Humanitarian Aid from Space: How Mobile Technology and Satellites Improve Disaster Relief

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When typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November of 2013, the world responded with millions of dollars’ worth of aid and supplies, but many of those resources – medicine, clean water and food – were stranded at the country’s airports and seaports after arrival.

“The hardest part of delivering aid is the last mile,” said Christina Bain, a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin. “It’s connecting resources on-the-ground with the people who need them most.” 

Safely distributing resources to the hardest-hit areas of a natural disaster is difficult for many reasons. Without reliable communication systems, weather information or up-to-date route planning, it’s hard to know where supplies are needed most – let alone get the resources there.

To meet this need, Lockheed Martin and other members of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Space are developing a free, open-source web tool that uses the power of space technologies to deliver accurate, up-to-date information to humanitarian relief efforts. The product, called HelpNow™, will help individuals, governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that require support locating and routing humanitarian aid to areas that need it most.

“Our end goal is to maximize the compassionate efforts of volunteers and NGOs who respond to natural disasters,” said Gary Hoffman, software developer at Lockheed Martin. “Even though satellites are far removed from the victims of these disasters, the data and imagery we get from them help deliver food to someone starving or provide water to someone who desperately needs it.”

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When the HelpNow prototype is complete in summer 2016, it will be free to governments, NGOs and individuals. The software’s open-source platform allows developers to customize the tool by adding plug-ins or apps, and it will be available on desktops, tablets and smartphones. Designed without proprietary information, viewable data will be determined by permission-level logins based on the type of user.

A key component of the HelpNow app is its matching algorithm, which examines the inventory of aid and supplies and matches those resources (and their location) to various types of need. Future development will also incorporate factors like road damage or weather patterns to prioritize delivering supplies to victims. 

When the team first started brainstorming, they were inspired by similar algorithms from Match.com and Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app.

“Instead of matching personality traits, we’re focused on matching resource to need,” Bain said. “The algorithm is not only looking for who has the resources, but also who can deliver those resources the fastest. Just because an NGO may be the closest to the need, it doesn’t mean they have the resource that’s needed or can get there quicker.”

Although the app will be used by people on Earth, the data and imagery that drive the app relies on the work of several satellites orbiting the planet.

First, Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) help geographically locate supplies as well as users who can use their smartphone’s location settings. The app also relies on a number of different imagery satellites to get before and after assessments of impacted areas, and with radar technology, cloud cover and dark skies are not an obstacle.

For areas where communications networks or infrastructure are disabled or damaged, communications satellites can help restore connection for first responders. Weather satellites also provide victims with enough time to evacuate if storms are seriously threatening and help to monitor hazards that may impede first responders. 

HelpNow is not the only humanitarian aid application out there, but it’s designed to integrate with existing humanitarian systems – facilitating collaboration and feature development. Eventually, the team hopes to transfer stewardship of the app to a government entity or NGO.

“With the open source framework, we’re not trying to compete with anyone else – we’re trying to collaborate with everyone else,” Bain said.

The software development team continues to receive inputs from experts in humanitarian aid and are finalizing a capability that adds route planning to the tool so first responders can avoid damaged or impassable roads. The tool’s first version will be put to the test in June 2016, and the site chosen for initial testing is Bangladesh, a country challenged by severe seasonal flooding.

The global HelpNow partnership consists of Lockheed Martin, Digital Globe, Amazon Web Services, Satellite Applications Catapult, Causelabs, DMCii, Deimos Imagery, the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University and eGEOS. 


EVACUATED FOR KATRINA, ENGINEER FINDS INSPIRATION TO HELP


In 2005, Lockheed Martin employee Christina Bain evacuated her home in New Orleans, Louisiana just before a devastating storm pummeled the city and left friends and family with nothing.

Even though she was able to avoid the worst of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, the experience opened her to the challenges of disaster relief as she returned to the city to assess the damage to her home.

“There are things you take for granted like having drinkable water, finding fuel for your car or even using your cell phone,” said Bain. “It was hard to focus on cleaning our residence when so many things we take for granted were not available.”

Bain says having a tool like the HelpNow app would have helped her know ahead of time where to go for resources and what conditions to expect when she returned.

Years later when she heard there was a need for systems engineers to help with a project on how space technology can further enable humanitarian aid, she eagerly applied.

“Although my experience wasn’t as severe as the experiences of countless others around the world, knowing we’re working on something that’s going to make a difference in saving people’s lives has been such a remarkable experience,” said Bain.