Sciency Stuff

This page mainly aims at explaining my current research and operational activities as a senior research fellow at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a consultant at the World Bank’s disaster risk financing and insurance program and the co-founder of an ESA-funded start-up named PERIGEE.

Why? What? How?

My previous team at Columbia University aimed to increase the disaster resilience of smallholder farmers. Since data are the backbone of weather insurance, but local observations via weather stations are scarce in many regions, we relied on many different satellite-based datasets. Some of them, such as soil moisture, can be estimated independently from cloud cover (via microwave remote sensing). Weather index insurance protects people againstbthe impact of critical moisture deficits in sensitive growing periods, decoupling payouts from crop loss at the end of the season. Farmers are heavily involved in the design process via exercises that focus on identifying the worst historical drought years (related to other events they can remember, such as elections) or games that illustrate probabilities of droughts vs. the added-value of insurance.

In a nutshell, we tried to encourage farmers to take certain risks related to production (e. g. invest in drought-resistant seeds). This was an important step, because the mere risk of crop failure due to drought often restricts the agricultural potential. During a severe drought it is possible that farmers have little or no harvest PLUS they are in debt due to their pre-season investment. That is why we tried to cover this additional risk via an insurance set-up that pays out faster than conventional, indemnity based insurance. In addition, it is generally less expensive. The idea was to transfer local risks to a global risk market by involving national insurers and global re-insurers (e. g. SwissRe, HannoverRe or MunichRe). Also farmers that have hardly any income can get an insurance, for instance via working in projects that increase their village’s resilience. A certain number of working days is translated into the payment of their premium by local partners such as the UN World Food Programme.

The work for SOS Children’s Villages International, which ended in January 2019, concentrated entirely on developments and operational activities related to humanitarian aid. In collaboration with DHL we developed a disaster management platform that works in near real-time, includes warnings from street level (kidnapping) to continental scale (tropical cyclone) and includes users in all 134 SOS countries. We covered all phases of the disaster management cycle, whereas in-depth risk assessment in SOS villages were used to pre-position vital resources before any kind of disaster might strike. In parallel, we monitored conditions via different kinds of disaster services and seasonal forecasts. If a disaster led to destruction we worked with technical partners to assess the damages based on high-resolution optical or radar satellite imagery as fast as possible. This way, we were independent from all kinds of disaster mapping activities (disaster charter, UNITAR, etc.)

In a nutshell, I’m trying to link four intertwined activities:

Screenshot 2019-02-10 at 22.17.47

Does it work?

The short answer with regard to weather index insurance is: yes, mostly, if we understand people’s risk perception and implications for agricultural management, historical drought impacts, coping mechanisms, the strengths and weaknesses of our data in specific regions, the financial risk modeling, etc.

Long answer: Weather index insurance is not a panacea. However, we’ve seen success stories all over the world. The “secret” to a successful micro-insurance project that is can be scaled up to pool the risk over larger regions is to link it to complementary mechanisms that farmers are already used to. These mechanisms encompass strategies like savings or loans. In some regions, lenders even see weather index index insurance as a prerequisite for loans. In practice it’s a very thin line between high payouts that satisfy the farmers, but not necessarily the insurer or vice versa. As a consequence, one of our main tasks is to minimize the basis risk, which means to optimize the matching between our satellite-based weather insurance index and actual drought/crop health conditions on the ground.

So far, I had projects focusing on developments related to disaster resilience, capacity building, advanced drought monitoring, weather index insurance and/or emergency response in the following countries:

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Research/funding/operational partners include:

Africa Risk Capacity (ARC)
Allianz Insurance
BOKU (University of Natural Resources and Life Science, Vienna, Austria)
Czechglobe (Global Change Research Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences)
CRTS (Royal Centre for Remote Sensing) Morocco
Department for Geodesy and Geoinformation (Vienna University of Technology)
DHL (Deutsche Post)
DLR (German Aerospace Center)
EODC (Earth Observation Data Center)
ESA (European Space Agency)
FFG (Austrian Research Promotion Agency)
Group on Earth Observations (GEO)
GRC (Global Resilience Partnership)
Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute)
IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)
IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis)
Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM, Colombia)
IWMI (International Water Management Institute)
JRC (Joint Research Center of the European Commission)
MSF (Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières) Austria
MSF (Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières) Spain (Operational Center)
New York University
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
National Drought Mitigation Center
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
National Unit for Disaster Management Colombia
Red Cross 510 (Big data initiative)
Spatial Services
Servicio Geológico Colombiano
UNDP (UN Development Programme)
UNEP (UN Environment Programme)
UN FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
UN IAEA (UN International Atomic Energy Agency)
UN OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)
UN SPIDER (UN Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response)
University of Maryland
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
UN WFP (UN World Food Programme)
Vienna University of Technology
World Bank
ZAMG (Central Institution for Meteorology and Geodynamics, Vienna, Austria) ZGIS/University of Salzburg