How Big Data is Helping People: From Disaster Relief to Human Trafficking


In this world nothing is ever truly one-dimensional. Where there is light there is also darkness, and while some people would have you believe that big data is a menace and a privacy hazard, there’s no denying that it helps people.

Here are a few of the ways that Big Data has stretched its little digital fingers into the humanitarian realm and helped make our world better.

Disaster Relief:

With the widespread use of social media during times of national disaster, it’s possible for aid organizations to pick out trending words and phrases amongst messages posted to Twitter and Facebook to discover new developments in the after-effects of the disaster or pinpoint which areas need help.  With the location known, aid organizations can bring aid directly to the places that need it, which cuts response time and improves efficiency.

In addition, specific organizations have developed data analytics tools to assist during times of crisis as well. Google Crisis Maps shows the locations of resources or damaged areas and Google People Finder can help people reconnect with family and friends in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Human Trafficking:

Big data has made major strides in improving the effectiveness of anti-human trafficking efforts. Google Giving (the humanitarian branch of the organization) gave $3 million to team up 3 international anti-human trafficking organizations with tech companies in order to amass and analyze all relevant data and create new technologies and processes to gather more accurate human trafficking data in the future. The partnership aims to gain a clear view of the areas, the patterns, and the flows of human trafficking through the amassing of data across borders.

One of the key developments of the partnership has been the creation of a global human trafficking hotline. Currently several national hotlines exist but they are too isolated and uni-modal to be truly effective at stopping international human trade. They accept only phone calls and only from specific areas or countries. A portion of Google’s grant will go toward the development of a global multi-modal hotline that can accept data inputs from email, SMS, mobile, etc.

The new system will push data at the hotline instead of having to pull it from the caller (ex: asking the caller to describe their surroundings). If a victim manages to text or call the hotline, data pertaining to their exact location will be pushed automatically which can significantly cut down response time.

With uniformity across the world along with big data amassing and mapping abilities, human traffickers will hopefully find greater difficulty in running operations across borders.

While big data can certainly help by streamlining processes, no major progress will be made until the issue of awareness has been tackle. The problem is that a lot of people think that slavery doesn’t exist anymore in the Western world. A hotline won’t be effective until the issue of human trafficking has been publicized to the point where it will be possible to get the phone number into victims’ hands. The general population also needs to be informed of the propensity of human trafficking so that they’ll be able to identify signs of it and report it to the hotline.

Saving Children:

A $1.3 million grant was given to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles to fund a massive data mining/storage project. The pediatric facility will store and mine data about children’s physical conditions through sensors. The data can be processed and analyzed to learn more about each sickness and identify symptom patterns. For example, it could be discovered that if a child with pneumonia hits a temperature of over 102 degrees, it’s likely that the next day they will also report an increase in chest pains and will need to increase their narcotics dosage.


One of the key challenges will be the adoption of big data processes in humanitarian aid organizations. Google Giving and several other progressive aid entities have recognized that technology has great potential to spur advancements in these areas; however, many others organizations either don’t have the skills and competences necessary to implement similar initiatives or they feel that their current systems don’t have the ability to integrate with or support big data analytics.

Additionally, it’s very difficult to amass data in the areas that are most at-risk in the case of natural disasters- namely marginalized areas where many people have limited access to cell phones and Internet. It’s not realistic to believe that these people will be able to report their locations during times of crisis. Clearly these new technologies have limitations and won’t be able to be miraculously adopted over night, but that doesn’t mean that disaster relief through data is impossible. Through a combination of gradual technological adoption in marginalized areas in addition to concerted efforts to amass as much relevant information as possible, big data will pave be the road to recovery in times of need.