HXL Overview

| February 11, 2022

Representatives from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, IOM, OCHA, Save the Children, UNHCR, UNICEF, USAID, the World Bank, and the World Food Program made up the original HXL Working Group. The HXL standard is the product of a multi-organization working group, with support from the members of a community mailing list.

Since 2018, representatives from the following organizations have participated in the HXL Working group: UNOCHA, British Red Cross, INSO, UK DFID, IFRC, IOM, UNHCR, British Red Cross, IDMC, and the World Bank. The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Education Above All Foundation kindly provide ongoing funding to support HXL standards development.


| February 11, 2022

Inspired by social-media hashtags, HXL fits in with the way you work and helps you add value to the data you’re already creating, rather than trying to force you to do things differently. 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 different 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.

With HXL, there’s no new reporting channel and no new skills requirements. We know that you have more-important things to do than reporting, so we’ve designed HXL to minimise the work and maximize the value of sharing information.


| February 11, 2022

If you know how to edit a spreadsheet, then you are ready to share HXL data. This is an important design criterion for HXL: that it fit in with existing skills in the humanitarian community, rather than requiring extensive retraining. With thousands of humanitarian organisations responding to crises around the world, it would not be practical to expect you all to train staff and volunteers to learn to use a more-complex data structure like XML, JSON, or RDF, or to all learn and adopt additional software to support one of those formats.

To add HXL hashtags to a spreadsheet, simply insert a row between the headers and the data values and add HXL hashtags to that row. Some larger humanitarian organisations don’t rely exclusively on spreadsheets, but have built special applications for data management. For example, UNHCR operates a series of operational data portals that generate CSV data for download from their information systems. HXL can work with systems like these just as easily as it can work with hand-created spreadsheets. Again, no additional skills are required from the systems’ development teams: simply add an additional row of HXL hashtags to the CSV data that you’re already exporting, and then others will be able to analyse and integrate it more easily.