Photograph by Dharma Platform, Inc.
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Workers collect information from people in informal tent settlements in Iraq as part of a humanitarian response in 2017. The software platform Dharma is designed to make it easier to collect and analyze data in the field.

Photograph by Dharma Platform, Inc.

Mobile Tech Can Make Disaster Zones Less Disastrous—Here’s How

After working in crisis zones, an epidemiologist wanted a way to stop shuffling papers and spreadsheet tabs.

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With lives hanging in the balance, Jesse Berns wondered why she was still using paper forms and Excel spreadsheets during the Ebola crisis.

Working in Liberia in 2015, the epidemiologist grew frustrated that there was no quick way to catalog and send patient details. It's a problem in crisis zones around the world, where the needs are urgent but wifi connections and tracking tools can be scarce. And it wasn't the first time Berns had been stymied by limited technology—conducting health surveys for the World Health Organization in 2013 on the Iraq/Syria border, she found the process unacceptably slow.

Berns co-founded Dharma, a software platform designed to make it easier for responders and others to gather and analyze information about people and places that need help.

"Uber can get real-time data on where all of its drivers are and where to deploy resources," says Dharma's chief technology officer, Stefan Nagey, but when an aid group goes into the aftermath of a disaster, "they don't have that ability."

Organizations have used Dharma to assess structural damage to homes in the wake of natural disasters, conduct healthcare surveys, and track human rights abuses, among other difficult tasks. It's raised about $14 million from Rise, the social-impact investment fund co-founded by U2 frontman Bono.

Several startups are using mobile tech and data to improve healthcare. Omada Health, for example, which is partly funded by the health insurer Cigna, offers a phone-accessible diabetes prevention program with virtual health coaching. Another company, Call9, aims to reduce hospital visits by delivering emergency care remotely. Then there's Zipline, where health workers in remote areas send a text to order drone-delivered blood supplies.

Mexico's Ministry of Health deployed teenagers with phones to monitor reconstruction efforts and health conditions in the wake of the powerful earthquake that struck the central part of the country in September 2017. The ministry trained kids to survey their neighbors in affected areas and enter the answers into their phones, using a Dharma-based app to set up and track the results.

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A humanitarian worker collects information in Iraq. Something has simple as a survey can be a powerful healthcare tool in disaster responses, but groups often have trouble analyzing the results quickly.

If the surveys had been done with paper, it would have been harder to train the kids, and compiling the data would have taken longer, says Alma L. Juárez Armenta, an adviser to the ministry.

"Since we included questions on the use of shelters and public services, this helped us understand how we should allocate resources," she says. "This also made us feel more secure about the information we had, [so we could] be accountable to the people we worked with."

Collecting data electronically isn't new, of course. The driving idea behind Dharma it's that it's easier to use than a typical database program, can work offline or on a Bluetooth connection if necessary, and stores information securely.

"Somebody with no software development experience can sit down, design their forms and their data structure, and immediately have a mobile or web-based application" to collect and analyze information, Nagey says.

Often the data being gathered isn't complicated. It just needs to be analyzed quickly so that the right solutions get matched with the right people. In Jordan, for example, quickly compiled health surveys helped an aid group's program manager spot the spread of mites that were causing scabies infections among Iraqi refugees. It was an easily treated issue that was spotted in weeks, rather than months, he told the journal Nature.

"So much waste happens as a result of improper, incomplete information," Nagey says. "Having the complete chain of data … that's real power that can be used to make the world a better place."