Using ReliefSim

ReliefSim was originally meant to be used as an individual exercise. Students would enter the simulation on their own and strive to derive relationships between assessments, interventions, priorities and specific elements of population health within a refugee camp setting. Over time, it has proven to be even more valuable as a group exercise in which students discuss and debate prioritization of interventions in a humanitarian emergency, and are tasked with communicating clearly and compellingly their case for specific interventions to be made at specific times, simulating the process of committee-based decisions we see in camp management in the field.

In both of the above use-cases, ReliefSim allows learners to learn by doing. When each round of decisions comes to an end, the system updates the health of the camp population in response to the actions taken. Students are able to quickly see the consequences of their decisions (as manifest within the camp), and have the opportunity to redirect worsening conditions by thinking carefully about the available interventions, and deciding the best next steps.

The simulation is also valuable as a testing ground for student recollection and application of important baseline standards put forth by the The Sphere Project. The Sphere Project was launched in 1997 by a group of humanitarian NGOs and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement in an effort to improve the quality of assistance provided to people affected by disaster and to enhance the accountability of the humanitarian system in disaster response. A major part of the project was the creation of the Sphere Handbook, a detailed, chapterized guide outlining minimum standards for public health in disaster response. ReliefSim was designed around these standards specifically, and is intended to be used in conjuction with courses that teach the Sphere Handbook.

ReliefSim Specifics

Within the simulation students take the role of a refugee camp manager. The primary activity involves examining data that describe the health of the camp, and using a small team of virtual staff members to perform Assessments or Interventions (chosen from a predetermined list) for either responding to or preventing decline in population health. The objective of the player is to stabilize the population (specifically the mortality rate) in as few turns as possible.

Each of your staff can only perform one action per turn. Given that the team is small, their actions must be prioritized. After all staff have been given actions, a "turn" ends, indicating three days of work in the camp have passed. After each turn, updated data become available that describe changes to camp health based on the chosen interventions, and the staff become free for more assignments.

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Depending on what kinds of assessments are performed, various camp data will become available.

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How Does it Work?

The mathematics of ReliefSim are complex. The mechanical idea behind how the virtual population "responds" to various staff actions, or preexisting or emerging communicable health issues such as disease, is that it should be based on individual members of the population. Thus, the math that drives population health (via disease rates, malnutrition rates, etc.) actually describes the relationship between a single virtual person, their basic needs expressed with quantifiable data (such as calorie intake per day, liters of water per day), how individual health standings affect others around them, and thus the population as a whole.

ReliefSim describes population health best through observable trends over time, rather than specific numeric consequences of individual decisions. Because of the complexity of how each member of the population (10,000) affects and is affected by so many other variables, and how various variables actually affect each other, controlling exact numbers is difficult. "Tuning" the simulation is possible, but changing it so that exactly 33% of the population contracts measles 33% of the time after the third turn, is not possible, and teaching needs to involve incorporating those limitations into the lessons.

Teaching and learning with ReliefSim is described in the next section.