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More than a month after a 7.8- magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, the death toll has surpassed 50,000. Nearly 2.2 million people have been displaced, including 1.9 million who have relocated outside of the earthquake-impacted areas of Turkey.
Humanitarian aid organizations continue response efforts, but those on the ground say it will be a long-term effort to recovery. Data scientists and information managers have used data analysis to track mobility patterns, understand current needs, map damage to buildings and health infrastructure, and effectively share information.
Crisis Ready, a collaboration between Direct Relief and the Harvard Data Science Initiative, hosted Data in Crisis: Responding to the Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria at Harvard on March 3 with over 200 online participants and many others in person.
The nearly two-hour conversation centered on how crisis response organizations have used novel data sources and methods to support Turkey and Syria. The presenters shared their organization’s response models, how to make ethical and effective use of data, and key takeaways from the disaster so far. While open data has helped to determine where people are going and their current needs, scientists say they still expect a drastic undercount of the displaced population as first responders and families continue to look for residents.
The in-person and Zoom event included internationally known speakers: Dr. Andrew Schroeder, Vice President of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief and Co-Director of CrisisReady; Dr. Caroline Buckee, Co-Director of CrisisReady and Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University; Dr. Abdulfatah Elshaar, Chairman of the Syrian Medical Society and Internal Medicine Physician at Sturdy Memorial Hospital; Ozge Acar, Technical Coordinator at NeedsMap Social Cooperative; Dr. Samer Attar, a medical volunteer at the Syrian American Medical Society and orthopedist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital; Nathaniel Raymond, lecturer at Yale University in the Humanitarian Research Lab; and Can Unen of OpenStreetMap (HOTOSM).
Schroeder opened the event and shared that over 217,000 structures have been destroyed or deemed unsafe, including 520,000 housing units. Across the globe, digital volunteers have mapped buildings and their degree of damage in the earthquake area. Unen from HOTOSM explained to meeting viewers how precision mapping and open information sharing with international response agencies have been beneficial to saving lives.
With millions displaced, medical supports remain the top reported need: antibiotics, access to chronic disease medications, acute trauma support for search and rescue, and support for the displaced staff of medical organizations.
Attar, who volunteered as a surgeon in Syria, said being on the ground changes one’s perspective. There were limited resources that required doctors to make critical triage decisions. He said that they treated two to three patients on the same bed or even on the floor–most of whom had body parts that had been crushed by shattered buildings.
The surgeon said it was a sobering experience and one where he felt like his contributions were “barely making a dent.” Attar said that doctors performed dozens of surgeries per day, but many more people still need critical medical care.
“There wasn’t a lot of heavy machinery, so we would find people digging through the rubble trying to find relatives, or whoever they could find, using their hands or whatever they could find to dig them out,” Attar said.
Dr. Elshaar, also from SAMS, shared that the situation in Syria is one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, given the dire circumstances of Covid-19, the Russian and Ukraine war, the spread of cholera in Syria, and now the earthquake. He shared that hospitals and clinics have been targeted over the past 12 years of civil war in the country, making access to care more difficult.
The SAMS doctor shared an assessment of immediate needs: wound care, amputations and prosthetics, and medication for diabetes, hypertension, cancer, maternal/pediatric health, cholera treatment, and mental health trauma.
Though the situation in Turkey remains dire, access to data is increasing. Mobility data from Data for Good at Meta, analyzed by organizations like CrisisReady, show that population density is shifting away from highly impacted areas in Syria and Turkey. Survivors of the earthquakes are moving to less impacted areas of the country, including large cities like Ankara and Istanbul and rural areas with less damage. However, it’s unclear what housing will be available to them long term. Many are staying in a range of temporary and ad hoc shelters.
Dr. Buckee shared that institutional challenges are often greater than data challenges for epidemiologists trying to model the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and arboviruses.
She shared that having preexisting partnerships before disaster responses is key and that following simple models during a disaster will reap success in determining which populations are at risk, where displaced people may relocate, and identifying the medium to the long-term impact of infectious and non-communicable diseases. The simpler the models, the better for quick and efficient decision-making.
Some said they use social media to track movement, but real-time information gaps persist.
Social media also plays a key role in mapping the landscape of needs at scale. Projects on digital platforms like NeedsMap are at the center of efforts to report where individuals may need food, shelter, and medical care. They can also highlight where the capacity exists to meet those needs.
While helpful, Raymond reminded the crowd that information must be treated with high degrees of care for both individual privacy and community protection. Data can make an enormous impact on disaster response, but the responsibility exists to ensure that vulnerable populations aren’t exposed to further risk.