From Afghanistan to Artificial Intelligence - 04/07/2017

With its powerful and evolving technologies, Geomatics and GIS are a force for humanitarian relief in disaster zones. Joel Myhre offers some reflections on his recent work with WHO and One Concern.

It is always surreal leaving Kabul, withBlackhawk helicopters clearing the tarmac as the Emirates flight climbs above the Koh-e Paghman, Koh-e Qrough and Koh-e Shirdarwaza Mountains. . .  and 15 hours later to descend into the Lac Leman valley and Geneva with Mont Blanc soaring above to the south.

Geography is an inspiring, often compelling, and decisive force from the Himalayas to the Alps, and the tools we humanitarian technologists impart to help save lives amidst these strikingly and austere environs have undergone a veritable revolution over the past decade. Here are some reflections on the ongoing geospatial and Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolutions as they’ve evolved during my tenure at WHO during H1N1 (swine flu) and Ebola, with UNOSAT at CERN, and in Kabul with UN partners helping to ensure that refugees are welcome.

From the beginnings of Geomatics and GIS in the 1970s, to GPS and publicly available high-resolution satellite imagery in the 1990s, to Social Media for Emergency Management (e.g. SMEM) and #Drones4Good in the mid 2000s, the recent convening of the #AIforGood Summit by the International Telecommunications Union and XPRIZ in Geneva, (, heralds the ongoing ‘10× Moonshot’ growth of AI, Machine Learning (ML) and cloud-based ‘Big Data’ innovations that will revolutionize our daily lives and help the world strive to attain the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

One Concern

In concert with the now-requisite public-private partnership ethos to bolster sustained innovation and stakeholder engagement at UNICEF Innovation ( and UN Global Pulse ( in NY, One Concern Inc. has emerged from a collaboration between Stanford University seismic scientists Ahmad Wani, Tim Frank, and computer scientist Nicole Hu’s collaboration with Professor Andrew Ng, the creator of the Google Brain AI ( and founder of Coursera.

Crafted via a singular ‘one concern’, i.e. to help save lives during rapid-onset disasters such as the floods and earthquake events that Wani experienced in his native Kashmir, our team of Palo Alto-based data scientist and globally-recognized humanitarian responders, who have held strategic roles in managing the Fukushima nuclear emergency, Hurricane Sandy in New York, etc., are looking to answer the following ‘What if’ possibilities that have always seemed a mere chimera to first responders the world over.

Leveraging Servers

Moving beyond traditional 2D and 3D geomatics, which may offer powerful yet static and usually archival views of geospatial phenomena, the transfer learning employed via One Concern’s AI and machine learning can not only capture important knowledge from experts during training exercises but literally leverage millions of cloud-based Amazon servers – which also support our UN and NGO humanitarian colleagues ( to analyze hundreds of thousands of data layers and trillions of individual building characteristics to help Urban Search & Rescue and other First Responders understand fragile buildings and at-risk populations within minutes of an earthquake, and not hours or days later.

Cognizant that earthquakes are often high impact and low occurrence events in most geographies (, our One Concern flood analytics platform is an important capability for the full-spectrum of requirements from preparedness to response, and recovery to strategic planning for resilient cities on a warming planet. From Katrina in the US to the Pakistan and Thailand floods, One Concern’s insightful technologies join in concert with the allied and compelling revolutions in smaller ‘cube’ satellites (, humanitarian #Drones4Good (, and social media for emergency management (#SMEM). And note the partnership between the World Food Program, International Federation of the Red Cross and Facebook (

The logarithmic challenges of climate change, current unprecedented global refugee crises and ever increasing urbanization require that we have concomitant technological ‘moonshots’ and advances across the humanitarian response ecosystem to help ensure a healthy and sustainable future for all.

This article was published in Geomatics World July/August 2017

Last updated: 21/10/2019