Data responsibility in humanitarian action is the safe, ethical and effective management of personal and non-personal data for operational response. It is a critical issue for the humanitarian system to address and the stakes are high.

OCHA’s role as data aggregator offers us a unique perspective into the multiple dataflows that exist within a crisis response and the many ways data is managed. The Centre’s data responsibility work is focused on developing guidance, processes and practices for how OCHA handles data as the coordinator of humanitarian response. The Centre also provides advice to stakeholders on data security.

Humanitarian organizations collect, process and use increasingly large volumes of data. This data can include sensitive personal and non-personal data about affected people that enables the identification and tracking of individuals or groups. The disclosure of sensitive data in humanitarian response can lead to already vulnerable people and communities being further harmed or exploited.

In addition to avoiding harm, the safe, ethical and effective management of data has a number of benefits: it can lead to more informed and transparent decision-making, more efficient humanitarian response, and increased trust among humanitarian actors and with the people they seek to serve.

“Data responsibility is paramount as the humanitarian system collects and shares more data than ever before.”
-Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

 

Data Responsibility Guidance

The Centre released a working draft of the OCHA Data Responsibility Guidelines in March 2019 to help staff navigate the technical and ethical aspects of working with humanitarian data. The Guidelines offer key actions, outputs and tools across the steps in the data management process, including secure transfer methods, appropriate data storage and proper destruction of data.

Since 2019, the Centre has supported OCHA Country Offices to adopt the Guidelines. In early 2021, we began the work to revise the Guidelines based on lessons learned through this process.

To complement the Guidelines, the Centre worked with partners in 2019 and 2020 to publish a series of eight guidance notes on data responsibility in humanitarian action. These notes offer advice on specific issues related to data responsibility in practice. This series was supported by the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO).

In February 2021, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) endorsed system-wide operational guidance on data responsibility which was developed under the co-leadership of the Centre, IOM and UNHCR. The guidance comes amid growing recognition of the importance of data responsibility in humanitarian operations. It provides principles and practical steps for data responsibility by organizations and is the result of an inclusive consultation involving more than 250 stakeholders from the humanitarian sector.

Together with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), IOM, and UNHCR, the Centre co-chairs the Data Responsibility Working Group (DRWG) to help monitor progress on the implementation of the IASC Operational Guidance and provide advice to our community.

 

Data Security

As part of its role in managing HDX, the Centre is aware of the various types of sensitive data that are collected and used by our partners to meet needs in humanitarian operations. While organizations are not allowed to share personal data on HDX, they can share survey or needs assessment data which may (or may not) be sensitive due to the risk of re-identifying people and their locations. This data is often challenging to identify without deeper analysis.

The Centre applies statistical disclosure control (SDC) to all microdata shared on HDX to determine the risk of re-identification of individuals and groups. We have also integrated a detection tool from Google called Cloud Data Loss Prevention (DLP) into the HDX dataset screening and Quality Assurance (QA) process. For other potentially sensitive data, the Centre works with context experts to determine the level of sensitivity and appropriate mechanisms for sharing.

Learn more about how to conduct a disclosure risk assessment here.

 

Partnerships

In addition to developing practical guidance, the Centre works to build trust through dialogue by convening conversations about data responsibility and related issues within its global network.

In May 2019, the Centre held an event at Wilton Park in the UK on ‘Data responsibility in humanitarian action: from principle to practice’. The event yielded three areas for collective action and a number of steps that the Centre and our partners can take to make progress on data responsibility.

In September 2020, the Centre, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Government of Switzerland launched the Humanitarian Data and Trust Initiative (HDTI) to advance the protection and responsible use of humanitarian data. Through its three pillars of Policy & Dialogue, Research & Development and Education & Outreach, the HDTI aims to connect technological expertise with policy research and catalyze collective action on data responsibility. Learn more about the HDTI here.

 

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