Standards can make humanitarian data easier

During a humanitarian crisis, responders in the field have three priorities:

  • Help save lives and livelihoods.
  • Protect vulnerable people.
  • Preserve human dignity.

Whenever HQ asks overworked field staff to collect yet more data to support assessments, reports or donor requests, field staff have a right to ask: “OK, so what should I stop doing to make free time for that?”

 

What we do now

In fact, despite the extra work involved in collecting and managing the data, most of us agree that we need good data to do our work. Data can help us spot and shore up vulnerabilities before a crisis strikes, it can show us where needs and capabilities are during a crisis, and it can help us persuade donors to provide desperately needed funding. In short, data can help us save lives.

And humanitarians do end up collecting a lot of data, even if most of it ends up as one-off spreadsheets on laptops or in temporary Dropbox folders. These ad hoc methods work for the immediate purposes, especially during the rushed opening stages of a sudden-onset crisis. However, they also waste time and effort, especially when responders end up collecting or reentering the same type of information multiple times. Most importantly, those different data sets are hard to bring together for comparing trends over time or building a big picture about what’s happening across a crisis.

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Since we are already doing the hard work of collecting data, we need to focus on increasing the value of that work by making our data more useable and (perhaps more importantly) more re-useable. If five organizations are collecting the same type of information, do we need to use five slightly different sets of identifiers in our spreadsheets? What happens when that number grows to 50 or 500 organizations? Does it make sense to use so much of our information-management specialists’ time manually changing the data to make it line up? And during the next crisis, if new responders invent yet more new formats, how will we compare old data with new data without yet more tedious manual clean-up?

How we can do it better

 

This is where data standards come in. Much of what works well in the modern world works because of standards: imagine if WiFi needed a different brand of device in every office and hotel, or if you needed separate browsers for Facebook, Twitter and Google, or if ships full of food and supplies arriving in a crisis country had to be unloaded crate by crate rather than via large modular shipping containers.

None of this standardization work is easy, but when it works—as happened with the World Wide Web—the results can transform the world. With well-established data standards, humanitarians could have universal tools for collecting, managing, sharing and visualizing data, and we could spend more of our time analysing information and less time just (re)typing it.

The beginning of a humanitarian data standard

 

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund is supporting a multi-organization standards effort called the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL), led by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and working with OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) project. The core HXL Working Group includes representation from many humanitarian stakeholders, including multilateral agencies, NGOs and donors. The broader HXL community includes over 150 humanitarians, collaborating through the HXL public-discussion list at hxlproject@groups.google.com.

During our first year, the HXL initiative is focusing on developing simple consensus standards for two common types of humanitarian data:

  1. Humanitarian profile (how many people are affected, and in what ways).
  2. 3W (who is doing what and where in the crisis response).

After we finish our first draft standards with the help of the broader humanitarian community, we will pilot those data standards in Yemen, Kenya and Colombia to see how they stand up in actual field use. We will then revise the standards based on the lessons we learn.

As we extend our efforts, we will work closely with other emerging aid-standards initiatives, such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) for financial transparency, the Humanitarian Response Indicator Registry for core assessment indicators and the BRIDGE project for organization identifiers.

We look forward to your comments and participation. Please come join us, and help us help our fellow humanitarians.