Fieldset
MSF REACH: The new project that could help MSF act faster in an emergency

Lucie Gueuning, from Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF)’s Emergency Support Unit, writes about an innovative new project that will help our teams rapidly respond to reach those in need.

When a disaster strikes, MSF teams need to act fast. But, getting accurate and up-to-date information to assess the reality of the situation on the ground, and the response required, isn’t always easy in an emergency.

MSF teams are constantly looking for innovative ways to tackle the challenges encountered through humanitarian work. When I first joined MSF, projects involving technologies such as 3-D printing, drones, or even telemedicine caught my interest. It is fascinating.

However, in MSF Hong Kong, one particularly exciting initiative was born.

I am Lucie Gueuning. I am from Belgium and always looking for new challenges to improve the world of today. Because there is potential to improve human life, no?

First steps: Asia

After my master’s degree, two years ago, I landed in Hong Kong.

I started working for MSF on a voluntary basis and learnt that Asia is the most disaster-prone region in the world. In 2016, the region accounted for over half of the world’s 344 natural disasters, resulting in over 16,000 deaths and 59 million people affected. The economic cost of the damage was over USD $45 billion.

When disasters happen, MSF needs to gather information, fast. Imagine an earthquake, a typhoon, a tsunami hits an area where MSF has no team on the ground. What do we need to know?

This raised the question: does MSF have enough capacity to respond when climate change will most likely amplify the already strong typhoons and severe flooding?

Asia is particularly vulnerable due to poor infrastructure and the sheer frequency of natural disasters that occur every year. However, it is also a well-connected region: when I first arrived, there was an increasing trend in mobile phone use. Many people now had not one, but two phones. With so many phones, we could do something with that, right?

I strongly believe that technology can help us improve and support our humanitarian work and ultimately save more lives.

The need for information

When disasters happen, MSF needs to gather information, fast.

Imagine an earthquake, a typhoon, a tsunami hits an area where MSF has no team on the ground. What do we need to know?

How easy is it to access the area? Is it safe to send a team? How severe are the injuries? How many people need treatment? What is the impact on the wider population? Are other organisations responding? What capacity does the government have to respond?

We need to answer these questions and many more to have a clear understanding of what’s going on and what the needs are of the most vulnerable people. All this allows our teams to decide what MSF needs to do.

Imagine if we sent water and sanitation specialists when, actually, the government was already managing that side of things and what is really needed is a surgical team who can operate fast on injuries. It would waste time, waste resources, and delay treatment. Information is key.

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A girl looks at the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013
A girl looks at the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013

This need was clearly seen in 2013, when MSF responded to the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest super typhoons ever recorded – in the Philippines.

Haiyan caused over 6,300 confirmed deaths and displaced four million people. Essential infrastructure, including health facilities, roads and ports, were damaged or destroyed, and emergency supplies swept away.

The medical needs were immense, and the risk for communicable disease outbreaks was high.

We are harnessing advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, plus that ubiquitous mobile phone presence, to use chatbot functions that place the most relevant information at the fingertips of people who need to act fast.

MSF needed to know how to plan for this before taking the decision to roll out a massive medical response. The early information gathered meant the team went on to provide more than 30% of the total medical consultations, hospitalisations and safe childbirths.

For Typhoon Haiyan, it was information from our former staff on the ground that allowed us to reach the most vulnerable people with the care that they actually needed.

So, with that in mind, we took up the challenge of building a new web-based platform that could support MSF staff by providing real-time information about an emergency, as it evolves.

We named it REACH: REaction Assessment Collaboration Hub

REACH is used by MSF staff to map and analyse the rapidly evolving situation at the epicentre of a crisis.

We are harnessing advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, plus that ubiquitous mobile phone presence, to use chatbot functions that place the most relevant information at the fingertips of people who need to act fast, our staff on the ground.

The idea is to support them in their work. Humans remain at the cornerstone of our operations – REACH won’t change that – but it will be able to support our staff with the technology of today.

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A screenshot of MSF REACH
A screenshot of MSF REACH

How? you may ask. REACH combines institutional data with crowd-sourced information, drawing on a vast number of sources.

