Kathy Doherty l Palladium - Oct 24 2022
It's Time to Listen to the Data

Data has been telling us for decades that the climate is changing, but for the most part, people holding the levers of power have not been listening to what scientists and many communities have long recognised. Now, the tipping point may have arrived, with Pakistan under water, severe droughts in the Horn of Africa, and fires blazing across California. As a result of these events alone, 33 million people have been displaced in Pakistan; 1 million people forced to live in camps near Baidoa, Somalia; and California littered with the burned shells of cars, homes, crops, and barns.

So perhaps, now that nature has made its point, more of us are paying attention to what the data’s been saying. And Palladium experts are at the forefront of an urgent need to help us learn to “hear” the data. Part of that effort will take place at the GeOnG conference in Chambéry, France, October 24–26, where three Palladium experts will help attendees put the data into their own hands.

Organised by CartONG, a nongovernmental organisation focused on information science, the conference has been held every two years since 2008, gathering humanitarian and development actors to discuss the current and future stakes of information management in the aid sector and to introduce innovative solutions, share experience, and best practices.

“We don’t necessarily need to invent new tools,” says Dr. Sana Khan, a climate data scientist formerly with NASA and now with Palladium. She will co-lead a workshop at the conference—Climate Change as a Humanitarian Crisis—to examine that intersection. Use of open-source data and tools and their customisation based on specific needs can help provide useful insights and assist in policy making. However, many developing and under-developed countries don’t know those exist. “Capacity building and awareness on how to use existing climate models and climate hazard assessment tools for decision making can help minimise the effects of climate change on people,” Khan says. “The damage and loss of life from the devastating flooding in Pakistan could have been managed better with adequate planning and policy making.”

Khan is joined by Molly Cannon, director of measurement and learning at Palladium; Dan Marin, a digital advisor with Palladium working in Moldova with the Data for Impact project to strengthen the capacity of the government to use data in support of child protection policies and government response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis; and Dr. Seneka Basnayake, the director of climate resilience at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok. “We’re trying to show people how to use and apply open-source tools to plan for climate-induced disasters that lead to humanitarian crises,” explains Cannon.

"The data are there but policymakers aren’t using it because they are not data scientists."

“We are basically raising awareness. Our hope is that the lessons learned during the workshop will help shape future thinking and policy making,” Khan adds. Workshop participants will have a chance to model some real-world examples, including the Pakistan flood, the Somalia drought, the California fires, and Hurricane Eta/Iota in Guatemala.

Participants will find and interpret climate data relevant to their assigned geography and they’ll investigate humanitarian datasets and images and identify spatial patterns of climate and earth data, using cloud-based Google Earth Engine. Then they’ll work with open-source products to assess soil moisture content, precipitation, and temperature data, call up world population data for their region of interest, plot the event time series, and create maps to estimate the number of people who will be in the way of the climate-induced “event”, and the area of the cropland affected by that event.

Analytics is not the only thing to plug in, Khan says. “It also needs to be used in policy planning. The data are there but policymakers aren’t using it because they are not data scientists. We need to make it useful and easily digestible for those who need to process the data. That’s what is lacking.”

Palladium will show participants how many lives are impacted and discuss strategies to mitigate the “disaster” under consideration. This is where Cannon says Palladium is especially poised to lead because of its deep understanding of the enabling environment in scores of countries that will help get the right tools to the right people to support decision making. “We know the actors, the policies, who is making the decisions, and have developed convening power and advocacy strategies,” Cannon says. “We also excel in mining data that already exists through application of advanced analytics to enable those decisions. And we have specialists like Dan and Sana,” she adds.

The time is now, and the trend is worrisome, says Marin. “We will have more humanitarian crises caused by climate change. More climate disasters equal more humanitarian crises. Palladium is expert in both and at this nexus, we understand humans and what motivates them.”

On a global scale, scientists have helped to put aims like the Sustainable Development Goals—described as a global blueprint for action—in place. Those are high aspirations for the planet and its people. What has been lacking is a policy framework at the local level—where people are living—that investigates climate impact, designs mitigation and adaptation strategies, and helps build resilience into communities, districts, countries, and regions.

The answer to that need, Khan says, is incorporating local data to enable localised artificial intelligence, machine learning-based predictive analytics and real-time monitoring solutions using remote-sensing techniques. “A humanitarian situation can evolve in a matter of days,” she explains. “Taking all the information and modelling the worst-case scenarios could help in pre-emptive measures.

However, the usefulness of these techniques is dictated by whether or not decisionmakers and policymakers buy in. The capabilities of predictive analytics already are proven in other sectors and can be adapted to manage climate-induced humanitarian crises,” she adds. “The good news is that we already have that.”

Learn more about the GeOnG conference, read 'One-third of Pakistan is Underwater, Can AI Help?', and contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com for more information.