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Data and Migration Guest Blog

Data and displacement: Ethical and practical issues in data-driven humanitarian assistance for IDPs

A guest blog by Professor Vicki Squire

Posted on 13th of October 2022 by BD4M Team

Data and displacement: Ethical and practical issues in data-driven humanitarian assistance for IDPs
Data and displacement: Ethical and practical issues in data-driven humanitarian assistance for IDPs

Ten years since the so-called “data revolution” (Pearn et al, 2022), the rise of “innovation” and the proliferation of “data solutions” has rendered the assessment of changing data practices within the humanitarian sector ever more urgent. New data acquisition modalities have provoked a range of controversies across multiple contexts and sites (e.g. Human Rights Watch, 2021, 2022a, 2022b). Moreover, a range of concerns have been raised about data sharing (e.g. Fast, 2022) and the inequities embedded within humanitarian data (e.g. Data Values, 2022).

With this in mind, the Data and Displacement project set out to explore the practical and ethical implications of data-driven humanitarian assistance in two contexts characterised by high levels of internal displacement: north-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan. Our interdisciplinary research team includes academics from each of the regions under analysis, as well as practitioners from the International Organization for Migration. From the start, the research was designed to centre the lived experiences of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), while also shedding light on the production and use of humanitarian data from multiple perspectives.

We conducted primary research during 2021-2022. Our research combines dataset analysis and visualisation techniques with a thematic analysis of 174 semi-structured qualitative interviews. In total we interviewed 182 people: 42 international data experts, donors, and humanitarian practitioners from a range of governmental and non-governmental organisations; 40 stakeholders and practitioners working with IDPs across north-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan (20 in each region); and 100 IDPs in camp-like settings (50 in each region). Our findings point to a disconnect between international humanitarian standards and practices on the ground, the need to revisit existing ethical guidelines such informed consent, and the importance of investing in data literacies.

A disconnect between humanitarian standards and practices on the ground

International humanitarian standards, principles, and guidance have been undergoing intensive review and development since the ‘data revolution’ commenced, both in relation to operational issues such as the coordination of data and in relation to ethical issues such as data responsibility. The visualisation below, created by the Data and Displacement project, maps the evolution of the humanitarian data ecosystem and charts some of key areas where standards and guidance have been developed (Squire et al, 2022: 24). Note that the visualisation is illustrative of a range of developments in this area and should by no means be viewed as exhaustive.

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Despite a range of important initiatives such as the Signal Code (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 2017) and the Data Responsibility Guidelines (OCHA, 2021), our findings indicate that current standards do not always translate effectively into humanitarian operations on the ground. Processes of data collection and management in north-eastern Nigeria (Fayehun and Akanle, 2022) and South Sudan (Logo and Jones, 2022) are often fragmented and incoherent in practice, while differing perceptions regarding the meaning of humanitarian data and the scope of humanitarian protection and assistance work against ethical practices of data collection and use. Which actors are collecting data and how, if at all, these are linked up to wider datasets and systems of coordination is not always clear. This creates additional burdens and research fatigue on the part of IDPs and local data collectors.

The need for meaningful informed consent

As well as research fatigue from repeated involvement in data collection, IDPs express frustration about the lack of information on what happens with their data. As one IDP in Bentiu explains: “humanitarians take the information to [the] funder but… they don’t give feedback to us [or] explain to us this is what [will] happen…to the data we have given” (Squire et al, 2022: 37). Some suggest that they are not always asked for consent, and many assume that they need to provide data to gain access to services.

Our research report highlights the need for IDPs to be fully informed in non-technical language of their data rights, the goals of data collection, and any foreseeable risks, so that they can consider from a position of knowledge whether to participate. It also emphasises that dependency on service engagement cannot be regarded as a form of meaningful consent, and that mechanisms need to be put in place to facilitate the empowerment of affected communities in the collection, management, and use of their data.

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The importance of investing in data literacies

In order to address the challenges highlighted above, our research report suggests that further attention and resources need to be directed toward the training, education, and meaningful engagement of affected communities and stakeholders in the collection, management, and use of humanitarian data. Investment in data ethics and data rights training for both stakeholders and IDPs in north-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan is particularly important in enhancing data literacies on the ground.

Our interviews with IDPs and stakeholders involved discussion of camp maps and a simplified visualisation of the ‘data journey’ (Squire et al, 2022: 28). Although interviewee responses to these varied, we found a consistent desire on the part of IDPs to better understand what happens to the data they provide to humanitarians. As well as investing in infrastructural and technological facilities, our research thus highlights that investment in data literacy tools is crucial in addressing the operational and ethical challenges of data-driven humanitarianism.

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This article draws on research funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (AHRC-FCDO) Collaborative Humanitarian Protection Programme grant AH/T007516/1, Data and Displacement: Assessing the Practical and Ethical Implications of Targeting Humanitarian Protection.

The author would like to thank the wider research team for their work on this project, including Olufunke Fayehun, Briony Jones, Leben Moro, João Porto de Albuquerque, Dallal Stevens, Rob Trigwell, แปŒláyínká Àkànle, Modesta Alozie, Prithvi Hirani, Kuyang Harriet Logo, Grant Tregonning, Stephanie Whitehead, Abubakar Adam, Hajja Kaka Alhaji Mai, Omolara Popoola, Silvia De Michelis, Ewajesu Opeyemi Okewumi, Mauricio Palma-Gutiérrez, Funke Caroline Williams and Oluwafunto Abimbola.

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