Normalizing the data revolution

This article was written by Giulio Coppi, Innovation Fellow at the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University, and originally published by Tech’s Good, a new digital publication critically evaluating the social impact of technology.

Violations of humanitarian law and human rights, displacement, human trafficking, conflict, and the forces that drive such abuses pose some of the most critical justice issues of our time. Simultaneously, technology and data have never had a more important role to play in ending and responding to crisis.

“The data, I think, will save us on many levels,” said Ms. Atefeh Riazi, Chief Information and Technology Officer of the United Nations, to a group of humanitarian workers enrolled in Fordham University’s Data and Innovation Management in Humanitarian Action course this July in New York City.

This course brought together leading experts from humanitarian, technology and design sectors as part of a bigger effort to put data science at the center of humanitarian action. This and other initiatives — like the upcoming Summer School on Big Data at the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University or the opening of the new Centre for Humanitarian Data — are nothing short of a declaration of unified support for smarter and more ethical uses of data for social good.

The full exploitation of humanitarian data sources has the potential to improve the way crises are forecasted, monitored and addressed. Proper management of data could drastically increase the impact and timeliness of humanitarian assistance and protection activities, such as identifying the needs of affected populations or distributing life-saving resources. But the path ahead is rocky and complex.

Challenges in policycapacity and implementation are many and sometimes disheartening, considering the high stakes and potentially dangerous consequences. All this, however, should not come as a surprise.

Three years ago, while speaking in front of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination, Ban Ki-moon defined the “rapid access to reliable, comprehensive and accurate data” as a critical component to the activities of the United Nations and its partners.

Similarly, in 2014, while recognizing the important advancements made in this field, a report of the Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development published the report A World That Counts to highlight the gaps that hinder UN agencies from harnessing the full power of data.

In response to the report, Director of UNDP Human Development Report Office, Selim Jahan, urged the international community to “make sure that the coming revolution leads to the world having the right information, at the right time, to build accountability and make good decisions and so improve lives.”

Historically, however, revolutions that evolved into something lasting and stable did so in less than three years. An endless state of revolution can hardly be considered an ideal situation to aspire to, especially in the humanitarian sector.

Three years since the day the then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon drew his “ambitious and achievable mission” to leverage the Data Revolution to shape what we now call the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), humanitarians seem more worshipers of an abstract utopia, rather than victors of a revolution.

For many humanitarians, the tech world seems removed and disconnected from their own. Despite growing evidence, some still question that classic humanitarian activities like response coordination or ensuring protection of highly vulnerable populations could benefit from a more intensely data-based approach. Meanwhile, the humanitarian sector has yet to produce the policy, strategies and governance change that the data buzz has promised. Few organizations have truly embraced and incorporated data at the core of their programming or professional development activities. Even less have adopted or developed the adequate tools that would allow data (or Big Data) management to become daily routine.

The humanitarian sector, though, is hungry for projects centered on smart humanitarian data management. The frustration with the limited capacity for data-driven aid delivery is palpable. Those who are ready to evolve and take up the challenge to harness the power of data often feel their good intentions are ignored or downplayed because of institutional incapacity to adapt and internally innovate.

Moving forward, humanitarians, as community, need to tackle some core issues to truly progress in normalizing data-based humanitarianism. Potentially useful steps, though not exhaustive, include:

  1. Adopting data governance systems that can produce lasting and relevant change in internal organization management;
  2. Supporting a common language apparatus based on shared data strategies and protocols that can bridge the gap between data for humanitarian action and development (such as the HDX and HXL Standard);
  3. Ensuring that internal strategies consider Data and Innovationinterdependent;
  4. Advocating for more ethical data protection, responsibility, and management frameworks, and extending their application to public and private partners;
  5. Adopting Open Source and Open Data as mandatory approaches for all humanitarian data projects, allowing all humanitarians — but especially local actors — to access and own the most innovative tools for aid delivery and life-saving solutions;
  6. Developing shared corporate engagement strategies that can allow organic and structured innovation and cross-collaboration, beyond the current public-private partnership model.

In upcoming posts on the IIHA blog, I will further expand these points, also integrating the lessons learned on the way as we progress on new projects such as the HumanityX Summer School on Big Data for Peace and Justicehosted by the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University, and the hosting of the Humanitarian Blockchain Summit on November 10, 2017.

Note: The ideas expressed in this piece are the result of personal and professional experiences as field manager, researcher and teacher, and they do not represent anything more than a proposal for discussion. Special thanks to Angela Wells and Jorn Poldermans for their valuable intellectual contribution in the development and edit process of this piece.

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