Member profile: Data Friendly Space (theDEEP)

Covid-19 II Activation

Member profile: Data Friendly Space (theDEEP)

Born during a volunteer job in Nepal in 2015, Data Friendly Space (DFS)’s growth and contribution to the broader humanitarian system has grown quickly over the past six years. DFS has recently joined the H2H Network, and they have with one goal in mind: to help modernize and mainstream the use of data across the humanitarian sector. The Network’s core team sat down with DFS’ Executive Director, Ewan Oglethorpe, to get to know DFS’ unique ways of making humanitarian action more effective across the globe. We discussed history, non-traditional ways of working, collaboration, competition, and challenges around demonstrating impact as an H2H actor.

On April 25, 2015, a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, killing 9,000 people and injuring thousands more. A data science enthusiast straight from Silicon Valley, Ewan Oglethorpe, landed in the country to help his parents living in Nepal, and volunteered in the context of the ongoing humanitarian response. “I was pretty much expecting to do what you do after an earthquake -- moving rubble, helping to rebuild things, etc. I ended up getting connected with the assessment cell, a joint effort of ACAPS, and a few other humanitarian responders who needed help with data management. I was fascinated. It was interesting to see the immediate need for data work. But I immediately recognized the space for improvement in data solutions – IT systems were manual, and data sets were print-based. At that point, I really wanted to start focusing on this and help. I started working as an independent consultant, and then eventually we got a first contract to develop Data Entry and Exploration Platform (theDEEP), our secondary data review platform.”

Since then, Data Friendly Space has grown organically into an organization with around 85 team members across six continents and supports humanitarian agencies’ data management processes. Their primary focus is on developing theDEEP, the AI-driven online platform designed to help individuals and organizations make sense of large amounts of mainly qualitative data in humanitarian context at local and global levels. Over the years, theDEEP grew into a multi-stakeholder governed consortium consisting of IFRC, UNOCHA, UNHCR, OHCHR, UNICEF, JIPS, Okular-Analytics, iMMAP, and IDMC. “Today, there’s a large amount of data spread throughout websites, PDF, news articles, etc. theDEEP allows collating information, annotating and exporting it to various formats, be it visually on a dashboard or an Excel export. theDEEP is really targeted at saving organizations and people’s time both through a centralized tool as well as AI-powered assistance in the secondary data review process. Also, having everything in one platform in a structured and sensible way allows longevity in your data. It also means that we are developing very fertile datasets for developing Natural Language Processing models.” theDEEP has become relatively well known across the humanitarian sector. Still, it takes time for organizations to integrate it into their processes and take full advantage of its services. “Several organizations have accounts on theDEEP, but many of them don’t use it. A big lesson learned is that we lacked educational material and champions who would keep people engaged.”

As an independent H2H (humanitarian-to-humanitarian) organization, DFS also provides IT development services and secondary data review and analysis support to various humanitarian actors, making humanitarian action more effective. “We work across four different languages, and right now, we have active projects in around a dozen countries for secondary data review and analysis.“ This year, DFS is supporting four Humanitarian Need Overviews -- a scope of work invaluable in helping humanitarian response.

Membership of the H2H Network provides DFS with the opportunity to raise awareness of their services across the different humanitarian technical service providers. They also see the potential for establishing new partnerships, supporting non-traditional ways of working, and strengthening network members' collective efforts to reduce duplication. "One important priority for DFS is the reduction of duplicative efforts, and I think the best way to do that is through communication and networking. There are other organizations in the network with similar charters. It doesn't make sense if we're all working in silos. [..] My impression is that H2H Network members solve issues in the humanitarian sector in new ways and ways that aren't just kind of repeating what's been done in the past. They were willing to network, partner up and help each other out. One thing that surprised me when I joined the humanitarian community was the amount of 'competition.' At the risk of sounding too idealistic, there's not always as much peace and harmony between humanitarian organizations as I think there should be.”

DFS works with small, local organizations as well as major international NGOs and United Nations agencies. "Our work with H2H network member IMMAP is a good example - they're in about 14 countries, and we are supporting their work on the ground across those regions. IFRC has been another partner of ours -- right now, we are working to support their field operations in Turkey with secondary data review and analysis in the context of the ESSN project as well as supporting development of their GO platform. We are also supporting larger global initiatives. For example, we were involved in the Global Information Management, Assessment & Analysis Cell on COVID-19 (GIMAC) project as one of the implementing partners, using DEEP for secondary data review." To date, DFS has been primarily working to support partners’ global operations, but their activities increasingly focus on supporting the localization agenda and prioritize working with smaller local actors. "We'd like to invest more in capacity-building activities and work with local actors in developing countries. For now, we have activities in Nepal, where we have a team of ca. 40 to 50 people doing IT development and secondary data review. We would definitely want to continue to have more operations in developing countries going forward."

DFS has been proud to be a remote-based organization from the outset. They specifically felt the benefit of this setting amidst the pandemic when many humanitarian organizations struggled with shifting to remote work. "Either they don't have the sort of operational capacities, or the mindset is missing. Traditional ways of thinking that promote the idea that 'things must be done in person for efficiency' are still prevalent, which leads to a lot of problems. Personal contact and communication are essential in certain roles. Still, I don't think an information management officer must sit in a country for six months, whereas they could probably do 75% of their work remotely. It often saves money. Andrej Verity of OCHA did an interesting blog post on this." Their remote and non-traditional ways of working allow DFS to provide low-cost services across the humanitarian sector. "It is something that I'm definitely proud of, and I want to keep as a cornerstone of our organization. We have a pretty nimble managerial and HQ staff, we don't have a ton of overhead, and we focus more on working with partners in developing countries. We definitely see ourselves primarily as a remote organization in the long run, but we would like to look into having potential hubs around the world where people could still come and work. We also focus on reinvesting additional funds leftover from projects into our products and our team."

Due to their distinct ways of working – outside-of-and-yet-in-support-of – the wider humanitarian system, H2H organizations often face difficulties when it comes to measuring impact. DFS is no exception, but they think about measuring impact in different ways. "As part of the GIMAC project, we provided a huge number of hours and human resources, and we have a lot of outputs, but it is hard to gauge the actual impact of these activities. The same goes for similar higher-level initiatives we work on. But I think that even if you can't tangibly quantify your impact, you can at least work towards solutions that feel impactful. It can get difficult to apply for grants because donors want to know how many people will benefit from our activities. We looked at all the projects in the countries where theDEEP is present and compared that with the Humanitarian Needs Overview. But it is difficult to provide an exact number. But on the process support level, we can get a more tangible output. For example, we helped revamp IDMC's internal tool for collecting and managing qualitative data that provides a visible result in their annual report."

As for future plans, Data Friendly Space wants to focus more on the localization agenda and increase transparency in their finances and measuring impact. They want to continue developing theDEEP and work on its natural language processing feature on the projects level. "We'd also like to help to have theDEEP be better partners with other online services like the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) and Reliefweb -- I think these platforms all benefit when they can work with each other." DFS also foresees scaling up work on Humanitarian Needs Overviews to support the broader humanitarian community to respond more effectively to crises worldwide.