Ukraine data project is recognised for its innovation by OECD

Written by: Joe Stafford

A project involving experts from The University of Manchester which created a live ‘early alarm’ system of major displacement, human rights abuses, humanitarian needs and civilian resistance in Ukraine has been recognised by the OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation.

During the Russian invasion of Ukraine - particularly in the early weeks of the invasion - relief organisations and government agencies lacked data about events on the ground and struggled to mount an effective response, so new methods of event detection were urgently needed. 

At the request of policymakers, experts at The University of Manchester, Penn State University, UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Maryland joined forces to establish the Data For Ukraine project. A research team comprised of country experts and computational social scientists created a Twitter-based event detection system that provides geo-located event data on humanitarian needs, displaced persons, human rights abuses and civilian resistance in near real-time.

Twitter has been a reliable source for big data due to its easy accessibility, creating a secure channel for international communication. In addition, the level of retweets gives observers information about the degree of importance of each tweet. In this sense, researchers can track how many retweets each has to weight proportionally. 

Thanks to the great multitude of the data, an hourly trend can be easily perceived by social scientists, who can accordingly highlight and illustrate spikes and dips in an effort to provide valuable insights into events on the ground.

Once it was determined that Twitter could provide valuable data and reliable communities of interest were identified, the team deliberated internally on which events to track and how best to track them. Ultimately, the team identified four types of event that would be tracked - Humanitarian Support, Displaced People, Human Rights Abuses and Civilian Resistance - and developed a multi-lingual list of keywords to identify tweets containing discussion of these events.

The initial idea behind the project was to provide a tool for governmental and non-governmental organisations to help them collect real-time data as a basis for emergency response. In the initial stages, both the Government of Ukraine and international NGOs were briefed on the data collection and its capabilities.

As the project has developed, the research team has become more aware of different potential beneficiaries, including researchers, lawyers filing human rights claims and others who can benefit from a massive, searchable archive of tweets. As an example, researchers conducting work on the use of rape as a tool of war are comparing evidence they have collected from interviews with survivors with our archive to both extend their list of cases and look for patterns not contained in the interviews. It is hoped that many researchers with varied interests will be able to use the archive in this way. 

The OECD remarked that Data For Ukraine has a major potential for success and replication, and they hope that by recognising it as a case study, the project will inspire other governments to take action.

In the future, we hope to expand the scope of the project. Using the methodology of the Ukraine project, we are planning to collect data on other events such as climate-related environmental disasters and community responses. We can flexibly adapt keywords to identify where events have happened, which would greatly augment the limited existing data on environmental disasters and at the same time provide a resource for researchers in that field. 

Dr Olga Onuch

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