“Who’s doing what, where?”, known in humanitarian emergency response as the “3W,” is one of the most urgent questions that aid workers ask in order to coordinate relief efforts. Many types of datasets on the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) include this kind of activity information, but organisations create them for different purposes and at different levels of detail. If you are planning to use aid-activity data from HDX, this overview will help you understand the different types. 

There are four main categories of aid-activity data on HDX:

  1. Consolidated humanitarian 3W reports for a specific location or crisis, usually compiled by a UNOCHA field office. Also sometimes called “4W” or “5W.”
  2. Vertical 3W reports from a single humanitarian cluster, association, or organisation. 
  3. Lists of costed projects associated with certain UN Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs) and other humanitarian appeals.
  4. Self-reported aid-activity funding from organisations participating in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

Feel free to skip ahead to the comparison matrix at the end of this article for a quick, side-by-side comparison.

Consolidated 3Ws: what’s happening in the field?

When multiple humanitarian clusters respond to an emergency, the coordinating organisation—normally OCHA, through an Information Management Working Group—collects activity information from responders and produces a single consolidated 3W that the humanitarian community uses to coordinate and monitor its emergency response. For more information, see Andrej Verity’s paper “OCHA’s 3W: Purpose, Target Audience, Scope and Products.”

Primary goals: snapshot of the response to a humanitarian crisis; help coordinate activities across different sectors; track how responders are implementing a response plan.

Perspective: normally a cluster- or agency-level view—from the affected country’s capital city, and perhaps provincial/district capitals—of the activities happening around a country: projects tend to be reported at the sub-district (admin2) level rather than the neighbourhood/village level.

Strengths: always multi-sector; an attempt to capture as wide a snapshot of the humanitarian response as possible; geocoded to a subnational level (typically at least admin2); cleaned, validated, deduplicated, and updated regularly.

Limitations: often lack project start/end dates; usually lack persistent identifiers for comparing activities across time; rarely include funding or beneficiary information; normally exclude planned or completed activities, as well as most development activities (except for “Early Recovery”); may be several weeks old by the time it is released; excludes data that is specific to individual clusters.

HDX example: Nigeria – operational presence


This dataset contains the operational presence of humanitarian partners in Nigeria at admin 3 (ward) level by cluster.

Vertical 3Ws: look at what we (and just we) are doing!

Individual humanitarian clusters, international NGOs, and NGO associations also produce 3Ws to monitor and publicise their own activities. Most of the information in the section on Consolidated 3Ws applies to those as well, except that a vertical 3W does not provide a horizontal overview of an entire crisis response, but a vertical view of what a single organisation, cluster, or association is doing, in a single crisis, a country, a region, or even globally.

The same activities can appear in both the main consolidated 3W for a crisis and in individual clusters’ or organisations’ vertical 3Ws, but often at different levels of detail or with different activity names.

Primary goals: coordinate activities within a cluster; publicise the activities of a cluster, an NGO, or an association’s members; provide data input for the Consolidated 3W.

Strengths: may contain more-detailed information about each activity than is practical in a multi-sector consolidated 3W; may come out more quickly than consolidated 3Ws.

Limitations: Usually a point-in-time snapshot; limited to a single vertical (organisation, sector, cluster, etc). 

HDX example: Nigeria – Cash activities in the far north

Cash activities in the Far North of Nigeria from May to November 2017.

Costed projects: how do we plan to meet the response plan goals?

A country facing a major protracted humanitarian emergency that requires a multi-sector response will often have an annual Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP); other crises may have Flash Appeals, Refugee Response Plans, or other, similar plans. Based on earlier needs assessments, the plan estimates the work that will be required for each sector, and in each province (admin1) or district (admin2). 

As of this writing, costed-project datasets are available for 39 countries. 

Strengths: includes planned projects and budgets; internally consistent, with no project overlap; safe to sum and count; live-updated from a UN database; updated daily (may be more up-to-date than the country’s consolidated 3W); related to specific response plans and sectors.

Limitations: limited number of countries; include only projects proposed through the response plan or appeal (subset of the total activities planned or underway in the country); no consistent subnational geocoding.

HDX example: Nigeria – Humanitarian Response Plan projects

Projects proposed, in progress, or completed as part of the annual Nigeria Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs) or other Humanitarian Programme Cycle plans. The original data is available on https://hpc.tools

IATI activities: transparency via inspired chaos

Unlike the other three categories of aid-activity datasets mentioned in this rough guide, the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) has no central coordinating organisation to review data for consistency and accuracy before release. Each reporting organisation self-publishes a list of its activities (both aid and development), and then records a link to that data in a central registry.

That means that IATI activity reports coming from different reporting organisations are not guaranteed to be consistent. Three different organisations might report the same activity at three different levels of detail, so simply adding the total number of reported activities or aid financing for a country (or sector) can be misleading.

IATI activity reports often lack subnational geodata, but they bridge the humanitarian-development divide by listing activities from both, and also include detailed financial information. IATI activity reports cannot replace normal humanitarian 3Ws, but they are a valuable supplement to it.

On HDX, we publish a simplified spreadsheet of active IATI activities for each country (updated daily), but also include links to the full XML-encoded reports for those who are interested.

Strengths: continually updated (some publishers update daily); each activity has a unique and persistent identifier, enabling tracking over time; financial information, including the source of funding (full XML only); reports activities at multiple levels; includes development and humanitarian activities together; unfiltered through third parties; includes organisations outside the UN cluster system.

Limitations: no internal consistency or central quality control; duplication among different reporting organisations; mostly high-level (HQ) perspective; rare to have subnational geocoding.

HDX example: Nigeria – Current IATI aid activities

Live list of active aid activities for Nigeria shared via the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Includes both humanitarian and development activities.

Comparison matrix

Consolidated 3Ws Vertical 3Ws Costed  projects  IATI activities
Multi-sector? Yes Sometimes Usually Yes
Financial info? Rarely Rarely Yes Yes
Subnational geocoding? Usually Sometimes Rarely Rarely
Update frequency Varies Varies Daily Daily
Internally consistent? Yes Yes Yes No
Central quality control? Yes Yes Yes No
Development activities? No Rarely No Yes
Persistent activity identifiers? Rarely Rarely Partly (internal database identifiers) Yes
Planned / finished activities? Rarely Rarely Yes Yes
Non-HPC / cluster actors? Rarely Sometimes No Yes
Geographical coverage Single country or crisis Varies Selected countries Global
Dominant perspective Middle level: Cluster, agency, iNGO Varies Middle level: Agency, iNGO High level: Donor, Agency


If you need help working with activity data, or if your organisation has aid-activity data that you would like to share on HDX, please email us at hdx@un.org.