Last week, a group of us met again to discuss humanitarian data. A diverse group again (not as diverse as we dream of, but still diverse) coming together to discuss complex system change. The discussion was shaped by the ALNAP paper on humanitarian system change and Donella Meadows’ system thinking leverage points work. While there were a few technical glitches with emails containing the zoom links, me losing presentations, and so on, overall we had another good discussion (primarily in small groups).
- As part of the sign up process, I asked the question ‘What are the key drivers of system change?’ This post outlines what I heard back
- Metaphors are helpful, but we should not get stuck in them. The ALNAP paper metaphors were deemed to be helpful, but it was encourage to use multiple metaphors, not just one. Participants shared new metaphors as well:
- Humanitarian data is like ice, it appears strong and safe, but quickly melts into water or gas and escapes.
- Humanitarian data is like radioactive waste, it’s key to powering humanitarian work, but the data produced needs to be managed and can be dangerous for a long time. With some data being particularly dangerous.
- Humanitarian organisations are like vacuum cleaners (hoovers) and octopus – they like hoovering up all the data but then work independently.
- The Meadows’ leverage points of a system was new for many participants but resounded with most. There was an expressed desire to learn more about it.
- Many participants pointed out that a lot of our collective energy has so far been spent on standards, which according to Meadows is the easiest to change, but least influential (point 12 in the list).
- Some were of the opinion that we needed to reset system goal (point 3) as it is too focused on growth and needs to shift to the people it is set up to help.
- Several participants want to spend more time unpacking how we can use negative feedback loops (point 8) such as media, coverage, analysis as a nuanced driver of change and transparent information flows (point 6) as an accountable practice lever.
- Many participants felt donors (of all types) in the system have a much larger role to play than they are currently playing.
- The need to improve capacity and competence regularly came up especially in relation to:
- Humanitarian staff – many participants noted most humanitarian staff at all levels (including leadership) appear to lack basic awareness of the risks of data and digital transformation.
- Evaluators and Project reviewers – some pointed out most evaluators used in the humanitarian system are not able to evaluate technology and data. Similarly, many project designers and reviewers do not include or look for data risk in the project risk table.
Where do we go from here:
Never enough time. 60 minutes is not enough time. Neither is 90 minutes. Many participants talked of the need for something face to face, perhaps even a Wilton Park type event. However, it was also acknowledged the challenge of ‘inclusivity’ in face to face events. Overall, people wanted more conversations, which we will continue to facilitate.