Data scientists are using the most annoying feature on your phones to save lives in Ukraine

Article by Bernhard Warner: “In late March, five weeks into Russia’s war on Ukraine, an international team of researchers, aid agency specialists, public health experts, and data nerds gathered on a Zoom call to discuss one of the tragic by-products of the war: the refugee crisis.

The numbers discussedweregrim. The United Nations had just declared Ukraine was facing the biggest humanitarian crisis to hit Europe since World War II as more than 4 million Ukrainians—roughly 10% of the population—had been forced to flee their homes to evade Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deadly and indiscriminate bombing campaign. That total has since swelled to 5.5 million, the UN estimates.

What the aid specialists on the call wanted to figure out was how many Ukrainian refugees still remained in the country (a population known as “internally displaced people”) and how many had crossed borders to seek asylum in the neighboring European Union countries of Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, or south into Moldova. 

Key to an effective humanitarian response of this magnitude is getting accurate and timely data on the flow of displaced people traveling from a Point A danger zone to a Point B safe space. And nobody on the call, which was organized by CrisisReady, an A-team of policy experts and humanitarian emergency responders, had anything close to precise numbers.

But they did have a kind of secret weapon: mobility data.

“The importance of mobility data is often overstated,” Rohini Sampoornam Swaminathan, a crisis specialist at Unicef, told her colleagues on the call. Such anonymized data—pulled from social media feeds, geolocation apps like Google Maps, cell phone towers and the like—may not give the precise picture of what’s happening on the ground in a moment of extreme crisis, “but it’s valuable” as it can fill in points on a map. ”It’s important,” she added, “to get a picture for where people are moving, especially in the first days.”

Ukraine, a nation of relatively tech-savvy social media devotees and mobile phone users, is rich in mobility data, and that’s profoundly shaped the way the world sees and interprets the deadly conflict. The CrisisReady group believes the data has an even higher calling—that it can save lives.

Since the first days of Putin’s bombing campaign, various international teams have been tapping publicly available mobility data to map the refugee crisis and coordinate an effective response. They believe the data can reveal where war-torn Ukrainians are now, and even where they’re heading. In the right hands, the data can provide local authorities the intel they need to get essential aid—medical care, food, and shelter—to the right place at the right time…(More)”