The Humanitarian Exchange Language Reaches Alpha

The HXL Working Group is proud to announce the alpha release of the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL).  Inspired by social-media hashtags, HXL is a simple standard that adds hashtags to spreadsheet headers to make it easier to share and compare humanitarian data.

Cooperation over competition

Unlike most data standards, HXL is cooperative rather than competitive. A competitive standard typically considers the way you currently work to be a problem, and starts with a set of demands:

  • Switch to a different data format (and acquire and learn new software tools).
  • Change the information you share (and the way your organisation collects and uses that information).
  • Abandon what is valuable and unique about your organisation’s data (and conform to the common denominator).

For HXL, we reversed the process and started by asking how you’re working right now, then thought about how we can build a cooperative standard to enhance it:

  • You told us that most humanitarian organisations use spreadsheets for data sharing, so HXL works with your existing spreadsheets.
  • You told us that every crisis and activity has diverse data requirements, so HXL offers a selection of hashtags that you can mix and match to suit your reporting needs.
  • You told us that sometimes your organisation collects types of information that no one else has, so HXL allows you to leave columns untagged, or to invent your own hashtags when you still want to share.


Version 1.0 of HXL has a special focus on hashtags for reporting 3W (responders’ activities) and Humanitarian Profile (the needs of affected people) data, but many of the existing tags, including those for geography and demographics, are broadly applicable to any kind of humanitarian reporting. You can also create new HXL tags for different needs, as the Standby Task Force has done for its HXL-encoded data on health-clinic locations and movement-restrictions in the international Ebola emergency response.  We are tracking all proposed new HXL hashtags for possible inclusion in the next version of the standard, so please let us know about any that you create.

Release phases

You probably read terms like “alpha” and “beta” often, with with a range of different meanings. Here’s what they mean to us in the HXL community:

development The standard is incomplete and changing frequently, as the maintainers collect requirements and experiment with different approaches. Feb-Aug 2014
alpha The standard is stable enough for early adopters to use, but still flexible enough to accommodate major changes (if needed) based on feedback from users. Sept 2014
beta The standard is approaching its final form and is stable enough for large projects to start adopting it, with the understanding that changes (probably minor) will still be possible. (early Nov 2014? depends on feedback on the alpha version)
release candidate The standard is in its final form and out for last-minute review. The only changes will be corrections of critical, previously-undetected errors, or minor copyedits on the standards documents. (early Dec 2014?)
release This version of the standard (e.g. 1.0) is frozen. Any future changes will occur in a new version (e.g. 1.1 or 2.0) starting again at the development stage. (Jan 2015?)


Please help us test the alpha standard

Please join UNHCR, IOM, the Standby Task Force, and others in testing the HXL alpha standard and letting us know what works and doesn’t work for you. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take one of your humanitarian data spreadsheets and try adding a row of HXL hashtags. What works and doesn’t work for you? What’s missing? We’d love to see the result.
  • Try using some of the free HXL software to put together a small proof-of-concept application.
  • Give Simon Johnson’s HXL Lat Lon Mapper a spin with your own dataset.

We will be collecting and tracking all feedback posted to the mailing list, and we will include every (non-spam) comment and our response in an annex to the HXL beta release. The alpha stage is a good time to get involved, because it’s still early enough to influence the standard.


HXL site:

HXL alpha standard: (tagging conventions), (suggested HXL tags)

This blog has also been posted on the Humanitarian Innovation Fund HXL page: