Using real-time data to improve emergency response

Published: 11 August 2015 10:00 CET

What is the quickest way to find out exactly what people need? Ask them. Sounds easy enough. But in an emergency setting, collecting this kind of information can prove logistically challenging. And slow. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been no exception in terms of logistical challenges, but it has nevertheless proven to be an opportunity for the Red Cross to pioneer an efficient method of data collection—Rapid Mobile Phone Based surveys or RAMP.

Combining this innovation with Red Cross’ beneficiary communications approach - dialogue with affected communities - enabled Red Cross teams to rapidly inform and evaluate programming in the critical first days of a disease outbreak, and throughout the response.

Amanda McClelland, Senior Emergency Health Officer with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says, “Collecting data in the initial stages of a response provides information crucial to a response strategy. However, it is an arduous task that can end up at the bottom of a list of competing demands for time, resources and technology.”

RAMP provides a durable and efficient data-collecting model that delivers sufficient data to make programme decisions without unduly stretching the capacity of response teams and local volunteers.  RAMP uses simple app software on smart phones or tablet devices, which is easy to learn and use.

Technology in the Ebola response

In Sierra Leone, the beneficiary communications team was able to survey communities across the country to find out the best way to reach and provide information and gather information for the safe and dignified burial teams.

Mohamed Sesay, Advocacy Officer for the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, explains, “We worked closely with the local chiefs, going through the community protocols to build trust and to explain the relevance of RAMP surveys for them. This is how we always approach communities. But this time there were no delays in getting the information we received back to our headquarters.”

RAMP surveys lead to immediate and concrete improvement in programming and provision of relief. In Sierra Leone, RAMP surveys identified that radio is the most effective media for reaching communities; the survey also drilled down to identify which radio stations were the most listened to. Using this information, the response team distributed 3,000 solar powered radios, and broadcast from the most wide-reaching stations to ensure people had access to life-saving information.

Trading pen and paper for mobile phones

As surrounding countries in West Africa mobilize to protect and prevent the spread of Ebola in border communities, RAMP surveys are being used to establish a rapid baseline understanding of community knowledge in at-risk communities.

In both Benin and Cote d’Ivoire, RAMP solved the time and logistical challenges of paper based surveys. Nicéphone Aguiar, Supervisor and RAMP trainer for the Red Cross of Benin, says real time evaluation was impossible before RAMP.

“We were having to take piles of paper, making it impossible. But this new tool means we can undertake quick and comprehensive data collection. This is not just a new idea for us, it’s completely new technology. Some of our volunteers and community members had never seen a tablet before.”

Philippe Louloux, Ebola focal point for the Red Cross Society of Cote d’Ivoire, says RAMP increased the speed and reach of volunteers going into target communities. “We didn’t want to neglect any communities. With RAMP we were able to survey 117 communities in 11 days. The Ministry of Health undertook the same survey with paper questionnaires. It took them three months to reach the same number of communities.”

This innovation doesn’t stop there. The Red Cross is improving global emergency response by sharing RAMP data and collaborating with various sectors for continuous improvement. Data captured through Red Cross RAMP surveys in West Africa will be available to responding organizations, and will inform forthcoming new emergency response guidelines on how to quickly create a behaviour change strategy at the beginning of an outbreak. The Red Cross is also working collaboratively with humanitarian partners to evaluate and improve the Red Cross’ central database.

The new data sampling methodology is a true example of the global community coming together to increase its collective impact and respond more effectively to the needs on the ground. As McClelland says, “Looking at previous emergency health responses we know that if we had had real-time data in many of those emergencies, we would have been able to improve the ways humanitarian agencies coordinated their response to help more people.” Now we can.