An image from the Maui United Way/NASA Harvest application that was developed to support those affected by the Lāhainā wildfires, including damage detections provided by Microsoft AI for Good Lab. Courtesy Maui United Way / NASA Harvest

Aloha United Way’s 211 hotline is intended to help in the event of a disaster. On a typical day, 211 operators help Hawaiʻi’s residents find food, shelter, financial assistance, childcare, parenting support, disability services and more. 

In the aftermath of August’s wildfires, when these types of needs surged, 211 operators faced a new challenge: How to help those impacted by the fires get access to FEMA relief funds. While the 211 service does not directly provide services, the live operators help callers connect with providers that can best meet their needs. This, however, was something new. How could 211 operators be sure that callers would be eligible for disaster aid, and who should they direct them to for timely assistance?

Even before August’s wildfires, food security was a pressing concern for Maui United Way. Food insecurity affects 27% of children in Maui County, a rate among the highest in the country. 

Nick Winfrey, Maui United Way’s president and chief professional officer, had been working on a Food Security Dashboard with support from Amazon Web Services. The intent was to build a public dashboard that would allow users to visualize food-related resources, needs and service gaps in Maui County. The project was developing a tool to help map the distribution of resources, such as those provided by Maui’s food banks, and compare this data with factors like food resource accessibility to identify gaps that could then be addressed. 

At the start of this year, Maui United Way expanded the scope of the project through a partnership with a team of researchers led by AI expert Dr. Hannah Kerner from Arizona State University. The expanded project is supported by NASA Acres (a U.S.-focused agriculture and food security program) and a grant from NASA’s Equity and Environmental Justice program, with added support from Responsible Markets and the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College. The NASA effort would bring the ability to use satellite data to add information about the availability and conditions of indigenous food crops to help address food security issues throughout Maui County.  

As many organizations did during the initial disaster response, Maui United Way discovered a new need: to get emergency financial aid (EFA) to those affected by the fires. The community-first nature of the NASA-funded project allowed a rapid shift in focus to help address this immediate need. 

Using satellite imagery of the areas affected by the wildfires, existing geospatial information and a damage-assessment map from the Microsoft AI for Good Lab, the NASA team was able to rapidly develop a software application that could help verify addresses that had been impacted by the fire. This provided visual information to support Maui United Way’s EFA program. For example, this helped to determine residents’ eligibility for EFA funding. 

The community’s trust in the Maui United Way program allowed them to also obtain FEMA and American Red Cross data streams to incorporate into the system. The result was that 211 operators were able to more rapidly connect those affected by the wildfires and their aftereffects to the correct aid resources. 

As the island begins recovering from the aftereffects of the wildfires, Maui County’s elevated prices and food insecurity will remain a concern, especially among low-income residents. Winfrey and Kerner both agree that what the Food Security Dashboard looks like will depend primarily on input from their community partners. 

Already in the works are features to help support Native Hawaiian farmers to monitor their crops’ health and improve production using satellite imagery and a geographic information system. 

Winfrey notes that Maui United Way and the NASA team are, at their core, community-centered organizations and that this project will continue to reflect community priorities and values to allow residents to chart their path toward ensuring food security in Maui County. 

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