The charitable face of data use

A new group of innovative non-governmental organisations are springing up in the wake of disasters around the world, driven by complex data analysis and backed by telecom brands

Signing up refugees via mobile phone, Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

When a massive earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, the United Nations found that data collected through mobile telephones was crucial to delivering its relief programmes in the region.

The UN Foundation’s vice president of communications Aaron Sherinian explains that – as demonstrated in Haiti – processing complex data sets is now vital for non-profit organisations to help everything from crisis management to their marketing and fundraising.

“Real-time data and mapping are crucial when helping to save lives,” says Sherinian. The UN has been working for 10 years with the Vodafone Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the mobile operator, which invests in the use of mobile technologies to advance health and disaster relief programmes around the world.

“After the earthquake in Haiti, I think that real-time information not only raised awareness but boosted the comfort level of people who were giving and partnering all across the spectrum – from the grassroots donors to the high-level donors – about where our resources were going and that we were putting those resources in the places where they were needed,” he says.

But it is not just the UN that is relying on data processing and telecoms companies to help make a difference. Innovative information systems are revolutionising how many non-profit organisations, from Refugees United to Kenyan disaster-response system Ushahidi, are operating and marketing themselves.

With as much as 90% of the world’s population within the coverage of wireless technology, according to an International Telecommunication Union report, more people than ever can benefit from data fuelled by telecoms brands.

Real-time data and mapping are crucial when helping to save lives

Looking at the UN alone, this year the organisation has completed missions in Japan, Libya, Kenya and in Turkey. The Vodafone Foundation also works closely with the non-governmental organisation Télécoms Sans Frontières, which is deployed to major disasters and emergencies.

The Vodafone Foundation is now typically one of the first responders in a disaster, with ten years experience in providing data support for the UN. Together, the two bodies have deployed 85 missions and supported 628 organisations in the delivery of aid.

The Vodafone Foundation director Andrew Dunnett explains: “Vodafone basically arrives in the disaster zone and will undertake an audit of communications facilities that are there and whether the networks have survived, so when the main relief effort begins, there is a cluster station. A cluster station is where activities that are necessary to deliver and plans are put in place.”


Another very important telecommunications data-mapping organisation is FrontlineSMS, a free, open-source piece of software that distributes and collects information via text message. It claims to be one of the first messaging systems created to help those in developing countries communicate on a large scale, helping people access information and share data. One example is a coordinated movement that is beginning to engage people living with HIV through the use of SMS.

The UN agrees that there is an absolutely justifiable public appetite for results in any disaster relief or aid situation and it has become impossible to design or embark on a project without having the monitoring and evaluation questions considered from the beginning.

This could not be better news, according to Sherinian. “I feel whenever I talk to our UN partners, to the corporate or other NGO partners that work with us on issues ranging from health to climate, everyone from the donor to supporter to the implementing partner, they are completely aware of the importance of data,” he says.

“What is even more exciting is that they are increasingly literate on what makes good data and research for these programmes,” he adds. “So I think that this is not a trend or a fad – this is the best way for us to really impact change. The need for data is pushing us hard. It means a lot more work and a lot more impact.”

Refugees United is another NGO that uses technology and data shared over the internet to help third-world countries, such as Afghanistan, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan. By partnering with mobile networks Ericsson and Three, the founders have come up with a social network that reunites lost refugees.

The organisation was started by two Danish brothers, Chris and David Mikkelsen, and aims to become the “Google search” of finding refugees.

“The idea came after helping a young Afghan refugee, Mansour, trace his missing family members,” says Chris Mikkelsen. “Mansour was originally from Kabul. He travelled into Pakistan with his five siblings and his parents and from there, made it into Copenhagen. He made the journey on his own at the age of 12 because human trafficking separated him from his family.

“Five years later, when we were doing a documentary on integration, we met Mansour. People got to hear this story and as we got closer to him, we had systems to try and track down his family or to trace them. There was a process of speaking to all the agencies who work on these type of things.”

While the Mikkelsens met with many helpful organisations in their attempt to trace Mansour’s family, they noticed there was no infrastructure in place that could gather data and share information across agencies and borders.

“Ericsson has a lot of mobile platforms, and basically implemented the infrastructure need in Uganda, Kenya and countries where we operate,” says Mikkelsen. “Also, SAP has been a strong supporter of Refugees United for years, assisting us in building software and helping to control our operations.”

