Humanitarians face a range of ethical dilemmas in delivering assistance and providing protection to populations in crisis. Common dilemmas include the potential harmfulness of humanitarian action, difficulties in association, complicity and moral entrapment, duties of care towards humanitarian staff, and the so-called ‘cost-effectiveness conundrum’. While these dilemmas pertain to humanitarian action as a whole, many of them are particularly prominent or exacerbated when working with data.

The Centre has developed a Guidance Note on Humanitarian Data Ethics to support humanitarians in identifying, assessing, and addressing ethical dilemmas that arise in data-related programmes and initiatives. The Centre developed this note in collaboration with O’Neil Risk Consulting & Algorithmic Auditing; Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society; and Data Science and Ethics Group led by the International Organization for Migration. 

The Centre recommends three areas to support ethical data practice:

  1. Establish clear codes of conduct for ethical data management.
  2. Support staff to identify, understand, and debate ethical issues using common tools.
  3. Introduce ethical audits as part of standard practice.

The note is the fourth in a series of eight guidance notes on Data Responsibility in Humanitarian Action, which are being published over the course of 2019 and 2020. Through the series, the Centre aims to provide additional guidance on specific issues, processes and tools for data responsibility in practice to complement the OCHA Data Responsibility Guidelines. This series is made possible with the generous support of the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO).

Read the other guidance notes in this series on Statistical Disclosure Control, Data Incident Management, and Data Responsibility in Public-Private Partnerships here.

For more on managing sensitive humanitarian data, visit the Data Responsibility page on the Centre’s website or contact our team at