Humanitarians in the Age of Open Data



Overbig-data  the years, through the administration of long-term projects or rapid mobilisation in response to crises, the humanitarian community has accrued a truly staggering amount of information about the countries and communities they work with. Once its original purpose has been served, this information often ends up becoming siloed in the organisation that produced it. It may have been recorded in a hurry, documented in confusing or incompatible formats, or archived in a way that makes it difficult to find. This represents a major opportunity cost for humanitarian organisations.

In 2014 the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) set out to create a platform to support the open exchange of data between UN agencies, NGOs, governments and civil society. The Humanitarian Data Exchange now includes almost 1500 data sets from over 170 sources. Some data sets have been uploaded by humanitarian organisations themselves, whilst others have been sourced from reports and PDFs by volunteers.

As humanitarian organisations are well aware, too much data can be as bad as too little. One of the goals of the HDX platform is to help decision makers on the ground find the most relevant information as quickly as possible. When Ebola broke out as an international issue, just a few months after HDX had been launched, an Ebola crisis page was created to track information being uploaded to the platform.



The HDX platform is extremely new. Ideas are being tested, adjustments are made in response to feedback, and many aspects have yet to be ironed out. In these early stages it’s important for the humanitarian community to have a conversation about the needs, the benefits and also the potential risks associated with broad-based, open humanitarian data exchange.

The possible benefits are clearly huge. Humanitarian projects and processes could be made swifter and better informed.  Small NGOs and local organisations without the resources to conduct their own studies could be empowered by access to the research of bigger agencies. Instead of a piecemeal approach to learning, comparing data could offer a big picture perspective, allowing researchers to observe trends and perhaps even predict future problems.

The flipside of more data being available is likely to be less data being produced on the same subject. Whilst this means saving time and resources by not duplicating studies, it also means losing the opportunity to double-check the veracity of earlier research. Where many programs are based on the same set of data, the potential impacts of flaws in that data are magnified. Using data produced by other organisations will also mean ensuring that staff have the training for a critical understanding of both methodologies and results, and that they are able to interpret and analyse the (often confusing) raw data accurately.

Another valid concern is the misuse of data. HDX is attempting to address this by requiring all data to be aggregated or anonymised, and stating that organisations using the platform should ensure that their content was collected in a legal and ethical manner.

For more information, visit the Humanitarian Data Exchange Platform.


Elise Thomas

Elise Thomas

Elise Thomas is a Masters candidate in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

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