Back to all news and blogs

Start Network at the ICT4D Conference 2017

Technology, innovation and transparency in humanitarian aid

  • by Helen James
  • 06 Jun 17

Google Earth's Rebecca Moore discussing how to empower people with big data

Blog Post

I attended the ninth ICT4D Conference last month in Hyderabad, a city that is growing rapidly and establishing itself as an international hub for the tech sector. Google, Amazon and Facebook all have offices based in the so-called Hi-Tech City and Hyderabad has now been dubbed ‘Cyberabad’.

The growing ICT4D movement had been under some criticism of late. Although technology is widely seen as offering some real solutions to ongoing challenges, a lot of money has been spent on projects that aren’t scalable and organisations often struggle to adopt new technologies when it is scaled. That’s why I was particularly interested to see the theme for the conference “Innovation to Impact” and the agenda which focused in particular on harnessing the power of data.

Start Network was represented in two sessions. Below I’ve summarised both along with other interesting sessions I attended.

Parametric insurance: how does big data and analytics save lives?

William Martin, Technical Advisor Cash and Markets, Catholic Relief Services, presented Start Network’s work in insurance to an interested and interesting mix of academics, data scientists and NGOs (including humanitarian, tech and MEL staff). William discussed the potential for predictive data modelling to enable NGOs to move to an approach which uses disaster risk financing, instead of the existing reactive approach to financing. The Start Network proposes a layered approach to risk management, with different products for crises of differing frequency and impact.  Parametric insurance is one of those products.

The Start Network is working with partners to develop two parametric insurance mechanisms, one mechanism operates at the country level and the other at the civil society level. Both mechanisms are based on a set of pre-agreed scientific parameters, such as rainfall or soil moisture. Once parameters are triggered, it automatically release the pay-out agreed in the insurance policy according to the severity of the disaster.

Comments were raised in the room around the new skills and expertise needed with agencies to deliver this new way of working.

Read more here.

Transparency and collaboration in humanitarian decision making

I lead a session discussing transparency and collaboration, and profiling three Start Network platforms. I began by discussing the drivers to change.

  • Falling public trust is affecting the ability of NGOs to serve communities. And so NGOs are looking to technology to enable stakeholders to understand the work they’re doing, to give them an opportunity to influence that work and to amplify their voices.
  • Decreasing resources - NGOs are losing funding and losing people, and technology can offer NGOs efficient ways of managing and accessing information and then using that information for better decision-making which can then improve the effectiveness of programmes.
  • Compliance - the WHS last year and the Grand Bargain commitments that are driving our donors to firm up compliance requirements, particularly around transparency

The Start Network is developing three platforms which aim to increase and improve transparency and collaboration.

  • Block chain

The Start Network is in discussions to build on an earlier block chain project, this time we aim to pilot block chain to create a transparent digital ledge for cash interventions. Although it’s early days, and the relevant agreements are yet to be signed, we excited about this and believe it has the potential to revolutionise cash across the sector.  More on this will be announced very soon!


The ALERT platform, part of the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme, aims to enable humanitarian agencies to prepare for and respond to disasters in a more effective and coordinated manner. It’s a collaborative project, led by HelpAge. ALERT is first and foremost a platform that is useful for teams in every day response planning, but through its daily use it promote better coordination across the sector. For example, it would be faster to share information for what-where-who mapping. It also promotes cross-country and cross-agency learning, as you can learn about the preparedness process of other countries and agencies. ALERT is being tested at the moment, but you can find more information here .

  • Start Fund portal

Many of you reading this will already know about the Start Fund Portal, so I will instead focus on some of the ideas we’re discussing about how we can improve it. Firstly, we want to improve the map and improve the data on the map, 3w data is really what we’d be aiming for. Secondly we’re looking to publish data to IATI, so linking the portal (or the database it sits on) to that would make it easier for the team managing the data. Thirdly, we want to grow the Fund, but we want to do it in a way which doesn’t increase the workload for the team and members, so we’re looking at how we can bring in more automation on the Salesforce database that the portal sits on. If you have any ideas for how to improve the portal, please complete our survey.

Read more about my session and see the slides.

Implementation of a weather forecast SMS system in rural Mongolia

1.4 million animals died in the winter of 2016 in Mongolia. If those herders had known in advance about adverse weather to come, many could have moved their herds to safer places. Erkhes Batbold told us about how Mercy Corps has implemented a weather forecast SMS system for Mongolian herders, because existing weather information was not localised enough. Crisis anticipation and early warning systems are central to the Start Network’s work, so this session was of particular interest to me.

Using weather from and a system built on EngageSPARK Mercy Corp built a system which allows local people to sign up to SMS alerts to their mobile phones. Alerts have forecasts for weather for their region for the next one, three or six days.  The project is funded to June this year and is well on its way to reaching its target of over 13,500 mobile subscribers.

Read more.

Cash, data and HXL in emergencies

Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa, the Global Advisor - Tech & Innovation at DanChurchAid, talked about the growing amount of data being collected about cash interventions and appealed to NGOs to share information using the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL) standard. Patricia said that there is need to coordinate and share information, particularly in emergency contexts where there is need to move fast, use resources efficiently and reach as many of the affected population as possible. The HXL standard uses hashtags to allow organisations to share and process data in a simple way, this also allows NGOs to access crucial data that already exists about a location as collected by other agencies.

Questions were raised about understanding what data is needed and whether HXL can link to data on IATI, so agencies so have to report twice. Patricia urged people to get involved in the working group to discuss these points further

Read more.

I attended may more sessions over the four days, too many to write about here, but you can see the full programme here.

Read more about Start Network work in insurance.

Read more about the ALERT platform.

Read more about the Start Fund portal.

Keep reading:

Technology Blockchain

  • by Helen James