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Published on July 11th, 2014 | by EJC


Featured Tool: Flowminder Foundation

In a nutshell:

  • Tool: Founded by Linus Bengtsson, Xin Lu and Erik Wetter, the Sweden-based non-profit Flowminder Foundation is dedicated to improving response and alleviation coordination in regions and countries affected by crises, natural disasters, diseases and poverty. By analysing data from local mobile operators and providing decision support to humanitarian organisations, responders are able to predict population displacement levels after natural or humanitarian disasters with a high degree of accuracy.
  • Information: The allocation of resources in disaster-affected regions is variable upon the availability of information. Relief efforts thus heavily rely on possessing detailed information on the location of people from sources other than eyewitnesses, manual registrations in camps or aerial imagery. To combat this, Flowminder enters partnerships with governmental and nongovernmental relief organisations, as well as mobile operators, with the aim of facilitating scientific research and understanding in the areas of method development, capacity building, and the collection, aggregation, analysis and dissemination of mobile and satellite data. This data can be used to understand the impact of, for example, climate change in the long term (
  • Data: To this end, researchers at Flowminder have worked with aggregate and anonymised mobile phone data supplied to them by the relevant local operators in affected countries, conducted household surveys and utilised remote sensing data.

Case studies:

  • Haiti earthquake 2010: The 7.3 magnitude earthquake in Haiti that cost the lives of over 200,000 people and injured 300,000 more (Oxfam) served as the first testing ground for Flowminder. The subsequent heavy population movements and increased risk of cholera outbreaks demanded up-to-date information for effective relief coordination. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute and Columbia University analysed mobile phone data of 1.9 million users that they had received from Haitian operator Digicel over a period of 42 days before and 341 days after the quake (AAAS 2012). By identifying which mobile phone towers made connections between calls and their telecommunication networks, they were able to track movements and destination-locations of people as they left Port-au-Prince to an unprecedented extent. The analysis revealed detailed information such as the correlation between people’s mobility in times of crisis and their mobility history in the absence of crisis (Study: “Predictability of population displacement after the 2010 Haiti earthquake”, PNAS 2012, also discussed by Patrick Meier on iRevolution). In fact, during the first 3 months after the earthquake, the analysis proved an 85% accuracy rate in predicting refugees’ locations (PNAS 2012). The analysis thereby also allowed for the identification of cholera outbreak areas.
  • Bangladesh cyclone 2013: When cyclone “Mahasen” struck Bangladesh in 2013, about 1.3 million people were affected (UNU 2014). Bangladeshi mobile operators Grameenphone and Telenor Group provided analysts and researchers at UNU-EHS and Flowminder with access to the mobile data of 5 million users. As a country disproportionately affected by the consequences of climate change, Flowminder’s work in Bangladesh illustrates how the risk of natural disasters induced by climate change can impact local populations, and thus contributes to the facilitation of relief mechanisms in response to this (UNU 2014). The Mobile Data, Environmental Extremes and Population project (MDEEP) that was introduced early in 2014 as a cooperation between the UNU-EHS, Flowminder, the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCD), Grameenphone and Teleonor Group, supports the generation of population displacement models. The accuracy of these models is much higher than other methods used to keep track of refugees, such as eye witness accounts or state measures (UNU 2014).


  • The focus of the Flowminder Foundation is on utilising mobile and satellite data to analyse population movements in order to efficiently and rapidly coordinate relief efforts and allocate resources, rather than rely on static, fixed measures.
  • Mobile operators in affected countries, such as Digicel in Haiti or Grameenphone and Telenor Group in Bangladesh, provide relevant data that can inform more effective recovery and reconstruction operations.
  • Flowminder supports a better understanding of the impact that disasters have on populations and, therefore, has great potential to improve relief coordination and emergency plans.

About the Author:

Pauline Lendrich currently writes and works for the European Journalism Centre. She is originally from Germany and studied International Relations and Security at Maastricht University as well as at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Follow on Twitter: @Paulinelliott

Photo: misspixels

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