How can humanitarian organizations, states, civil society, academia and the private sector join forces to maximize the benefits of technology and humanitarian data while minimizing the risks of doing harm? The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Government of Switzerland, and the OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data have launched the Humanitarian Data and Trust Initiative (HDTI) to explore this question and advance the protection and responsible use of data in humanitarian action.

The HDTI was announced on 1 September during a virtual panel discussion that took place as part of the ICRC’s day-long event, Follow the Sun: A Digital Launch of the Data Protection Handbook. As Maja Messmer Mokhtar, Head of Humanitarian Policy in the Human Security Division of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, explained during the event, “In order to make good progress, we all need to work together. There is excellent work on data protection and data responsibility in the humanitarian sector by the ICRC and the OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data, amongst others. I think what is strongly needed now is the translation of this rich body of knowledge and work into collective action by humanitarian organizations, states, civil society, academia and the private sector.”

Recording of the ICRC-hosted panel on data protection on 1 September. 

The HDTI includes three pillars: Policy & Dialogue; Research & Development; and Education & Outreach. Over the next several years, the initiative will:

  • Accelerate the responsible deployment of data-related technologies in humanitarian action. This will be achieved through practical guidance and joint implementation of actions for data responsibility. 
  • Minimize potential risks and maximize benefits for affected people arising from data-related technologies. 
  • Improve the understanding of and to build an evidence-base on the risks and benefits of data management for affected people and humanitarian actors. 
  • Develop shared principles and guidelines and build consensus among participating states and humanitarian organizations on how to support and practice responsible data management. 
  • Build trust between parties through dialogue and transparency.

The HDTI will begin with a strategic dialogue on the challenges and opportunities of humanitarian data, in collaboration with Wilton Park. This dialogue offers a platform to shape commonly agreed principles for data sharing in the context of humanitarian reporting. It builds on a series of recent Wilton Park convenings, including Data responsibility in humanitarian action: from principle to practice (organised in association with the Centre) and Digital Dignity in armed conflict: a roadmap for principled humanitarian action in the age of digital transformation (organised in association with the ICRC, Norway, and Switzerland). 

Risks and benefits of digital technologies 

Digital transformation is changing our behavior at a rapid pace, including in humanitarian crises and situations of armed conflict. Humanitarian actors must channel this transformation so that it serves people affected by crises and upholds the highest standards of data protection and data responsibility more broadly. New technologies and data can help increase the scale, reach and effectiveness of humanitarian action. For instance, digital technologies can improve the search for missing persons, provide faster and more accurate data to decision-makers, and get lifesaving information to affected people. Alongside these benefits, digital technologies also come with potential risks that must be carefully analyzed and mitigated. 

In order to ‘do no harm’, humanitarians must be able to navigate the technical and ethical issues involved when working with technology and data. This is of particular concern when humanitarian actors handle sensitive data – data that is likely to lead to harm when exposed. Irresponsible data management in humanitarian contexts can place already vulnerable people and communities at greater risk, for example by exposing their location or identifying a key vulnerability. These risks are typically more severe in conflict settings. 

Collective action 

Because the humanitarian data ecosystem is inherently interconnected, no individual organization can tackle these challenges alone. Inter-organizational leadership and collaboration is required to guide collective, sector-wide action. Solidarity among practitioners sharing best practices, lessons learned, and strategies for mitigating risk will also be essential to long-term success in this area.

For more information about the HDTI and how your organization can get involved, write to us at