Keeping children safer through better disaster preparedness

SOS Children’s Villages-Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society combine scientific knowledge and on-the-ground experience to keep children safer from disasters.

SOS Children’s Villages Drought ERP programme in Kenya. Image: SOS Children’s Villages/ Rory Sheldon

SOS Children’s Villages has launched a collaboration between its Global Emergency Response team and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The goal of the partnership is to improve global disaster preparedness and management, focusing on the risk-management tool Resilience360.

Currently, it is extremely challenging for humanitarian workers at the scene of a disaster to get access to satellite information, or to even know what information is useful. The goal of the new partnership is to provide real time satellite data to people working on the ground. It will also ensure that the usefulness of that information improves over time by soliciting feedback from those employing it to make decisions.

By transforming current emergency management procedures – which offer solutions predominately in the aftermath of disasters – the collaboration promises a proactive approach to emergency preparedness through research-based feedback.

“The SOS Children’s Villages-Columbia University collaboration equips us with science-based information to better prepare for and respond to natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies,” said Andreas Papp, International Director of Global Emergency Response at SOS Children’s Villages.

Implementing or improving actions based on elevated levels of risk can save both lives and resources; for example, evacuating before floods hit or preventing malaria in areas facing a probable outbreak.

“We now have the means to jointly develop modelling that gives us a better idea about how to protect SOS families and programmes, and the tools to react more quickly and effectively in our emergency relief programs for children,” said Papp. “We’re drawing on SOS Children’s Villages global experience in protecting children and Columbia University’s vast research capacity.”

The synergy will help address crucial knowledge gaps at the field level, providing information to prepare for the increasing intensity of disasters around the world.

Markus Enenkel, a post-doctoral research scientist at IRI, serves as the liaison for the collaboration. He and Dan Osgood, a research scientist also at IRI, discuss the new partnership in the following interview, edited for clarity.


Q: What brings SOS Children’s Villages and the IRI together?

MARKUS ENENKEL: We both want to see change in the current system and better approaches to translate climate data into usable information for people on the ground. Science can provide data from satellites, models and other sources that are relevant to disaster preparedness, but if nongovernmental organizations and other potential users don’t find it relevant or find it too hard to interpret, then there is no added value to that data. First, we need to effectively translate data into information, and then information into something that’s useful for decision support. IRI has the capacity and 20 years of experience to do that. However, there remains a crucial gap in translating data to knowledge on the local level.

DAN OSGOOD: Closing this gap requires the experience SOS Children’s Villages has on the village level, along with the expertise that we bring.

ME: Everybody involved has the same objective – to protect children, staff and local communities and to ensure that the infrastructure vital to SOS Children’s Villages services remains intact.


Q: What link is needed between scientific data sets and information from the field to ensure effective disaster management and preparedness?

DO: Deutsche Post DHL Group has a disaster risk information interface called Reslience360 with a lot of the global data needed for effective disaster response. SOS Children’s Villages can use Resilience360, but the question remains: What do they use the data set for? There is a crucial disconnect between what science can provide and what decision makers need. For example, satellite information may or may not be relevant to the people on the ground. We can’t know what the implications of our data sets are. Science alone doesn’t know.

We as scientists also need people in the SOS villages and programs to establish what kind of information is relevant to them and what kind of response is required in a particular situation. Only then can we use tailor climate information in an effective way.


Q: How can local SOS Children’s Villages staff bridge the information gap from the satellite data set to information that reflects the situation on the ground?

DO: We can look at historical data sets and assess with people on the ground whether those data match their actual experiences. Essentially, we need to know if the data makes sense and is helpful to the person solving problems on the ground, or if there’s a disconnect. For that, we need to work with people who are experiencing these changes. With decades of experience on the ground, SOS staff is very suitable for this. We are building and guiding this ship together.

ME: Usually any form of emergency assessment from a humanitarian perspective is done in a one-off assessment on a household level. In contrast, we are establishing a continuous feedback loop with local SOS staff to validate early warnings, weather and climate data, but also to record critical incidents that the global Resilience360 platform might miss. This allows us to establish the necessary socioeconomic baseline information.

In other words, by knowing what’s “normal” during times without any kind of disruption, we can better estimate the deviation from normal in times of crisis. At the core of this collaboration is building trust and a long-term relationship.

DO: This combination of bottom-up and top-down systems working with both satellite and ground-based data — nothing like it has ever been done before in active crisis decision-making. But it needs to be done, if the world is going to survive the intensity of disasters as the world becomes more vulnerable.


Q: How will this collaboration work to ensure the current approaches to emergency-management are being transformed from the bottom-up?

DO: The status quo is that we have some information, but it isn’t being well communicated or used. We’ve been locked in a cycle where we’re not moving forward.

ME: A top-down and bottom-up feedback spiral can transform this outdated cycle. We don’t want to make the same mistakes over and over again, but learn from them and avoid them in the future. Local knowledge is therefore indispensable to estimate the relevance of early warnings for a particular SOS village and to respond with early action.

Q: How will the improved tool ensure successful decision making and thereby facilitate effective emergency preparedness?

DO: We have some of the most sophisticated satellite technology, which is pushing out detailed information. By establishing exactly what pieces of information are relevant to affected people on the ground, we can facilitate the communication tools that are needed to make the decisions and actions that need to be taken to manage – and prepare for – disasters.


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About SOS Children’s Villages

SOS Children’s Villages is the largest non-governmental organisation focused on supporting children without parental care and families at risk. Founded in 1949, the organisation today runs 2,300 programmes reaching more than a million children and adults in 135 countries and territories. SOS Children’s Villages adheres to the principle that every child grows best in a family environment, with loving parents or caregivers, living together with their siblings, in a place they can call home. SOS Children’s Villages works with communities, local partners and authorities to support disadvantaged families, thus preventing family breakdown. We aim to influence decision-makers to promote the well-being of children, especially of those without parental care. SOS Children’s Villages also helps care for and protect at-risk children and families in more than 20 humanitarian emergencies.


About the International Research Institute for Climate and Society

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, aims to enhance society’s ability to understand, anticipate and manage the impacts of climate in order to improve human welfare and the environment, especially in developing countries. Visit and follow @climatesociety on Twitter.