Building back better: Humanitarian data practices after Covid-19


H2H Network-facilitated discussion at the GeOnG conference

Events in 2020 have disrupted aid efforts across the globe. The shifting nature and global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic set it apart from other crises. Worldwide, humanitarian responders have spoken of uncertainty and new challenges at every turn.

The H2H Network was an early mover, activating a fund in February focused on addressing the misinformation and disinformation around the growing crisis – what the WHO referred to as the ‘info-demic’. By May, the effects of the pandemic were being felt across the world, and a second -- much larger -- package of technical services was assembled. When flights were grounded and many international projects were halted, we aimed to support responders with tools, products and services.

On 2 November, the H2H Network co-hosted a Covid-19 experience sharing session with network-member CartONG, as part of the GeOnG 2020 conference. The objective was to collectively reflect on data practices, asking: How can humanitarian data practices come out of the pandemic stronger?

The session brought together four H2H Network members specializing in data and information management; security, logistics and programme support; and communications and community engagement (ACAPS, Ground Truth Solutions, Insecurity Insight and Translators without Borders). Five emerging lessons were highlighted:

  1. Be honest about limitations in data collection. It’s important to admit that this year has been difficult for all humanitarian responders who had to deal with limitations in face-to-face data collection practices on the ground. The ways in which challenges are addressed vary from one organization to another and sharing experiences and lessons learnt is essential to improve the overall humanitarian response. For Ground Truth Solutions it’s been possible to conduct phone surveys to track perceptions of affected communities but doing them well has been challenging. It’s critical to recognize whose voices are missing from phone-based data collection, and test methods to explain and weight the data for various biases. At certain points, it has been alarming to see mass broadcasting of humanitarian survey findings conducted with presumably dubious methodologies. We are not serving the people affected by crisis if we don’t challenge our methods, analyze our results in their contexts, and share our challenges with others in the sector. Remote data collection presents many opportunities, now and for the future – but we need to make sure we’re using it responsibly!
  2. Be explicit about biases. Having an explicit bias is a sign of having done a better analysis and so should not be considered a weakness or vulnerability. Coordination mechanisms are in place to push organizations to initiate/set a standard and promote a culture where it is accepted that no project is ever perfect. Technology can be part of the solution: For example, natural language processing can help the analysis of unstructured data, and simple tools like audio recorders can be used to minimize language bias and for quality assurance purposes. A lot can also be learned from other sectors e.g. research where these principles are long held and commonplace.
  3. Recognize the capacity of the affected population. As part of localization efforts, it’s more essential than ever to recognize the capacity of the affected population and allow them to take the lead in research design, as well as to improve trust and socio-cultural understanding. Programmes need to be context-specific and tailored to the affected population, and it’s important to understand which data collection techniques are appropriate for which contexts and types of data gaps.
  4. Get ahead of things. Humanitarian responders need to be better prepared and not always adapting processes on the go. The Covid-19 pandemic will leave behind significant knowledge and documented processes on how to adapt methodology remotely while dealing with an emergency.  H2H organizations have a lot to contribute to this discussion!  In data collection, a lot can be done ahead of time, such as training functional teams in advance, where possible.  For example, Translators without Borders pre-translates standard question and answer options as a preparedness measure – this could become standard practice. Openly available datasets on languages used across different communities can also help plan for effective community engagement ahead of time.
  5. Embrace adaptability. In 2020, opportunities to learn and adapt abound! Working remotely can be beneficial in some contexts. It requires the humanitarian community to rely on and engage local people and systems, driving the sector into closer and more equitable partnerships. Working remotely can also save time and money. It frees up resources that can be used in a more effective way than paying flight tickets and hotel bills. And less travel reduces the environmental footprint of the humanitarian sector – perhaps we’ll all learn that we don’t need to fly so much after all!

Further reading:


Candice Holt is currently the Lead Analyst for ACAPS in Cox's Bazar.


Meg Sattler is a Director of Ground Truth Solutions.


Christina Wille is Director and founding member of Insecurity Insight.


Eric DeLuca is the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager for Translators without Borders.


(Photo courtesy of Chris Liverani @Unsplash)