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Putting vulnerable people on the map

How cutting-edge spatial data is giving people their basic human rights

Published: 11 December 2017

In a small village in Afghanistan, hundreds of miles from the closest town, inhabitants go about their lives in much the same way as they always have. Remote and self-sufficient, it’s a place only really known by those who live there; but all that could be about to change.

Unique research being carried out at the University of Southampton is putting these previously unknown communities on the map for the first time and, in doing so, giving people access to the most basic of human rights.

Now, should an earthquake hit, the right amount of aid can be delivered. If an election is called, people would be better able to cast their vote. In efforts to eliminate killer childhood diseases, the appropriate scale of vaccination programme can be mobilised.

The fact that these communities have now been counted means they can be cared for, and that discovery has come from work led by Southampton academic Professor Andy Tatem and his team, using an array of data sets, including mobile phone records, satellite imagery and ground surveys.

In some low income countries there has not been a population census for 30 or 40 years, meaning the basics of knowing how many people there are in a country and their location are lacking.

Professor Andy Tatem - Professor within Geography and Environment

Using mobile data to map the population

It was fifteen years ago when Andy first recognised the value of integrating satellite, census and survey data to map population distributions in low income countries, and provide better estimates of numbers at risk of malaria. Out of that idea grew the WorldPop programme; a research group that develops new methods for geospatial data integration to improve the demographic evidence base for low- and middle-income countries.

Andy also saw the value of how mobile phone data could be brought together with other data sources to help design strategies to halt the spread of disease. Authorities in Zanzibar were focussed on eliminating malaria, but efforts were being hampered by the continued introduction of infections from outside.

Andy explained: “It was clear that data on travel patterns to mainland Tanzania were needed to be able to estimate how much malaria was being imported.

“There were no good data on the numbers of people moving back and forth. It was around that time when mobile phones were taking off and the data that could be gathered was on a big enough scale to get useful results. I saw a paper on how that data could be used and thought that this could be the start of something.”

Andy returned to Southampton in 2013, having previously completed his PhD here, to further grow the WorldPop program alongside co-directing the newly established Flowminder Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to operationalise and scale research methods in support of vulnerable populations.

Andy says: “I wanted to come back to Southampton as it has real strength in the research areas of demography, geography and computer science and those are the three subject areas that we really draw on.”

Making a difference in the real world

WorldPop and Flowminder’s reputation for producing statistically robust demographic datasets that can be turned around in quick-time means that Southampton is one of the first places governments and aid agencies turn to in the event of a natural disaster. The ability to accurately map the displacement of populations is a huge benefit when delivering aid, and ensures that it reaches those who need it most.

Andy says: “We were very much involved following the earthquakes in Nepal and Haiti as we had ongoing agreements with mobile phone operators and existing partnerships with UN response agencies.

“When those events happen there is general chaos and huge numbers of people typically leave the most affected areas to find safety elsewhere.

“The authorities want data on where those people have gone. There is no way you could have survey teams standing on the street to capture comprehensive and accurate data, so that is where mobile phone data is pivotal in tracking these movements and comparing them against the normal flow of population movement to identify displacements.”

Using these data they were able to produce displacement estimates for aid agencies within five days following the Nepal earthquake in 2015.

But it is not just crisis work that WorldPop and Flowminder have been involved in. Low-income countries and emerging developing countries are also working with the team. Most recently, Andy presented findings to the Afghan President and his cabinet in Kabul, having carried out a thorough remapping of their country’s population.

The result of mapping previously uncounted populations could have far-reaching consequences in terms of more equitable distribution of aid and improved vaccination plans.

Andy explains: “For governments to be able to deliver interventions, vaccines or plan elections they need to know how many people they have, where they are living and their characteristics, such as their age and gender.

“In northern Nigeria a vaccination programme focussed on eliminating polio ran out of doses in some places and did not have enough because they were relying on outdated and inaccurate census data. We worked to integrate satellite mapping of settlements with ground surveys to provide more reliable estimates that are now the basis for vaccination planning.”

This is the new cutting edge, in terms of applying and integrating different forms of geographic data to help the world’s poorest, trying to put the most vulnerable people on the map and be counted.

Professor Andy Tatem - Professor within Geography and Environment

Meeting the global challenge

A key supporter in many of the projects undertaken by Andy and his team has been the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Foundation has funded specific projects which are aligned to its work of improving the health of the world’s most vulnerable people. Their most recent funding award means Andy’s team will be able to scale up population estimation and mapping work they have recently undertaken and, in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Department for International Development (DFID), expand their projects to include close collaboration with national statistical offices across a range of low-income countries.

The Flowminder and WorldPop teams enjoy being in the unique position of working on research that is not only peer reviewed, but is having direct impact on real life issues in real time.

As a result of their growing reputation and recent funding award, Andy is anticipating that his team – already full of Southampton graduates and PhD students – will grow from around 35 people to about 65.

He says: “Our partnerships include the World Bank, governments, international aid agencies and mobile operators. It means that our work is not just existing in an academic bubble; as a result of having these direct links, our research is being used on the ground.”

More information about Andy's research

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