PRISM: Using data to save lives when disasters strike
‘We are taking information that’s already available and using this to make decisions to save people’s lives’
For farmers in rural Cambodia, knowing in advance that a storm is coming or flooding is predicted could be the difference in saving their livelihoods if not their very lives.
Two million people in Cambodia live on less than US$1 a day. The country is located in one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world — natural disasters, changing weather patterns and climate change can have severe effects on families and their ability to reach enough food. Even a small shock can send families into debt and destroy any gains they have made towards a more prosperous life.
Traditionally, by the time families learn that the weather is changing, it can be too late to take action, and move people, livelihoods and possessions out of harm’s way.
In an emergency, every second counts. For governments and humanitarian organizations such as WFP, understanding the effects of a disaster will help everyone to launch a faster, more effective response to reach those in need.
Working with the Government of Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management, the World Food Programme (WFP) launched the Platforms for Real-time Information SysteMs (PRISM) initiative in 2015. PRISM is a hub of information on Cambodia, using an interactive online map to pool data from government ministries and vulnerable people.
This offers the Government and the humanitarian community a single source of information. The Government then has the data it needs to lead in a coordinated approach with UN partners, NGOs and others to prepare and respond in the event of a disaster.
“We launched PRISM in 2015 with 3 key goals: data visualization, management and as a place for people, governments, NGOs and the UN to share information,” says PRISM Coordinator Andre Martinez.
“Information is one of the most powerful tools that government, humanitarians and communities can have to prepare for disasters, but it’s often unavailable for the people who need it most. With PRISM, we are taking information that’s already available and using this to make decisions to save people’s lives.
“When disasters or shocks happen, vulnerable families lack basic support services they need to recover. PRISM’s latest map features weather information and an early-warning system that allows us to predict storms three to four days in advance, and lightning 45 minutes before it strikes.
“It links to partners’ early-warning systems, which alert people on their phones if a river will flood, so they can make decisions about their safety, crops and food supplies.”
The power of data
PRISM can project whether safe sites will be over capacity, display historical data, and track information on people affected as a disaster unfolds.
For its next stage, the team has developed a new map that displays weather forecasts from public and private sector partners.
All this technology is available on mobile devices and computers free of charge and across the country.
PRISM was born out of a WFP innovation project in Cambodia aimed at visualizing, via a mapping platform, current programmes in real time, so staff could track food stocks and the progress in small infrastructure projects, such as installing water tanks and others.
Today, WFP and Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management are working together to ensure it’s accessible across the country. It has been introduced to the National Committee for Disaster Management and the Provincial Committees for Disaster Management in 13 provinces, as well as to NGOs and UN members of the Humanitarian Response Forum.
“When a disaster strikes, PRISM can set off alerts on your mobile device if your commune is affected,” says PRISM Team Leader Krisna Keo. “Government officials can send updates about how their commune has been affected, giving the government an accurate picture of the situation, in order to launch a response.
“Instead of waiting for help, government, along with the humanitarian community, can take an active role in obtaining support and paint a clear picture of damage to communities.”
PRISM doesn’t just include weather forecasts. It also contains demographic data, so users can see how many people are in the path of a storm, and where schools, toilets, safe spaces, health posts and road infrastructure are located.
Launching a united response
“Previously, information about Cambodia was in silos,” Krisna explains. “Government ministries, the UN and humanitarian actors all had different pieces of the puzzle. With PRISM, we are working to bring it together, so if a disaster strikes, the government can launch a united response, based on information that is widely available.”
For WFP, PRISM will help to identify where food distributions need to be sent, how many people require cash assistance, and where crops and livelihoods have been destroyed.
Started as a disaster preparedness tool, PRISM is growing. The team aims to train members of all levels of government to use the tool across all 25 provinces.
Currently only available in Cambodia, these tools are flexible, scalable and replicable. It recently has been expanded into Cambodia’s education system, to monitor school enrolments, resources and teacher-student ratios.
“WFP and UN agencies can play a role in middle-income countries, by adopting more innovative ways of working together,” Andre adds. “By making data more accessible, we can be more prepared and launch more targeted humanitarian responses.”
This project was partly funded and supported by the WFP Innovation Accelerator.
Read more about WFP’s work in Cambodia.
— Story by Jessica Lawson