Data and Displacement – A Balance Between Information, Knowledge and Action


On 24 November our Centre hosted a workshop on the ethics and efficacy of data in the humanitarian targeting and protection of internally displaced persons organised by the Data and Displacement research project.

In the last ten years, the humanitarian field has seen a push towards data – more data, better data, openly available data – to help improve humanitarian response and outcomes. This trend has focused on quantitative ‘big’ data produced by, and used by, humanitarian actors. More recently, this has also led to questions around ethics and the quality of data and its usage, both within the practitioner and academic communities. 

Speaking to these questions, the Data and Displacement * research project brought together a diverse range of humanitarian actors, practitioners, and experts on 24 November 2021 at the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies to join a workshop on the ethics and efficacy of data in the humanitarian targeting and protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The workshop focused on findings from project interviews with humanitarian practitioners specialising in data and information management and on data visualisations produced by the project team. These were explored in Session 1 in terms of several thematic “deep dives”:

Thematic Deep Dive 1“Emergence and evolution of the humanitarian data ecosystem – including drivers of technological innovation and the role of ethics, & visualising the humanitarian data ecosystem”. For the first Thematic Deep Dive, participants were split into two groups; the first group focused on evaluating a ‘timeline of the humanitarian data ecosystem’ (figure 1 and figure 2), whilst the second group focused upon visualising the hierarchical structure of the humanitarian data ecosystem, (figure 3).

Participants from group 1 were asked to identify and illustrate particular events that have influenced the humanitarian data ecosystem during the last three decades (beginning in 1990) and identify possible future events and their potential role in shaping the humanitarian data ecosystem.

Figure 1 and 2 highlight this process and identify key innovations such as the cluster system and
Kobo toolbox.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Participants from group 2 were asked to illustrate how they envisage the institutional network of the humanitarian data ecosystem. They indicated that this can be visualised in a multitude of ways, depending upon the intended audience and/or use. Examples of this include diagrammatic representations of the HDE such as the ‘HDE volcano’ and the ‘HDE solar system’, whilst others presented the HDE as a complex network of relationships and decision-making processes.

Figure 3

Thematic Deep Dive 2: “Data, Utility and Targeting”. 

The second session delved into the question of data, in particular its use and impact on targeting and informing humanitarian action. The team shared findings from the preliminary analysis of interviews with humanitarian data experts, inviting feedback and facilitating discussion between participants. Participants problematised, on the one hand, the notion that the humanitarian sector is undergoing datafication and, on the other, that there are persistent data gaps in the humanitarian sector. Exploring these tensions between these opposing narratives led to insights and questions from participants around ‘better’ data and/or ‘better’ analysis and how they might both be defined. They also recognised this complexity and how these definitions directly impacted uses, users, and actions. As part of this discussion, one participant posed whether the importance of data in decision-making was overemphasised, suggesting instead that data could be viewed as one aspect of decision-making rather than the key aspect. In locating the IDPs in the humanitarian data ecosystem, it was largely agreed that centring on IDPs is crucial. As a creative dialogue, the session raised more questions than it answered. For example:

  • How do we define humanitarian data? What does better data mean?
  • What is the utility of data in the humanitarian sector? Is data used to make decisions or to justify decisions?
  • How does tacit knowledge play a part in how we formulate what data means?

Session 2: Scenarios and Problem Solving: How can we address this? 

In this session, four breakout groups were each presented with a problem to be solved and a mantra as a guiding principle or approach. The picture indicates what each group suggested/brainstormed as possible solutions to their problems. As we can see, each group came up with creative solutions using their mantra for their problems.

Group A

Problem: How to address data gaps and incomplete data sets. 

Mantra: take a data minimisation approach.

Group B

Problem: There is too much data and not enough analysis.

Mantra: Undertake more humanitarian analysis.

Group C

Problem: Individuals still fall through the cracks.

Mantra: We need to collect more data.

Group D

Problem: Humanitarian targeting needs to be improved.

Mantra: Take an IDP centric-approach.

In sum, the workshop covered a series of key issues, which we will continue to explore in the Data and Displacement project framework. There was a general agreement that whether some data is considered ‘better’ than other data depends on who you are and where you are located, both geographically and institutionally. Moreover, what also became clear was that we need to know much more about how data translates into knowledge and how such knowledge informs decision-making. Humanitarian actors must continue to reflect on how the datafication on the humanitarian field had professionalised and technicalised the data collection process, leading us to be reliant on data that will certainly only tell us part of the picture.

  • Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Data and Displacement project is led by Professor Vicki Squire at the University of Warwick along with Co-Investigators at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – UN Migration Agency, University of Ibadan, Nigeria and University of Juba, South Sudan.