The Centre spoke with Laura McGorman, Director of Data for Good at Meta, which develops tools from their platform to help organizations respond to real world crises. We discussed what makes Meta’s data unique, how institutions and governments are using the data, and how they are supporting the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

This interview was conducted by Maren Lange, the Centre’s Communications Manager. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Can you give us an overview of Data for Good at Meta? 

Data for Good at Meta aims to empower partners with privacy preserving tools that strengthen communities and make progress on social issues. We started our work in 2017 with a modest set of maps designed to help nonprofits and humanitarian organizations respond to natural disasters. Since then, we have grown to serve a global network of nearly 600 partners in over 75 countries working on everything from COVID-19 to climate change. For the past two years, we’ve also worked closely with a range of governments that use our data to inform policies like stay at home measures and social protection programs.

What is unique about the data that you make available? 

Our team builds tools from sources that come directly from the Facebook platform, such as mobility data or information from public posts. Because of the company’s computing power, AI capabilities and scale, we are also able to work with large external datasets, such as satellite imagery, which helps power tools such as our high resolution population density maps and Relative Wealth Index. We also use the scale of the Facebook platform to recruit respondents for global surveys, ranging from those targeting small businesses to those focused on individual perspectives on COVID-19 and climate change.

How is your organization working with HDX? 

HDX is one of our primary platforms for sharing data publicly and has been a tremendous partner in this regard. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we were getting between 5-20 data license agreement requests a day and realized that only offering data through specific terms wasn’t scalable for responding to a global crisis. At the same time, our team was learning about techniques such as differential privacy that offer incredible protection against the re-identification of individuals. As a result, we’ve applied these techniques to our tools and worked closely with the HDX team to push more and more of our data to the public domain, making it widely available to humanitarians, researchers and governments. The HDX  partnership has been core to helping our team scale—anyone interested in using our publicly available tools can find them on HDX here.

“Rather than Meta building its own public platform for data sharing with humanitarians, we have been able to leverage HDX.”
-Laura McGorman, Director of Data for Good at Meta

What is challenging about data related to humanitarian crises? 

When looking to respond to a particular crisis or a global pandemic, I think many humanitarian partners don’t know where to start. There are so many different data sharing platforms run by different institutions, finding the right information can be like finding a needle in a haystack. This is one of the primary reasons I am so fond of our partnership with the Centre for Humanitarian Data. Rather than Meta building its own public platform for data sharing with humanitarians, we have been able to leverage HDX and the Centre’s incredible work to date, as well as the community they already serve, which leads to more informed research and humanitarian response for everyone.

Can you provide examples of how your data is being used by partners and the impact it is having? 

Our data has been used to investigate a diverse set of issues, which are documented in hundreds of case studies that people can learn from. A recent favorite of mine is how World Vision used our high resolution population density maps to figure out where to make water and sanitation investments that will reach nearly 50 million people over the next five years. Another example is how GiveDirectly and the Government of Togo used our Relative Wealth Index to expand their social protection program to the poorest of the poor during COVID-19. The Center for Strategic and International Studies also recently built an index from our Movement Range Maps that accurately predicted GDP in several Indonesian provinces. These case studies all come from datasets you can access on HDX and illustrate the power of open data to inform humanitarian operations and spur economic growth.

We can trace the use of our datasets directly to on-the-ground impact for communities. For example, our Insights for Impact program, which works on outreach campaigns for issues such as vaccine acceptance and climate change, has reached over one billion people in the last two years. To hear from partners that our data is enabling more people to get vaccines, have access to clean water, or receive financial assistance is encouraging.

Is your team supporting the response to the Ukraine crisis?

Yes, it’s been the primary focus of our efforts since late February. While our team is careful to not share any real-time data for areas experiencing active conflict, which would put vulnerable communities at risk, we are sharing insights that can be used to predict and proxy the volume of refugee flows from Ukraine into neighboring countries. For example, our Social Connectedness Index shows the density of social ties between Ukraine and the rest of Europe, and serves as a predictor of where people will migrate to, since people are more likely to relocate to places where they have existing family and friends. 

We are also sharing real-time mobility and population density data for neighboring countries that show how population flows are shifting as those displaced by the conflict in Ukraine enter new countries. These controlled-access tools are in active use by a range of nonprofits and UN agencies as part of their efforts to provide medical supplies, housing and other forms of assistance to those displaced by the conflict.

Population density changes in Poland 20-26 March 2022. Visual created by CrisisReady, using data from Data for Good at Meta and UNHCR to support the Ukraine crisis response.

What is next for Data for Good at Meta?

The team is working on many new datasets, including some pretty exciting work on international migration and population flows that we hope to release in late 2022. We’re also planning to expand some of our work on climate change, including expanding the global reach of our climate change opinion survey and building new Insights for Impact campaigns on this topic. 

What do you love about your job?

As a development economist who started her career at USAID, I’ve always been motivated by issues of poverty alleviation and global health. At the same time, I’m a data nerd, so I feel like I hit the jackpot getting to work on Data for Good at Meta. The team that contributes to this effort brings together people who are deeply mission-driven, but also have cutting-edge knowledge of data science and privacy enhancing technologies. I am grateful to do what I do every day and even more grateful to the incredible community of partners with whom we share data, with HDX’s help, everyday. The partners are the reason we get up in the morning and I cannot think of a better community of people to serve.


To learn more about Data for Good at Meta and to hear first-hand from Laura, watch this recording of a Centre-hosted event that covered the Relative Wealth Index as well as other tools and datasets made available through HDX.