When I first looked at the job vacancy for ‘Team Lead of the 510 Data Team at the Netherlands Red Cross’ I could hardly believe it. I have always been looking for a job where I could make a direct positive impact on society while still being close to interesting technical & scientific subjects. And I had an interest in humanitarian aid but I thought you had to be a nurse or a medical doctor to be able to help.
When I landed in the International Department of the Netherlands Red Cross (NLRC) what I found was a young ambitious team with a dream: using the technical knowledge of people like me to create tools and best practices so that the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies could take operational decisions based on hard evidence from data. The ambition was to use the momentum to drive a larger change within the 192 national societies composing the International Federation. The goal was in the name: ‘510 square million kilometers is the total surface of the Earth: and this is the impact you can have with data’, said Maarten van der Veen, founder of 510, with a smile.
When starting talking about it with friends, prior colleagues and then in public forums such as Universities and Tech events it became clear that it was not such a crazy dream. There was, and there still is, a huge appetite for technical students and professionals to contribute with their own skills to improve the condition of society as a whole. There is an appetite from many companies to supply skilled technical manpower as volunteers to humanitarian organizations, which is not only a way of fulfilling a goal but also a huge boost in motivation for employees. There is so much untapped potential in universities, where students can support the humanitarian goal with their technical skills and at the same time create evidence needed to further the implementation of humanitarian work.
There was no lack of occasions to showcase what a Data & Digital team could do in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. A few months after I joined the team, the Irma hurricane made landfall in the Caribbeans and left destruction on Sint Maarten and nearby islands. As in many contexts where the Red Cross and Red Crescent operates, data was scarce or does not exist in a format that is useful to support the operational needs. In general, to take an operational decision you need to know at least the scope and scale of the disaster and where are the most vulnerable are located. With the use of aerial images 510 located damaged buildings few days after the landfall, something that in the humanitarian world is called damage assessment and usually takes weeks to conclude.
That first operation set the bases of the following work for me & the team. It showcased the need to support emergencies with data, which led the Netherlands Red Cross to build a roster of available Information Managers to deploy in operations and to support via 510 the Surge Information Management System of the International Federation of the Red Cross. It showed in practice the importance of preparing necessary data for emergency operation before a disaster, as part of what is now called Anticipatory Action. It showed the need for humanitarian workers to know more about data and how to work with it. It showed also that data should not be used irresponsibly and led 510 to develop the Data & Digital Responsibility Policy.
Five years onwards the 510 team is a driving force within the Digital Transformation acceleration of the IFRC. Together we supported more than 35 National Societies with needs in Data & Digital, supporting the set up of data teams and providing Data Literacy trainings (60 trainings in 2021!). Together with Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, we supported anticipation of climate-related disaster by integrating data best practices in the Early Action Protocol. Using Human Centered Design Principles we developed a digital product for disaster managers to find all information needed to take decisions before an upcoming disaster (IBF Portal) that is now operational in 7 countries. We co-created digital products to support data and digital cash programs (121), digital community engagement, landscape restoration, and more. We created an assessment for National Societies to understand their needs in Data & Digital and create their strategic implementation plan. We streamlined Human Centered Design across all of our products. We supported national and international response to disasters and crises, peaking with our largest scale global remote operation during the COVID crisis.
I will always cherish moments of accomplishments, such as when UN OCHA adopted our Typhoon Trigger Model or Zambia Red Cross revealed a fully operational Impact Based Forecasting Portal in their Emergency Operation Centre.
None of this would have been possible without the continuous driving force of our professional Volunteers and Master Students, respectively under the lead of the 510 Volunteer Coordinator (Corina Markodimitraki) and Science Lead (Marc van den Homberg), both providing incredible input and evidence to support continuous innovation and at the same time monitoring the impact of the work done.
510 came a long way. It is now a recognized unit in the International Department of the Netherlands Red Cross, integral to the strategy of the organization. It is a recognized reference point for data and a driving force for the shaping and implementation of the Digital Transformation of the whole federation, now led by Juriaan Lahr one of the first advocates of 510 in NLRC.
And as I always believe that you should move on when you are on a high: I did so. From April 1st I will be managing the new Water Advisory & Innovation unit also within the Netherlands Red Cross, a new challenge that I expect not to be less exciting and fulfilling than that with 510. I know that 510 is in good hands, with founder Maarten van der Veen as Unit Lead. Marijke Panis, Richard Lines, Lars Stevens and Marc van den Homberg are complementing the 510 coordination team as Data Team Lead, Digital Team Lead, Operations Lead and Scientific Lead. From my new position, I will now have the chance to integrate all the data & digital experience with a focus on a sector (Water) that is so much linked to the practical implementation of humanitarian operations and climate practical action.
Ciao 510, it has been an amazing journey. Looking forward to keep walking on your side to the next milestone. Let’s keep sharing adventures together.