Remember all those phones I mentioned? People will be able to use them to send in information that will be gathered together in one online portal (that can work offline as well, for sure).

Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter are the social media channels already used by most of us. So, we won’t change that behaviour, instead, we will make our reporting accessible through those tools via a chatbot function.

REACH bot is intelligent and can recognise keywords to assist with links to the right emergency being monitored by MSF staff worldwide.

If you’re a member of the team on the ground, you won’t have to field multiple calls asking for updates – just send the link and everyone who needs a status update will get the most reliable information on the situation.

REACH also draws on existing knowledge and up-to-the-minute reports provided by the trusted networks we have already built, combined with social media, to enable us to be better at monitoring and screening disaster situations.

As an emergency medical organisation, MSF is focused on taking care of people in the most need. REACH has the potential to streamline systems we already have in place, allowing teams to respond even faster.

A cholera outbreak in DRC

Imagine you’re sitting in an MSF headquarters in Europe. You’re getting some reports of a cholera outbreak hitting the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The local staff, your focal point, are working really hard to gather the most reliable information.

With REACH, your task will now be easier because all the information is in one place. Reporting a new case of cholera will be easy for a local medecin chef de zone (senior regional health officials employed by the Ministry of Health). They will be part of the MSF peer network and will be able to directly map cases in their region with our dynamic portal.

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MSF REACH is designed for use with smartphones on the ground
MSF REACH is designed for use with smartphones on the ground

Dealt with this kind of situation before? With REACH it will be easy to locate existing contacts such as the key people at the Ministry of Health, other NGOs working in the region, or even the suppliers that provided the kit and services you used last time.

Need to know how many confirmed cases there are? If there are any vaccination campaigns already in place? All of this will be quick and easy to access through REACH.

The idea is to collate unstructured data into one secure portal, helping to provide the best analysis and plan the optimal response.

Meanwhile, if you’re a member of the team on the ground, you won’t have to field multiple calls asking for updates – just send the link and everyone who needs a status update will get the most reliable information on the situation.

I feel so happy when I see my colleagues smiling as they realise that we are making their important task easier. They don’t need to open and screen 10 different tabs to figure out what is going on.

Reaching out to the humanitarianism network

MSF will build up networks of local “friends” in disaster-prone regions. This could include former local staff, international staff who are in between assignments or even MSF association members.

When a disaster hits, they can then send information to REACH using our reporting card. The reporting card is a simple four-step survey asking people to categorise and localise the information on the ground.

We are working to incorporate feedback from MSF staff and friends, as well as the wider “civil society” to enhance REACH and make this crowdsourcing-based-on-request tool valuable to everyone, further building and strengthening our network.

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Demonstrating MSF REACH to team members
Demonstrating MSF REACH to team members

Our new goals include learning from information shared by other NGOs on social media, as well as our reporting card, so that we do not get left behind.

The world is changing fast. We have to start being innovative and reach out to the organisations and people we trust, using the ways people communicate, today, not in two years’ time.

The next phase

I am delighted to share that the Transformational Investment Capacity (TIC), a fund for investment within MSF, has approved REACH for an additional 10 months, allowing us to launch the pilot phase and enhance the capabilities of the system.

This next phase of REACH’s development is outlined in four major objectives.

  • Continuously adapt the platform to ensure it suits the requirements of MSF teams
  • Revamp the user interface to make it as easy to use as possible
  • Run five pilot programmes, gather user feedback and expand REACH’s scope to encompass more types of emergencies and their environments
  • Evaluate the product and prepare for the production phase

It is becoming real. And, by sharing this with you all, I would like to bookend the first stages of the REACH project.

Writing this really helped me to reflect on successes and failures of the past phases, and will help us to improve, ready for my next update. We will be doing strategic pilots and test cases in the coming year!

If you have any feedback as a reader of this blog, or as a user of REACH, please do get in touch. I am happy to share and discuss ideas.

See you in a bit with more updates!

MSF REACH is a humanitarian platform developed conjointly by MSF Hong Kong and its partner USER Group on behalf of MSF. If you are an MSF staff member and you want to know where we are operating, please login to www.msf-reach.org

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