What do you think of when you think of NASA technology? “Space” is probably going to be the answer most people give, unless they’ve heard of SERVIR, the result of a partnership between NASA, USAID, the World Bank in Washington, and several other organizations.

Daniel Irwin, the director of the program, knows this better than anyone. “When people think of NASA,” he says, “they think of Mars Exploration Rovers or finding water on the moon, but a big part of our mission is to study earth from space, to advance scientific understanding and meet societal needs.”

SERVIR is actually not an acronym – it is taken from the Spanish word meaning “to serve,” because the goal of the initiative is to do just that.

By combining NASA’s technology and humanitarian groups’ understanding of what areas need what resources and what would benefit people the most, SERVIR is able to better serve the needs of populations.

The NASA website says that the resources developed by SERVIR can help governments and other agencies to more effectively “respond to natural disasters, [improve] food security, safeguard human health, [and] manage water and natural resources.”

SERVIR has hubs at locations throughout the globe, ad just this August, SERVIR-Mekong was launched in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Mekong river is located in Southeast Asia that acts as a major trade route to China. Depending on the seasons, the Mekong sometimes floods the surrounding area, leaving the residents of the Mekong area in severe need.

This is one of the reasons why Mekong was chosen as a location for this SERVIR project.

The Mekong center in particular was the result of NASA and USAID partnership with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC.) This is a partnership that will work to make land use more sustainable and to monitor and (hopefully) decrease the effects of climate change.

For example, the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) is something that can be monitored with NASA technology. It is an indicator that comes from the amount of light reflected off of the surface of the earth based on the quantity and quality of plant life.

Areas that have lots of healthy vegetation will have a high NDVI and vice versa. Understanding the NDVI of an area can provide everyone from small farmers to forestry service personnel a better understanding of where to plant crops, develop urban centers, and more carefully preserve vegetation.

The power to help individuals and populations all over the world better respond to the effects of climate change extends to areas of food security and water resourcing as well. It truly is a remarkable innovation.

NASA technology can also be used to chart the course of natural disasters. For example, in the past, during hurricanes, it has allowed scientists to map out the paths of mudslides, which allowed them to understand which areas would be most affected and need the most help.

SERVIR’s track record has been vastly successful. Its team has worked with over 200 institutions in over 30 countries to develop local solutions, and to link local offices all over the globe in a network of ideas and innovations. Over 40 custom tools have been developed through the work of SERVIR.

It’s an excellent example of many of the tenets of humanitarianism: utilizing technology, creating partnerships, thinking big (even beyond the global scale) and dedicating existing resources towards a worthwhile cause.

As Irwin says, NASA technology and USAID’s resources together are helping to create “real time, real world applications that are changing the lives of people where they live.”

Emily Dieckman

Sources: USAID, NASA, Servir Global, Washington Post
Photo: AmericaSpace