The Humanitarian Data Ecosystem: The Case for Collective Responsibility

Investing in data policy practices and norms across organizational boundaries.


Datafication – the phenomenon where most aspects of our (digital) lives generate digital data that can be leveraged to generate new insights into our environments and human behavior in them – is introducing new tools, changing the way humanitarian actors go about fulfilling their mission, and is offering these actors ways to be more effective and efficient with less funds for more crises than ever before through responsible innovation.

At the same time, the current ungoverned and uncoordinated use by civil society of information communication technologies (ICTs) and the data they produce threatens vulnerable populations, as well as the organizations employing these tools and techniques. These risks remain conflated and poorly understood, in part due to a focus on individual organizations and data sets, as separate from their surroundings and partners.

The authors argue that 1) In the digital age, the basic service provision activities of NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations have become data collection processes – they are now one and the same – and; 2) by using digital data in their operations these organizations subject themselves to a range of (domestic) laws and regulations to which they were not before.

In exploring these issues, the authors detail the need for public policy stakeholders to invest in workable data policy practices and norms that cross organizational boundaries when designing humanitarian response mechanisms.