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Unlocking insights from data: Collaboration with private sector creates cutting-edge maps for disaster response

NetHope continues to grow its information management and geospatial capacity to support the organizations emergency response efforts in the Caribbean and around the world.

September 10, 2018

By Marena Brinkhurst, Community Team Program Manager, Mapbox,
and John Crowley, Director of Information Management and Crisis Informatics, NetHope

As humanitarian operations have become more complex, they require ever more powerful tools to coordinate dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of NGOs and government agencies on the core mission: helping people in need. Information can make or break a response operation. It needs to be accurate, up-to-date, and in a form that makes it easy for decision makers to see what is happening, where, and to whom.

This was strikingly evident during the devastating 2017 hurricane season in the Caribbean. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, information was desperately needed by response organizations for rescue operations and aid coordination.

The hurricane had knocked out the majority of cell and internet service on the island. NetHope crews were quickly deployed and worked to get smaller-scale, localized connectivity up and running to create connectivity for responding organizations to coordinate rescue and aid efforts.


But with so much of the island’s communication abilities offline, the challenge was how to target efforts to the areas of highest need. That is where the importance of private and nonprofit sector relationships really came to the forefront.

During this time, longtime partner Facebook contacted NetHope’s Crisis Informatics team to offer data to better inform the response strategy. The information, collected by Facebook of those using the service in Puerto Rico with their Location Services turned on, provided an aggregated, anonymized view of usage prior to the storm*. These data could be used to show drops in connectivity on a daily basis by comparing the aggregate normal number of users connecting to Facebook in a given area and the number able to connect in the days after the hurricane. These insights allowed an unprecedented view of connectivity, but NetHope’s Crisis Informatics team was challenged by the volume of data provided and how to use it most effectively. That’s when Mapbox’s Community Team contacted the NetHope Crisis Informatics team to offer volunteer assistance to the hurricane recovery effort. Mapbox tools are perfect for visualizing connectivity data alongside other data on a map of the island.

Working together, Lo Benichou from Mapbox and Dale Kunce of the American Red Cross, analyzed the Facebook data and created an intuitive and interactive map to visualize the connectivity drops. The information on the map gave the connectivity team the direction they needed to install sites to create a link of connectivity around the island and to strengthen areas that had weak connectivity. Over the initial months of NetHope’s response, volunteers at Mapbox updated the map as new data was shared to provide the most accurate information possible.

Over the time span of 7 months, 99 connectivity sites were installed across the island, with 39 of those locations providing public Wi-Fi spots for local citizens to receive and share news, connect with friends and family, and help organize their next steps in recovery.

The partnership between NetHope, Mapbox and Facebook was essential to this next-level mapping project and this collaboration is deepening to support the 2018 hurricane season. Together, all three organizations are collaborating to make mapping tools more intuitive, insight and effective for future disasters.

Click image to view time lapse of connectivity after Hurricane Maria.

“NetHope Crisis Informatics has found our partnership with Mapbox and Facebook Disaster Maps to be a rich, lesson-filled experience," says Gabriele Almon, a member of NetHope's Crisis Informatics team. "We see the power of multi-tech partner collaboration to reach an important humanitarian mission. In this case, it was finding people in need of the connectivity services that NetHope and its partners provide, as quickly as possible. Without Mapbox and Facebook, this would have been a much more labor and time-intensive process.”

NetHope continues to grow its information management and geospatial capacity to support the organizations emergency response efforts in the Caribbean and around the world. Visit the webinar on the topic for more information. We invite you to support NetHope in creating a proactive and dynamic approach to disaster response.

*Connectivity map data is from Facebook Disaster Maps, which shares privacy-preserving insights with NGOs during natural disasters.

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