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Story | Education
25 October 2020

Op-ed: In times of crisis, data becomes crucial


Qatar Foundation alumnus Obadah Diab on how his passion for service led him to a humanitarian data-focused United Nations center that aims to use analysis of numbers and trends to save lives, and make them better.

For as long as I can remember, my parents always used to push me out of my comfort zone. Looking back, I think they were trying to teach me that life happens in situations where you are most uncomfortable.

It has been a decade since I embarked on my first humanitarian mission, to Pakistan in 2010, during one of the country’s heaviest monsoon seasons. To this day, this experience continues to resonate in my head as being the first time I witnessed other children my age deprived of basic life necessities – homes damaged, possessions depleted, and the lives of loved ones lost. These realities, similarly seen in my later visits to Dadaab, Kenya, and Za’atari in Jordan, propelled me to reflect and introspect years ahead. To this day, I believe that it was those travels and experiences that took place during my high school and university years that taught me the most. Learning and cultivation should also occur outside the classroom and beyond the confines of syllabi.

My time at Georgetown University in Qatar continued to foster the idea of service in me. One of Georgetown’s Jesuit values that spoke to me most was ‘Women and Men for Others’. This principle, coupled with the fact that I was receiving a world-class education in an already turbulent region, prompted me to reject the position of being a mere bystander and strive to become an active catalyst. My choice of classes, internships I applied for, and even the thesis I wrote during my senior year were informed by the political, social, and economic realities of my native Syria and the wider region.

Keen to put my training to use and believing in the role of data in informing better policies, I joined the United Nations OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data as a Research Analyst upon graduating. The Centre, which was launched in December 2017 by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in The Hague, Netherlands, aims to increase the use and impact of data in the humanitarian sector.

My work with the Centre initially revolved around improving access to data on education in emergencies. One of the cutting-edge projects I helped support was the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify social media reports of attacks on education via the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) platform in collaboration with the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) and the Education Above All (EAA) Foundation.

The Centre’s motto of “connecting people and data to improve lives” was a reminder for me to always look at the big picture while I was hunched over my laptop in a coffee shop, ruthlessly cleaning data in an Excel worksheet – which, at times, seemed an endless task. This constant reminder that your work can, at some point, assist a senior-level policymaker make a better informed and responsible decision with the data that you helped make available keeps me steadfast. Getting immersed in the nitty-gritty details of work and forgetting the bigger picture is normal, but taking a step back to reflect is necessary.

With the onset of the pandemic, my work shifted to supporting the ongoing data activities of the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) Data Partnerships Team to improve access to COVID-19 data. The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), one of the Centre’s key products, is an open platform for almost 20,000 datasets on a range of humanitarian-related issues shared by over 275 organizations.

Over the last few months, I have been supporting efforts to improve access to critical subnational data on the number of cases, recoveries and deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic. This effort culminated in the launch of the COVID-19 Pandemic crisis page and the COVID-19 Map Explorer on the platform. Providing data on the number of people affected by the pandemic, in addition to other critical data such as food security and funding data, allows one to put together the missing puzzle pieces of a grander image. Having this data can identify and explain why certain areas and populations are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, as well as the funding gaps that need to be filled in order for those needs to be addressed.

In the absence of relevant, accurate, timely, comprehensive and comparable data, as well as knowledge about the local context, agencies will not be able to respond to crises effectively, needs will not be adequately met, and few lives will be saved. This is where the power of data is most crucial. Moreover, not only can access to data paint a picture of the current manifestations and repercussions of a crisis at one point in time, but it can, in the presence of historic data, allow for trends to be identified, and in select cases, for future projections to be made.

Passion for one’s work, curiosity, and eagerness to learn are key elements to success anywhere. A quote that is very much dear to me is, “let the beauty we love be what we do.” If you love what you do, with the right intentions and sincere effort, you will undoubtedly reap what you sow. Retrospect has shown me that purposefulness is attained when you live for a cause greater than yourself and, perhaps most crucially, when you surround yourself with like-minded people who aid you in your pursuit.

I am grateful to Qatar Foundation, and also to the United Nations OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data for giving me the space to put this passion into practice.

Obadah Diab is a Data Manager working with the United Nations OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data. Over the past year, he has been involved in multiple projects that aim to increase access to humanitarian data. Obadah graduated from Georgetown University School in Qatar in 2018, where he majored in International Economics.

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