Disaster relief goes digital, bringing near real-time aid and insights

August 25, 2020 | By Allison Kahn

Alexander Raia has seen the impact of natural disasters firsthand.

He managed post-conflict and post-disaster programs for years, including in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami killed 170,000 people and displaced 400,000, as well as other crises.

“It is often staggering and heartbreaking,” Raia says. “Disasters displace people and leave families vulnerable. They disrupt employment and burden communities with reconstruction costs. And although they often feel random, population growth, urbanization and climate change are increasing the risk of disasters occurring – and their severity when they occur.”

Raia is now a product vice president at Mastercard, where he brings his years of experience to disaster response to the team to help develop products, including those that deliver aid in ways that are more efficient and impactful to those who need it most when disaster strikes and there is no time to waste.

We’re at the front end of hurricane season in the Western Hemisphere. We’ve already seen several large storms rip through our communities, and Hurricane Laura is currently projected to make landfall along the Gulf Coast later this week. An above-normal hurricane season is expected this year, and with that comes the increased threat of disruption to our lives and infrastructure.

While we can’t anticipate every storm and where it will hit, there are tools and technologies that governments, communities, and we as individuals can use to make smarter decisions around how we plan for and respond to hurricanes and other natural disasters.

That’s where data and insights as well as new mobile and digital technologies, are helping communities in their recovery efforts during hurricanes and times of crisis.

Insightful decision-making

When Hurricane Harvey struck in 2018, it devastated many communities, and Houston was particularly hard-hit. Leveraging anonymized and aggregated data, spend patterns in and around the impacted areas helped identify spending trends that could guide hurricane response and planning for when the next storm descends. The data can help tell an important story and uncover answers to important questions like:

  • Were the survivors of Hurricane Harvey able to afford food and emergency medical expenses?
  • How did spending patterns change over time? Was there more or less spending at certain types of stores or businesses? 
  • As demand changes, how are businesses responding to the increased need for inventory ahead of a disaster? And with the changing demand, do merchants price-gouge?

This data-driven analysis – undertaken by top researchers as Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth Data Fellows to help communities like Houston and many others – offers a big advantage: the ability to compare spending and consumption patterns across different regions, communities and cities affected by hurricanes and other crises to help guide government response, aid, and, more broadly to paint a clearer picture of what communities need in the aftermath – to boost resilience when the next storm hits.

Humanitarian aid disbursements and real-time tools

When disaster strikes, governments and aid organizations often step in to help disburse emergency aid via cash, checks or in-kind goods. However, disbursing aid in this way traditionally has been time-consuming and operationally inefficient. In addition, it is challenging for beneficiaries such as families fleeing natural disasters to receive or deposit checks or cash.

That’s where digital solutions can serve as a life bridge. Technology has enabled near real-time digital payments so that during hurricane and unfolding disasters, governments and aid organizations are able to deliver resources to communities safely, quickly, and efficiently.

These tools also help empower aid agencies and beneficiaries to distribute emergency and ongoing assistance in remote areas that do not have limited digital infrastructure. Offline digital vouchers, prepaid cards and mobile wallets, unlike vouchers and physical cash that can put recipients at risk for theft, or in-kind assistance that can disrupt local economies.

The technology that powers solutions such as Mastercard Send, the Prepaid Humanitarian Program, and the Mastercard Aid Network has helped tens of thousands of people receive tens of millions of dollars in aid in times of disaster, from floods in India to wildfires in California, and hurricanes up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

And when hurricanes or other natural disasters hit, information can be more difficult to obtain at the same time that it becomes crucial to recovery and aid.

Knowledge such as what businesses are open in the wake of a weather event or other crisis can serve as a critical point of connectivity for community members seeking basic goods and services. In places struck by calamities such as floods or earthquakes or even war, where communication lines may be down, keeping people informed about nearby shops that may be open for business becomes challenging. COVID-19 was the catalyst for a new tool, Shop Openings, a search function that provides the most accurate, up-to-date results on whether merchants at or around a given address are open for business.

Mastercard will always show up for our people, our partners, and our communities during our times of greatest need. As we anticipate what’s ahead, we show up each and every day with the safe, secure, and reliable network our partners and consumers have come to know and trust.

Allison Kahn