Using big data to resolve humanitarian issues

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
The Hague is known internationally as the City of Peace and Justice. Here, over 19,500 people in some 160 international organisations are working towards a single common goal: a more peaceful and just world. By combining the forces of international organisations and knowledge institutions, over the years The Hague has gained a reputation as a centre of expertise in this area. This was clearly noticeable during the launch on 3 June 2016 of ‘ The Hague Humanity Hub’, attended by over 200 participants. At this event, the city of The Hague appeared ready to address a wide range of issues in the humanitarian field using big data. Statistics Netherlands also joined in.

Reliable data

It was recently announced that the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has chosen The Hague to host its data centre. At the centre, reliable data on people confronted with natural disasters or humanitarian crises will be collected, analysed and shared. OCHA finds out the direct needs and decides who are eligible for aid. The organisation sends out data to all UN member states based on which they can define their policies and work out their aid projects.

New platform

Alderman for Knowledge-based Economy and Deputy Mayor Ms. Ingrid van Engelshoven is very happy that the UN has decided to bring the OCHA data centre to The Hague. ‘The Hague has a prominent position in the field of peace and justice and is currently seeking ways to better address various humanitarian issues, with the help of large quantities of digital data, the so-called big data. A few weeks ago, we established a new platform: HumanityX, which will be taking the lead on big data. The platform is a collaborative partnership between scientists and students from Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation, the United Nations, the private sector and international aid organisations such as the Red Cross.’

Testing ground

The Hague aspires to be a testing ground for developments in the field of peace, justice and arbitration. What has been achieved so far? Van Engelshoven: ‘We are hosting no fewer than 160 international organisations. Among them, world-renowned institutions such as the OPCW, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Court. We’re the second UN city in the world after New York. The city government is supporting this development in all sorts of ways.’ Another important institution according to Van Engelshoven is the The Hague Security Delta: ‘It is the largest security cluster in Europe, with knowledge institutions, governments and companies all working together. The city is involved as one of the founding fathers. We make a connection between vision and funding, encouraging further development of The Hague as an international city.’


The Hague is giving innovation pride of place, in particular in the areas of peace and justice. ‘It provides a boost to the city’s economy and creates jobs for higher as well as lower educated people. We warmly welcome yet another UN agency joining us in The Hague. It is a new development but in keeping with a tradition: many UN agencies call The Hague their home. OCHA setting up a data centre in The Hague is new. Working from this location, data analysts from the University of Leiden will be contributing to better care for refugees around the world. They will do so using the HumanityX platform, where they will collaborate with partners including UN Global Pulse, Stanford University and Harvard University.’ The Hague was recently accepted as member of the illustrious 100 Resilient Cities network, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. ‘This creates possibilities for us to lead the way in innovation. All these institutions and organisations act as magnets for knowledge-based institutions. From all around the world, students are coming to The Hague, a place where international law can be studied in theory as well as in practice.’

Smart Cities

In all sorts of ways, The Hague gets involved in Smart City projects, which revolve around smart technologies to find solutions for complex urban problems. Recent accomplishments for the city include Smart Lighting: intelligently controlled, energy-saving lamp posts which are combined with other functions such as Wi-Fi, road safety cameras, charger connection points and sensing of air quality and noise pollution. Last 2 June, the opening event took place in a business park where technical possibilities are being tested for the whole city.’ Van Engelshoven adds the city is promoting electric transport locally by expanding the charging network. There is also a Smart City project for Scheveningen: ‘The beachfront area of Scheveningen-Bad serves as a Living Lab. This entails various market players, residents, businesses and authorities working together to develop solutions towards improvement of accessibility, quality of life, safety and the local economy; it again shows the power of cooperation.’

Big data

The Hague, like other large Dutch municipalities, is increasingly relying on big data to support the policymaking process. ‘Wi-Fi counting enables us to measure the number of visitors at large events, which contributes to better supervising of visitor flows. And pilots are being run to see where big data can be used in law enforcement. Local government employees are receiving training on optimal and responsible use of big data. Another example is data collection to follow car movements. It is expected that data from navigation devices and mobile phones will become so complete and reliable that traffic counting in the old-fashioned way will become obsolete. We find many methods through our own resources, but also by consulting other stakeholders such as Statistics Netherlands and the Rathenau Institute.’


Since early 2015, the city of The Hague and Statistics Netherlands have been collaborating in statistical and research projects. This led to a meeting last December around the topics of data, research and policies (‘Samen meten is meer weten’) co-organised by the city government, the Digital City Agenda network (by and with 40 major Dutch cities, ed.) and Statistics Netherlands, the latter represented by experts explaining what the organisation can offer: not only as a data supplier, but also acting as a service counter for knowledge about methods and definitions. Van Engelshoven: ‘We are currently engaged in setting up a ‘data camp’ together with Statistics Netherlands, for policymakers to study unleashing of the full potential that data and the linking of large data files can offer. The idea is to focus on the ‘resilient city’ theme, in conjunction with The Hague’s participation in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities.’

World Bank

According to Van Engelshoven, there are opportunities for extended cooperation with Statistics Netherlands. ‘As I mentioned earlier, The Hague is actively engaged in developing HumanityX, for the purpose of innovating the use of data towards peace, justice and humanitarian relief. The platform is keen to see new parties join in who are active in the use of ‘data for the public good’. Statistics Netherlands, being an organisation with huge amounts of data and expertise on data analysis and visualisation, would add great value to the platform.’ The fact that Statistics Netherlands has many international partnership contacts is yet another important element in this cooperation. ‘An example is the World Bank, another organisation holding large amounts of data and expertise. The World Bank plays a role in making the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as defined by UN chief Ban Ki-Moon in September 2015 measurable goals. Statistics Netherlands is currently exploring possibilities of helping the World Bank in the process. Any work associated with this could produce interesting user cases for HumanityX.’