the sustainability of its
marine activities, including shipping, fishing, and protected

This pillar ranks each country on its contribution to ocean
sustainable technology research and development, including
expenditure, patents, and startups.

This pillar ranks each country on its stance on ocean
sustainability-related policy and regulation, including
national-level policies, taxes, fees, and subsidies, and the
implementation of international marine law.

Get access to technology journalism that matters.

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Technology Review offers in-depth reporting on today’s most
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MIT Technology Review Insights would like to thank the following
individuals for their time, perspective, and insights:

  • Valérie Amant, Director of Communications, The SeaCleaners
  • Charlotte de Fontaubert, Global Lead for the Blue Economy, World Bank Group
  • Ian Falconer, Founder, Fishy Filaments
  • Ben Fitzgerald, Managing Director, CoreMarine
  • Melissa Garvey, Global Director of Ocean Protection, The Nature Conservancy
  • Michael Hadfield, Emeritus Professor, Principal Investigator, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii
    at Mānoa
  • Takeshi Kawano, Executive Director, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
  • Kathryn Matthews, Chief Scientist, Oceana
  • Alex Rogers, Science Director, REV Ocean
  • Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Thierry Senechal, Managing Director, Finance for Impact
  • Jyotika Virmani, Executive Director, Schmidt Ocean Institute
  • Lucy Woodall, Associate Professor of Marine Biology, University of Oxford, and Principal Scientist at Nekton


Methodology: The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23

Now in its second year, the Blue Technology Barometer assesses and ranks how each of the world’s largest
maritime economies promotes and develops blue (marine-centered) technologies that help reverse the impact of
climate change on ocean ecosystems, and how they leverage ocean-based resources to reduce greenhouse gases and
other effects of climate change.

To build the index, MIT Technology Review Insights compiled 20 quantitative and qualitative data indicators
for 66 countries and territories with coastlines and maritime economies. This included analysis of select
datasets and primary research interviews with global blue technology innovators, policymakers, and
international ocean sustainability organizations. Through trend analysis, research, and a consultative
peer-review process with several subject matter experts, weighting assumptions were assigned to determine the
relative importance of each indicator’s influence on a country’s blue technology leadership.

These indicators measure how each country or territory’s economic and maritime industries have affected its
marine environment and how quickly they have developed and deployed technologies that help improve ocean
health outcomes. Policy and regulatory adherence factors were considered, particularly the observance of
international treaties on fishing and marine protection laws.

The indicators are organized into four pillars, which evaluate metrics around a sustainability theme. Each
indicator is scored from 1 to 10 (10 being the best performance) and is weighted for its contribution to its
respective pillar. Each pillar is weighted to determine its importance in the overall score. As these research
efforts center on countries developing blue technology to promote ocean health, the technology pillar is
ranked highest, at 50% of the overall score.

The four pillars of the Blue Technology Barometer are:

Carbon emissions resulting from maritime activities and their relative growth. Metrics in this pillar also
assess each country’s efforts to mitigate ocean pollution and enhance ocean ecosystem health.

Efforts to promote sustainable fishing activities and increase and maintain marine protected areas.

Progress in fostering the development of sustainable ocean technologies across several relevant fields:

  • Clean innovation scores from MIT Technology Review Insights’ Green Future Index 2022.
  • A tally of maritime-relevant patents and technology startups.
  • An assessment of each economy’s use of technologies and tech-enabled processes that facilitate ocean

Commitment to signing and enforcing international treaties to promote ocean sustainability and enforce
sustainable fishing.

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What Shanghai protesters want and fear



What Shanghai protesters want and fear

You may have seen that nearly three years after the pandemic started, protests have erupted across the country. In Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, and more cities and towns, hundreds of people have taken to the streets to mourn the lives lost in an apartment fire in Urumqi and to demand that the government roll back its strict pandemic policies, which many blame for trapping those who died. 

It’s remarkable. It’s likely the largest grassroots protest in China in decades, and it’s happening at a time when the Chinese government is better than ever at monitoring and suppressing dissent.

Videos of these protests have been shared in real time on social media—on both Chinese and American platforms, even though the latter are technically blocked in the country—and they have quickly become international front-page news. However, discussions among foreigners have too often reduced the protests to the most sensational clips, particularly ones in which protesters directly criticize President Xi Jinping or the ruling party.

The reality is more complicated. As in any spontaneous protest, different people want different things. Some only want to abolish the zero-covid policies, while others have made direct calls for freedom of speech or a change of leadership. 

I talked to two Shanghai residents who attended the protests to understand what they experienced firsthand, why they went, and what’s making them anxious about the thought of going again. Both have requested we use only their surnames, to avoid political retribution.

Zhang, who went to the first protest in Shanghai after midnight on Saturday, told me he was motivated by a desire to let people know his discontent. “Not everyone can silently suffer from your actions,” he told me, referring to government officials. “No. People’s lives have been really rough, and you should reflect on yourself.”

In the hour that he was there, Zhang said, protesters were mostly chanting slogans that stayed close to opposing zero-covid policies—like the now-famous line “Say no to covid tests, yes to food. No to lockdowns, yes to freedom,” which came from a protest by one Chinese citizen, Peng Lifa, right before China’s heavily guarded party congress meeting last month. 

While Peng hasn’t been seen in public since, his slogans have been heard and seen everywhere in China over the past week. Relaxing China’s strict pandemic control measures, which often don’t reflect a scientific understanding of the virus, is the most essential—and most agreed-upon—demand. 

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Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs



Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs

Today, two labs separately announced programs that use diffusion models to generate designs for novel proteins with more precision than ever before. Generate Biomedicines, a Boston-based startup, revealed a program called Chroma, which the company describes as the “DALL-E 2 of biology.”

At the same time, a team at the University of Washington led by biologist David Baker has built a similar program called RoseTTAFold Diffusion. In a preprint paper posted online today, Baker and his colleagues show that their model can generate precise designs for novel proteins that can then be brought to life in the lab. “We’re generating proteins with really no similarity to existing ones,” says Brian Trippe, one of the co-developers of RoseTTAFold.

These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. “We can discover in minutes what took evolution millions of years,” says Gevorg Grigoryan, CEO of Generate Biomedicines.

“What is notable about this work is the generation of proteins according to desired constraints,” says Ava Amini, a biophysicist at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Symmetrical protein structures generated by Chroma


Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. In animals, they digest food, contract muscles, detect light, drive the immune system, and so much more. When people get sick, proteins play a part. 

Proteins are thus prime targets for drugs. And many of today’s newest drugs are protein based themselves. “Nature uses proteins for essentially everything,” says Grigoryan. “The promise that offers for therapeutic interventions is really immense.”

But drug designers currently have to draw on an ingredient list made up of natural proteins. The goal of protein generation is to extend that list with a nearly infinite pool of computer-designed ones.

Computational techniques for designing proteins are not new. But previous approaches have been slow and not great at designing large proteins or protein complexes—molecular machines made up of multiple proteins coupled together. And such proteins are often crucial for treating diseases.  

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