‘Access to information after a disaster should be a human right’

News - 07 March 2017

When we hear ‘emergency aid’, most of us initially think of medical assistance, food and shelter. However, the large amount of information that is available nowadays is having an increasingly greater impact on the effectiveness of relief efforts. You could indeed go as far as to say that the provision of information should be a human right, as Bartel Van de Walle will argue in his inaugural address at TU Delft on Friday, 10 March 2017.

Documents of devastated university in coordination centre after typhoon in Philippines.

Millions of victims

‘Last year alone, more than 200 million people were directly affected by disasters’, says Prof.  Bartel Van de Walle ‘The cost of these disasters exceeded a hundred billion euros last year. It is hardly surprising that researchers, aid organisations and policymakers are trying to make better use of new, powerful data and related information technology to help them better understand and deal with disasters. Benefiting from the surge in new technology in this area, the United Nations will even open a new Centre for Humanitarian Data this year in The Hague.’


Van de Walle, assisted among others by PhD candidate Kenny Meesters, is researching how the available information (such as that from social media) could help the numerous aid organisations on location. Van de Walle and Meesters also travel to disaster affected areas themselves. For example, following the typhoon in the Philippines in 2013, the earthquakes in Haiti, and more recently in Nepal.

The efforts of the researchers often provide direct support to responders, such as after the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines. Within just six hours after the typhoon made landfall, they worked together with others, using Google Translate, spreadsheets and geotagging to create a map with icons indicating where there were drinking water problems, food shortages, safety incidents and collapsed bridges, houses and schools.

Sign with FM frequency of radio station; this was one of the main sources of information for citizens and aid workers after the typhoon in the Philippines.

In addition to practical contributions such as these, the work of Van de Walle and his colleagues can be of a much more strategic nature. ‘In principle, we deal with two types of disasters: natural disasters and those caused by people, such as the war in Syria. In the case of this second type, also known as ‘complex emergencies’, strategic aspects more often play a role. For example, we witnessed how the UN Security Council exerted great pressure on aid agencies in Syria.  Information from the area was in high demand, therefore aid workers were being continuously asked to provide more information. So much so that that they found it increasingly difficult to get around to doing what they were actually there to do. This message and concern eventually also reached the UN’.  


‘We work at the interface between real life and the academic world. It is important to get out into the field to see which techniques are beneficial in a certain situation, and which are not.’ This is why Van de Walle warns against overestimating the potential of data technology. ‘These days this potential is impressive, and TU Delft is thankfully at the forefront when it comes to technological developments, but a particular technology may not always be suitable in every disaster situation. What I think is even more important is that, alongside all this technology and data, we do not forget the people behind the statistics’.


‘We started back in 2007, and are amongst the first researchers to work in this unique field. To a certain extent, we always have to justify our work and actions to the aid workers; after all, they understandably have other priorities following a disaster than our (academic) research. This is one of the reasons why some changes are slowly adopted in practice. However, every team of aid workers should actually include a scientist. At the same time, critical reflection on us as researchers is also necessary – we also need to keep in mind the complex situations in the field. Technological innovation alone is not enough, and making that connection is exactly what our research is focused on’. 

More information 
Inaugural address: ‘Data for Dunant’ – Professor Bartel van de Walle
10 March 2017 | 15:00 | Aula, TU Delft

Follow the live broadcast

Read the Global Story: The impact of data on disaster relief

Prior to the inaugural address, a workshop will be held on this subject in the TU Delft Aula from 12:00 to 14:30. The workshop will feature speakers from institutions including Harvard University, the US National Science Foundation and TU Delft. To register for this workshop, please send an email to delftglobal@tudelft.nl

Contact information:
Bartel van de Walle, B.A.vandeWalle@tudelft.nl
Ilona van den Brink (TU Delft Press Officer), I.vandenBrink@tudelft.nl,  +31 (0)15 278 4259.