Humanitarian Data Gathering

by | Sep 23, 2021 | ICT4D |

humanitarian data gathering

In response to this invitation, 48 people signed up with just over half (25) attending the live gathering on Wednesday, September 15th a small group of people came together to discuss the challenges in the humanitarian data ecosystem as highlighted by recent events in Afghanistan..  While those in attendance did not all join in ‘official’ capacity, attendees have ‘day jobs’ in a diverse group of organisations including: National Governments, Donor Institutions, UN agencies, NGOs, Academic Institutions, Technology Companies, and Consultants.  While it was an open event, full diversity was not achieved in the live event.  

Small group discussions in breakout rooms were used to facilitate discussion and connection between attendees.  Miro boards were used to capture ideas, insights, and notes from the discussions.  Below are a few themes which came out of the discussions: 

Frustrated, but not surprised. Many of the attendees work in and around issues to do with digital transformation and responsible data.  While most expressed concern, frustration, and being ‘a bit horrified’, most also were not surprised.  The issue of poor data management ‘has been building for a while, lots of discussions, but not put into stark relief’.  Or as another put it, ‘this is a systemic problem with deep roots.’

The challenge is bigger than the humanitarian system.  The increasing digitalisation of operations is not just a humanitarian challenge, but rather one that impacts all sectors and services in both public & private sectors.  Therefore,  these issues are common, reflecting the broader challenge of using technology to solve administrative and social problems: digital transformation. Framing this as digital public goods and infrastructure is helpful, but insufficient. Similarly, data governance is desperately important, but as we saw in Afghanistan – it is insufficient. There is a larger agenda for these issues. 

Harms are difficult to ‘see’ or ‘believe’.  Many attendees talked in hope that the events in Afghanistan and with the Rohingya refugees would be a catalyst of change because the ‘harms’ which have been voiced for years were now tangible.  As one attendee said, ‘I am finally getting engagement on the concerns we have been raising for over a year from stakeholders who historically refused to admit there were risks.’  Others talked of how we have an ‘optimistic bias’ where we acknowledge the risks are real, but believe ‘they will never happen to me.’

Basic Awareness Raising will always be needed. There are countless resources available for organisations – from policies to toolkits to guidance to courses.  Many of these are listed on the responsibledata.io site as well as many other places.  However, attendees talked of the lack of application of this guidance in addition to many staff at all levels of organisations not being aware these resources exist. There are also countless principles (e.g. Principles for Digital Development) which organisations have signed up to, however these principles are rarely enforced. 

Extra Judicial Space.  Within the humanitarian context, there are both organisations and specific fragile contexts where which rule of law applies is unclear.  Data protection itself has limited regulation in many humanitarian contexts and most organisations receive legal advice to reduce liability wherever possible. This creates challenges for applying responsible data management practices which often require organisations to go beyond current regulation.

Whose job is it?  Digital transformation, digital literacy, data protection, data security and so on comes with a cost.  These costs tend to negatively impact efficiency ratios, therefore incentives are not aligned.  Donors are hesitant to fund aspects of this work as it raises questions about liability.  Attendees talked of everyone being responsible, but how this sometimes results in no one being responsible and the cause being ‘orphaned’.

There is a clear need for change.  

The digital and data ecosystem is complex and there are misaligned incentives and priorities within the humanitarian system. Therefore, the path to achieve change is not simple, it is, and will remain, multifaceted.  At times, attendees spoke of feeling depressed or helpless.  While the gathering was too short and not everyone who needed to be present were present, a few ideas of focus areas were brought to light:

  1. Raise awareness of both the issue and the resources available
  2. Figure out how to we systemically minimize data collection
  3. Give aid recipients/citizens more say over how data is collected/used/shared/stored – go beyond the limitations of informed consent and move towards data portability
  4. Change reporting to include “what do-not-cause-harm controls do you have in place?”
  5. Create a rapid office shut down process for the sector
  6. Improve storytelling to make the potential for harm more real for practitioners and senior leaders
  7. Change audit policies to reduce data collection and data retention requirements

Where do we go from here?

Frankly, it is not completely clear.  Many attendees acknowledged there are many similar gatherings, however expressed interest in ‘carrying on the discussions’.  Some attendees also expressed interest in a ‘discussion group type’ channel (e.g. a Slack channel).  For now, we’ll commit to having another ‘gathering’ in October.  If you’d like to join, please let me know or watch this space.

Photo by Chris Montgomery

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