January 26, 2021 by Andrew Schroeder

Direct Relief, along with colleagues at Facebook, Nethope, and the CrisisReady collaboration with researchers at Harvard University, has issued a new report on the work of Facebook’s Data for Good program from across the length and breadth of the past year.

The past year has been beset by crises like no other in recent history. For most people worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions in movement and business activity have been in the foreground of daily life at least since February.  Against that backdrop, an enormous number of other events around the world also demanded a response from public health and humanitarian agencies. From unprecedented wildfires in Australia to a record number of named storms in the Atlantic, the last year has proved relentless on several fronts.

Like many organizations, Direct Relief regularly relies on several large-scale data resources published by Facebook Data for Good to respond to emergencies. These datasets, from tracking population mobility, displacement, and density, to forecast models of COVID-19 case incidence to surveys on health attitudes and behaviors, have become genuinely invaluable resources.

As cases of COVID-19 spread like wildfire around the world in February and early March, for instance, Direct Relief helped convene urgent discussions with colleagues at Facebook and the network of collaborators on Data for Good about data resources that would prove valuable to assist the response. An emergency call was convened through Facebook Data for Good on Saturday morning, March 14th, to begin sorting out the major issues and requirements for immediate impact, from stakeholder networks to data pipelines, methods, and work products. Participants included several academic infectious disease epidemiology community members, the World Bank, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, other NGOs, and the data team from Facebook.

That meeting sparked a global effort to help contain COVID-19 by providing real-time mobility data and analysis resources at scale to public sector health agencies, leading to a greater understanding of physical distancing policies being implemented. The effort came to be called the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. In part, with support from Facebook team, it provided direct analytical support to over 40 different countries, states and cities throughout 2020.

This data-driven approach to critical needs for the pandemic response was only one among dozens of efforts by hundreds of researchers, development institutions, environmental agencies, and humanitarian organizations throughout the world that leveraged data provided by Facebook Data for Good. Teams at UNICEF used survey data from the Facebook platform to drive risk communications around childhood vaccinations. Researchers at the Cadasta Foundation responded to critical issues of land tenure and eviction with granular population density data. Economists in Peru, Chile, and Costa Rica helped inform targeted economic recovery efforts and used population data to support sustainable livelihoods.

While driving social impact through data is neither easy nor straightforward, the many projects here achieved significant positive results despite the myriad challenges with translating analysis into operational progress. This report, then, enhances our understanding of how that impact happened and what we must still do to advance these projects further. More than that, though, the report is a resource for the future, which we hope will provide ideas and inspiration for problem solvers everywhere.

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