Applying Geospatial Data to Humanitarian Missions

Linking the World CEO Mina Chang shares how data science and visualization could potentially benefit NGOs worldwide


Rather than simply responding to a crisis after it starts, geospatial intelligence could help humanitarian organizations pinpoint troubled locations in advance, said Mina Chang, CEO of Linking the World, during her GEOINT 2018 keynote.

“We must be proactive,” said Chang, who also serves as an international security fellow at think tank New America. “We must preemptively invest in global stability by identifying where these next hot spots are, understand the interconnectedness of these issues, and coordinate efforts to mitigate, to prevent, and to build resiliency.”

GEOINT data can help humanitarian organizations identify factors that could lead to conflict in the future, such as changes in the environment, the availability of resources in a region, or two groups that dislike each other moving into close proximity.

“Working with various data scientists, economists, and for-profit data companies [who] gave us access to their platforms, we were able to see that geospatial imagery with multiple layers of geo-reference data could help us understand what the root contributors were in these areas of instability,” Chang said. “It also started to give us patterns that we could look at, patterns that would help us identify and anticipate where are these next hot spots that we can start paying attention to.”

Geospatial analytics is becoming an increasingly useful skill in humanitarian work, and Chang said she wants to see closer cooperation between NGOs and commercial industry.

“A humanitarian today should expect that data crunching and analysis should be standard skill sets,” she said. “Maybe someone here can create a program to teach analytic tradecraft to humanitarians so that we can all speak a common language.”

Chang said she would like to see predictive programs developed that would allow organizations to test possible solutions to a crisis—what she called “wargaming for humanitarians.”

“For this to really work, we need data scientists to intermix with social scientists and those who understand the human terrain, because human-geography integration will be crucial in humanitarian organizations willingly adopting these tools,” she said.

Geospatial intelligence could also help with such basic tasks as logistics; for example, tracking supplies and ensuring they’re delivered properly.

Chang visited an area of Iraq formerly held by the Islamic State terrorist group, where she recalled seeing boxes of food labeled “World Food Program.”

“We’re literally feeding the enemy to continue fighting? The intention was to reach vulnerable populations,” Chang said. “But manipulated and redirected aid is very real when you’re going to places where non-states are controlling territory.”

Data visualization is also an area in which Chang hopes to see further development. Arming humanitarian organizations with easy-to-understand representations of ongoing crises helps them explain their work to potential donors, and also aids in convincing government leaders of the national security dangers presented by an unstable situation.

But even more so, Chang concluded, data visualization could help put a face on who is being affected by violence, so that individuals don’t just become statistics.

“They’re not just issues. They’re people,” she said.

Headline Image: Mina Chang, CEO of Linking the World and an international security fellow at think tank New America, stressed a closer cooperation between NGOs and commercial industry.


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