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Rural Senses: An Israeli/UK Start-up Harnessing AI/ML to Improve Humanitarian Response

Rural Senses is developing an innovative solution for the collection of unbiased local community data and its rapid analysis using AI techniques to transform the design, delivery and evaluation of humanitarian response projects around the world. The startup was founded in 2018 by Yau Ben-Or and Dr. Stephainie Hirmer and joined by Barik Sale, a member of the Sudanese community in Israel as Community Engagement Manager. Rural Senses was part of the Pears Challenge 2019 on WASH in Humanitarian Settings and also joined the Microsoft for Startups - Tech for Good “AI for Good” Accelerator program in 2020.

In the picture: Melat Mikil, Solomon Gebremariam, Barik Sale and Aharon Woldemerhrit, team members which contribute to the project on mapping the needs of the Sudanese and Eritrean communities in Israel.

The Motivation: Access to accurate and unbiased data is essential to design effective projects, evaluate impact and to drive policy change.

Unfortunately, many of the decisions in development and humanitarian projects are based on partial and outdated data. It is also often deeply biased. As a result, such projects are not aligned with local preferences and have limited impact and sustainability. According to Rural Senses’ analysis, the problem is substantial: out of the annual $150 Billion worth of development and humanitarian projects, it is estimated that over 80% fail in creating the intended long-term impact. Rural Senses originated from 6 years of research at the University of Cambridge with the mission to provide NGOs, governments and other stakeholders with state-of-the-art data collection and analysis tools that ensure every project is specifically targeted to the local needs and that project success is defined primarily by its evidence-based impact.

The Unique Approach: Thanks to local networks of data collectors, unique qualitative data collection techniques and AI-enhanced analysis, Rural Senses can provide deep unbiased insights faster and more cost effectively than other solutions. The insights provided include what is most important to vulnerable communities, what motivates them, their greatest challenges, cultural norms and traditional aspects. These insights are a powerful tool for project planners, implementers and evaluators.

Rural Senses is currently working with members of the Eritrean and Sudanese communities in Israel to map their needs on the ground and to reflect them to key influencers.

Top Messages for World Refugee Day: Understanding the history, personal stories and current needs and challenges of displaced communities is a moral duty for everyone. We should avoid using words that cause division - like the word "refugee" itself. Instead, let's treat everyone as equals, and work together to create a better reality for everyone.  Addressing the needs of displaced communities will benefit them and the society as a whole. In Israel for example, approving work permits will allow Sudanese and Eritrean community members to secure dignified livelihoods and to become productive members of society. It will also reduce the burden from south Tel Aviv, which is currently the only place that allows working without a permit.

"We should all speak up and fight for the rights of displaced communities. Policy makers, businesses, key opinion leaders and everyone else - no one should stay silent!" says Barik Sale, Community Engagement Manager at Rural Senses.


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