Anybody trying to search for family can do so by registering on the Refugees United online platform. The NGO then partners with agencies such as the Red Cross in some countries and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“We partner with a number of different agencies that then utilise our tools on the ground,” says Mikkelsen. “As we discovered the lack of IT infrastructure, we wanted to create a platform that could be deployed in different areas, very simply.”

For Refugees United, it was vital that the data that was being used to bring together families was possible to use even on basic mobile phone handsets.

“A refugee who signs up to Refugees United has a very limited internet connection and usually resides in a camp with limited access to technology – forget about web platforms,” he says. “They may have a basic mobile phone or a community leader who has a mobile phone, so they can access information when they are contacted.”

While Refugees United admits it is difficult to put a firm number on those people it has helped, Mikkelsen has heard in one week alone of six reconnections in Kenya, with others in Sudan and Somalia.

The Refugees United database has seen 54,000 people sign up to the platform in a year. The founders claim that this is a large number given how small are the numbers of those coming forward to the authorities to help with tracing families.

“We allow refugees to supply information that they are comfortable sharing, which is often a name, a former region, birth village, nicknames, something a family would recognise, whereas traditional chasing is much more in depth,” says Mikkelsen.

He adds that the data refugees provide to his platform can be both public and private. In a personal profile, the information you make public can be displayed to the world, while some details can also be kept under wraps if desired.

Ushahidi, the Swahili word for testimony, is another data-driven project. It processes data to flag up danger around the world within seconds, enabling the organisation to offer help to people around the globe.

Ushahidi’s website has been used to map incidents of violence throughout the country, based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones. There are around 22 million mobile phones in use in Kenya alone, covering 55% of the population.

Meanwhile, the mHealth Alliance uses technology for mobile-based or mobile-enhanced solutions that deliver health benefits to consumers around the world. The mHealth organisation, which is backed by The Vodafone Foundation and HP among others, is also working with the United Nations Foundation to improve health outcomes in low and middle income countries.

Another data-focused brand, Google is also helping non-profits use data to improve lives. The internet-based non-governmental organisation SamaSource offers vulnerable people outsourced work from Google, in an attempt to provide safe employment utilising computer skills to women, youths and refugees living in poverty.

Mikkelsen explains: “With SamaSource, people have to do data entry and so on. It’s at a basic level but they get paid so it’s a great way to provide sustainability to refugees.”

Ultimately, says the UN’s Sherinian, the value of the new innovative data analysis trend for non-profits is being able to both react to events and then tell the public about them in an engaging way.

“Our role at the UN is to take our best work to scale,” he says, “and I think you are really seeing technology as the foundation of those successful stories.”


Vodafone Foundation: data-driven marketing

Andrew Dunnett, director, Vodafone Foundation, ‘SMS giving is an innovation that is absolutely critical in communicating and raising money’

The Vodafone Foundation has been bringing its data and communications assistance to non-governmental organisations’ aid efforts for 10 years. But aside from helping organisations in the practical aspects of delivering aid (see main copy), it is also helping non-profits and charities market themselves.

Three years ago, the Vodafone Foundation began offering free texts along with online fundraising brand JustGiving for people donating to disaster and emergency operations.


“We found that it was a very effective platform to raise money for people in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or emergency,” says Vodafone Foundation director Andrew Dunnett. “I think one of the first changes in the UK charity sector where you have 160,000 companies, is mobile and data technology. SMS giving is an innovation that is absolutely critical in communicating and raising money.”

Dunnett believes combining data and telecoms will change the standard charity model in future. “It’s not going to replace everything – we still have the people collecting in the high street, you will still have the direct debit,” he says. “But the next generation of givers will start to use SMS because of the platform’s simplicity and the ease of giving.”

The foundation also sees social media becoming a more important part of convincing consumers to give money to good causes. “We decided to use a Facebook platform to really engage people with charities for their work and so on,” says Dunnett. “The use of the social media tools and platforms is really growing; the innovation is boosting fundraising activities.”

But with SMS being such a widely available technology for consumers all over the world, Dunnett sees this space as ripe for far more data-based developments in future.

He says: “In terms of innovative use of mobile in the charity space, we reckon that SMS giving will be a critical part of any fundraising.”

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