Humanitarian Orgs or Data Companies?

by | Jun 23, 2021 | ICT4D, Strategy |

two critical questions

Two critical questions for humanitarian NGOs thinking about a data strategy.

  1. Do you want to be a humanitarian organisation or a data/tech company?
  2. What does it mean to put the aid recipients at the centre of your data strategy?

The first question sounds silly, but is fundamental. Don’t be quick to answer or glib in answering. Think about your values and your behaviour. The answer affects (and is shown in) your architecture, the data you collect, how and where you store data, and when (if ever) you delete it. It affects the types of and information in profiles of those we seek to serve. Do we collect and keep everything we can? With whom do we share them? Do we delete data?

And no, you can not be both. That is a lazy answer. There is too much tension between the two and the principles upon which they are built are too different. When we try to answer ‘both’, almost always it is a case of us being ashamed that we are behaving like a data company, but we kind of want the prestige of being a humanitarian. There may be a third way, but ‘both’ is not it.

The second question assumes you want to be a humanitarian organisation. This question takes us straight into the tension. Many organisations use and have built digital systems for their own internal procedures. They also have systems for engaging with donors (institutional and individual). However, few have given thought to those they seek to serve beyond ‘we need to keep the data secure.’ Few ask ‘how could this data be useful for them?’ ‘How could they use this data in other areas of their lives?’ ‘What are their rights?’

But it also leads us to other tensions. We may want to collect data once to reduce the time the aid recipient need to spend giving it to us. But this can clash with the principle of ‘only collect the data you need’ and ‘delete the data when the purpose for which it was collected is over’.

But perhaps truly wrestling with these tensions lead us to new places. And no, Gartner won’t help here because Gartner is for data companies, not humanitarians.

The choice is up to us.

This post was inspired by Linda – thank you for the work you do.

Photo by Paul Engel


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