how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
Messina didn’t invent the idea of using simple tags to identify topics, but this tweet started a chain of events that eventually led to Twitter supporting hashtags officially in 2009, and marked the moment when information tagging broke out from small, specialised technical communities to seize the public’s imagination. Seven years later, hashtags have become one of the main ways we connect online, not only around events (#barcamp), but also around sports teams (#realmadrid), places (#nairobi), politics (#IndiaPoli), social advocacy (#CARCrisis), special interests (#knitting), and even shared jokes (#CatsSaveTigers).
Adding simple hashtags to humanitarian data will bring huge benefits, but there will still be challenges for merging data from different sources. For example, if one spreadsheet has the value “WASH” under the column tagged “#sector”, and another spreadsheet has the value “Water Sanitation & Hygiene” under the same column, how can a HXL-aware application know that those are the same sectors when it merges the data? Are “United Nations Children’s Fund” and “UNICEF” the same organisation? Are “Ivory Coast” and “Côte d’Ivoire” different places? The answers to these questions are often obvious to humans, but not so to software.
HXL also defines hashtags for columns that contain unique, machine-readable codes: for example, while “#sector” refers to the name of a sector or cluster, “#sector_id” refers to a unique code for a sector or cluster. However, someone, somewhere, needs to define those codes, and the humanitarian community has to agree on their use.
There are initiatives outside the HXL community working on some of these problems. For example, the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) maintains a large set of code lists and identifiers for development aid, the BRIDGE project aims to create a global registry of identifiers for aid organisations, and OCHA’s Common Operational Datasets (CODs) include geographical codes down to a very local level for many countries. In future years, the HXL community will work with these organisations (and many others) to get agreement on the common codes, identifiers, and taxonomies needed for fully-automated data sharing at a detailed level.
But that’s the future. For now, we are working with agencies such as UNHCR and IOM to introduce HXL hashtags into their data, and will soon provide more tools to help the larger humanitarian community create, manage, analyse, and visualise HXL-tagged data. If you’d like to experiment with tagging your own humanitarian data, please get in touch!
This blog post can also be found on the website of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, which provides financial support for the HXL work.