UNHCR Improves Decision-Making with Data Integration and Cartography

Talend's open source technologies are now a key part of a very large strategic project for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which will make it easier to map refugee camps throughout the world.
A great amount of data is gathered during humanitarian operations. Unfortunately, because a variety of formats are used and the data integration is too often built manually, we often can't make full use of this data. Today, with Talend, these perspectives can be completely revisited. This tool is truly ideal for making the best use of our data.
Edouard Legoupil, Geographical Information System Expert for West Africa

Ensuring the protection of refugees everywhere

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally, or to resettle in a third country.

In more than five decades, the agency has helped an estimated 50 million people restart their lives. Today, a staff of around 6,300 people in more than 110 countries continues to help 32.9 million persons.

Dashboards improve decision making

Information technology is increasingly important to UNHCR personnel. A recent initiative implemented by the UNHCR office in Mauritania exposed local experts to Talend Open Studio for Data Integration.

On November 12, 2007 in Noaukchott, the Governments of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and the Republic of Senegal signed a tripartite agreement with the UNHCR to repatriate Mauritanian refugees in Senegal. The first phase of the operation profiled the areas intended to house the refugees, making sure that these sites could absorb them. "Talend Open Studio for Data Integration lets us compile a large amount of data from a variety of Excel spreadsheets,"€ says Edouard Legoupil, UNHCR's Geographical Information System Expert for West Africa. "€œEach of these corresponds to a particular site and all need to be updated regularly. It makes it easier to generate dashboards which can then be connected to a cartographic module, providing a visual image."€

"Talend's solution automatically consolidates information from many sources and saves time formerly taken up by cutting and pasting (which frequently introduced errors). In this sort of project, the lack of licensing costs is a big advantage to a humanitarian organization like ours; we can devote our funds to our mission, not operating costs."

€That first experiment suggested other ways that Talend Open Studio for Data Integration could be of use. "We have an application called proGres,"€ explains Edouard Legoupil, "€œwhich lets us record the names of refugees - and in some cases biometric information - and keep track of how each case was handled. For legal reasons, during repatriation we don't transfer the data back to the country the refugees are returning to. Talend Open Studio for Data Integration helps us consolidate and extract information from a variety of Excel spreadsheets. It then becomes easy to produce the dashboards used to validate the data."

A global project managing spatial data

The UNHCR also set up a Web Geographical Information System (GIS) consolidating geo-spatial images of the refugee camps on a global scale. In addition to the data collected directly by UNHCR personnel or its partners on the ground, information can be cross-referenced with data from a variety of sources ("unsdi-t" - a transport and logistical database maintained by UNJLC, place - name databases from Geonames, and the geopolitical mapping undertaken by the SALB project).

"The project started small - restricted to West Africa - so that we could validate our prototype and present it to our executive staff. We have now extended it to more than 40 camps (Sudan, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, etc.),"€ Edouard Legoupil explains. "The data for each of the camps was produced at different periods by consultants or partners and doesn't use a consistent schema. Talend Open Studio for Data Integration helps us cleanse the data, create a consistent frame of reference, and consolidate the information into a unique database." Extracts from this database are then loaded into a database with spatial extensions via Spatial Data Integrator for Talend, developed by Camptocamp SA (France and Switzerland - www.captocamp.com).

The project is innovative in that the same interface is able to work on-line and off-line at the same time. "€œGiven the areas and conditions where the UNHCR works, it's not realistic to expect continuous Internet access. We needed to plan a system marrying ergonomics and the ability to share data offered by a Web GIS with the off-line capabilities of traditional GIS software,"€ says Edouard Legoupil. In an off-line situation, users will have access to a local database (MapFish coupled with Google Gears, both open source software) which is preloaded by Talend with a data file that corresponds to the restricted area where they work. Data synchronization takes place as soon as the user reconnects to the Internet.

In addition, "€œthe UNHCR manages approximately eight years' worth of cartography files which are stored and distributed as PDFs. Because most of the work is urgent, agents need to be able to quickly find a map which they may - or may not - then put up on the Internet,"€ explains Francois-Xavier Prunayre, a Project Manager at Camptocamp. "Thanks to Spatial Data Integrator for Talend, the system automatically generates metadata from PDF files referencing these maps in UNHCR's metadata catalog. The research is facilitated by the detailed information contained in the file properties."

Consolidation and decision making aid

The data maintained by the system is quite varied, but consolidation provides a complete picture of the living conditions experienced by the refugees in the camps. "€œFor example, we manage a large camp of Liberian refugees here in Accra,"€ continues Edouard Legoupil. "€œThanks to our system, we not only have infrastructure information (e.g., housing and roads) but also schools, water, purification plants, etc. In our proGres database we store demographics on the people who live there (such as age, gender, qualifications, etc.). The maps we create by cross referencing this information (beginning with the address of each refugee) provide invaluable data in setting up our assistance programs. For example, we can map at-risk populations and identify the elderly or single-mother families, giving this information to camp security personnel. Our problems are, in fact, very similar to those of local government agencies. The largest camps can lodge more than 50,000 people. Our data is, of course, confidential and secure and is only used for the assistance programs."

The long-term plan is to combine geographical analysis tools with OLAP Business Intelligence tools. Beyond predefined reports it will become possible to explore content, to "€œdrill"€ the data and to work out hypotheses and analyses.

"Open source unleashes initiative and innovation. In spite of an initial budget cut, we've been able to quickly provide a proof of concept and then to roll out the program world-wide,"€ concludes Edouard Legoupil. "A great amount of data is gathered during humanitarian operations. Unfortunately, because a variety of formats are used and the data integration is too often built manually, we frequently can't make full use of this data. Today, with Talend, these perspectives can be completely revisited. This tool is truly ideal for making the best use of our data."