COVID-19 has led to huge challenges for the world’s mobile populations—the millions of people who move between countries and regions to look for better opportunities or to escape disaster or unrest.
Since the pandemic began, a total of 227 countries, territories, or areas worldwide had imposed more than 117,000 travel and mobility restrictions as of late March 2021, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the world’s leading intergovernmental organization in the field of migration.
The measures were designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but they also created new difficulties for mobile populations, such as vulnerable Ethiopian migrants stranded in the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf, and internally displaced people living in congested sites with limited water and sanitation facilities. The restrictions have also impacted students, seasonal workers, and families trying to travel home. “The warning signs for this kind of pandemic were always there,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s director for operations and emergencies. “Now, with AWS technology, we’re in a much better position to plan for the next one.”
Amazon Web Services (AWS) is helping the organization gather information in real time by automatically capturing the most relevant news articles about migration from the world’s media outlets. In the past, IOM staff had to manually search for these articles online—and there were often thousands of stories a day.
One of the ways the IOM is able to understand how people are displaced by conflict or disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, is with its Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). The DTM analyzes primary data gathered by in-country IOM teams, but it also monitors secondary data from stories published by media outlets around the world, whether that’s online, in print, or on social media.
On a typical day, media outlets would publish thousands of individual stories, and not all would be covered by major international news outlets. For example, a local Arabic language news site may run a piece on the status of migrant workers in a Persian Gulf state, but the story won’t necessarily be picked up outside of a few countries. This is where AWS technology comes in. AWS is helping the organization gather media reports about migration in real time and simplify them into “actionable items.” That means automatically capturing the most relevant articles, summarising them, and packaging the information into a report three times per day.
The technology allows the IOM to have an extra “ear on the ground” to learn about people movements from real-time sources, which complement IOM’s existing internal reporting mechanisms.
With AWS support, the IOM now monitors information from 160 countries—double the number than before the outbreak of COVID-19. The IOM team believes working with AWS has the potential to change how the organization operates in the long term. It is already exploring new projects, such as enhancing its ability to communicate with migrants.
AWS first teamed up with the IOM in 2019 to help it build a data lake, which enabled the organization to consolidate the knowledge it gathered—and continues to gather—on a multitude of factors that influence migrants’ ability to make a safe journey across countries.
By bringing information from different databases, archives, and print sources into the data lake, the IOM has been able to run analyses on the information exponentially faster than before.
In the future, this will not only improve information sharing within the IOM itself—cutting down the time it takes to identify the locations, situations, and needs of migrants in vulnerable situations—it should also enable the organization to predict future migration patterns, which could help with resource allocation and preparedness planning for disasters like COVID-19.
“Migration is not only about displaced populations in countries far away from your own,” Labovitz said. “As we have seen during this pandemic, a migrant could be someone you know.”
“It might be your neighbour who is travelling and needs information on how to return quickly, or a family member studying abroad who is looking for a way to come home.”