Enhancing Humanitarian Aid Effectiveness with Analytics


Working at an NGO, it’s tough to fix what we don’t know about. To be effective in our work, our team needs the right tools to stand up to one of our generation’s greatest humanitarian challenges: the Syrian refugee crisis.

The refugee crisis began in 2011 when countless people began to flee Syria during the civil conflict. In 2016 alone, it was estimated that Syria had a population of about 22 million people. 13.5 million required humanitarian assistance that year, according to the United Nations. About six million were displaced internally within Syria, while another five million fled and looked for shelter and safety elsewhere.

The displacement of such a large number of people is the topic of much discussion in the United States, but we often don’t see the impact on other countries around the world. Case in point: Lebanon. There are about 4.5 million Lebanese in Lebanon, while well over one million Syrian refugees have also been forced to make Lebanon their home, whether they wanted to or not. This is a massive influx for a country the size of Connecticut, resulting in Lebanon hosting the most refugees per capita of any country in the world. 

The Syrian refugee crisis is also very different in Lebanon from anywhere else because large numbers of refugees live in informal settlements. People live in rural, hard-to-reach areas that have no official boundaries or addresses. Without the ability to systematically find people, you can't help them during a time when they are in desperate need. 

Despite all this strife and hardship, it's still a positive thing that so many people were able to find refuge in Lebanon. But that doesn't mean that these people have it easy—far from it. They still require assistance, which they depend on NGOs to provide. Medair and other NGOs rely on reliable statistical information on the ground in order to respond more effectively. But we always remember that there are human beings behind those numbers. 

People’s lives are at stake. 

Giving Hope Back to the Hopeless


Founded in 1989, Medair is an international non-governmental humanitarian organisation with a mission to relieve suffering in some of the world’s most remote and devastated places. We are currently the lead agency responsible for mapping the informal settlements in Lebanon where many of the Syrian refugees live. In order for our relief efforts to be successful, Medair needs to determine three things about refugees:

  • Where they’re located
  • Who the people are
  • What they need moving forward

Because so many refugees live in randomly located informal settlements, Medair came up with the idea of creating a geographic information system (GIS) that would identify the settlement locations in a way that could also be updated in real time. Each informal settlement is then given a PCode (place code) as a unique identifier or ‘address’ for their site. This information is then disseminated to the other NGOs working in the area, so that they can move forward with their relief work, rather than having to go to the settlement to collect this information themselves.

Medair had made significant progress in this area, particularly with GIS mapping and assistance provisioning, but coordinated on-the-ground tracking methods had significant limitations.  

Manual methods of collection make data distribution a nightmare.

For starters, many NGOs manually collected  refugee data with pen and paper, which made distributing the information a complicated, uphill battle. Settlements were often mislabeled, which led to duplicate settlement information that easily went unnoticed. 

We began to realize that an all-encompassing solution was needed to guarantee clarity and consistency above all else. Only with that in place would we be able to help people who needed it most.

The Power of Data Analytics in the Real World

Data collection became significantly easier at the beginning of 2014 when Medair started using Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS, a registration system) and Open Data Kit (ODK, a data-collection tool), which enabled us to capture information on tablets offline in the field. Although data collection became easier, we still had to distribute the data to our team.

In late 2014, one of our project managers was in a conference with a representative from Qlik, the business intelligence platform. The two met, shared about their respective work, and quickly realized that Qlik could offer solutions to Medair’s data challenges. 

 Qlik could help pull together data compiled from a wide range of different sources into a single, easy-to-manage channel. Instead of housing essential data in different locations, data could reside in one place for everyone to access at a moment's notice. The immediacy of this solution was ideal for people in the global support office and on the ground, making communication and collaboration suddenly effortless. 

Almost immediately, the seemingly simple benefit created an incredible ripple effect. Our previous process took between 10 and 14 days to understand who our beneficiaries were and what they needed. Once Qlik processes were implemented, the timeline was shortened to just three to four days

Power on the Front Lines

I remember one time in the past few years, we were on a field visit and we met a woman with an ill child. She pled for our assistance to take her child to the doctor, because she didn’t have money to do so. Our Qlik-enabled survey allowed us to understand that the real need of this family was for a safe and secure tent to live in. Their tent was in bad condition, giving the family inadequate shelter from the elements, and in turn causing her child to be ill.

Under the old system, we would have simply got the child to the doctor, but he would have just kept getting ill. But since data collected by different teams were connected and information about families was automated and shared with everyone, our shelter team was able to distribute a shelter kit that made their tent a safer and healthier place for the mother and her children. This allowed us to go beyond treating the symptom to addressing the root of the problem. 

We were able to solve both short- and long-term issues in the field by collecting the right data and getting the information to the right people at the right time. 

In-the-field data access leads to saving lives and responding to needs.

Our new approach makes a difference in larger ways, too. Take floods: We have collected flood data over the years, which allows us to predict the significant possibility of flooding in a specific area. Because we now have easy access to this information and analysis, we can preemptively target that area for flood kits assistance before it happens. 

Targeted Insight Creates Targeted Assistance

Qlik has had a major impact on our entire organisation. We've been able to properly engage all stakeholders—both on the ground and at the global support office—with real-time dashboards. This, in turn, has led to informed programming, which helps us provide objective, targeted assistance to those with the greatest need. We're also better able to monitor all projects, finding fast answers for faster assistance in all sectors.

Qlik-generated data analysis has played an invaluable role in helping to push our entire team forward with the right, informed solutions at our fingertips.

Consolidation of data = greater insights for more of your team. @Qlik

From the beginning, the changes we saw from Qlik were night and day. Today, our new systems are ingrained in our operations. Whenever we discuss solutions and practices with other organisations, they are always spellbound by the data insights that Medair is able to provide and we are reminded of the advantages this system has given us.

Thanks to our Qlik data processes, we can now provide addresses for people who have lost their homes. This is not a permanent fix to a devastating problem, but restoring some semblance of identity to those who feel lost is a promising start.

When our journey began,  our heart was in the right place, but we lacked the right tools to be as impactful as this dire situation required. For an issue as monumental as the Syrian refugee crisis, we need the best people and resources to live up to Medair’s lofty ambitions. Now, thanks to Qlik, that's something we're able to do every single day.