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Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ursula Mueller – Remarks at the Humanitarian Networking and Partnerships Week event: Doing no digital harm: toward data responsibility in humanitarian action

Publication date

International Conference Centre, Geneva, 6 February 2019

As delivered

Thank you all for attending this event on data responsibility as part of the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week.

I am very pleased to close this session, following what I understand has been a lively panel discussion.

Today, data and information are more available than ever before in human history. More than 5 billion people – two-thirds of the world’s population – now have access to mobile services. And more systems, sensors and people come online each day.

This represents an enormous opportunity for the humanitarian community. New technologies and data sources mean we can take more informed and evidence-based decisions, and we can reach more people with the assistance they need. Last year, for example, I visited eastern Chad and met women who were receiving digital cash from the World Food Programme. By using this technology, people were able to not only feed their families, but to decide themselves what to buy each month. However, with these opportunities comes also a number of challenges, which you are all aware of. Humanitarians have to obtain and share data from hundreds of sources, while always ensuring that we do no harm in the process. In order to ‘do no harm,’ we must be able to properly navigate the technical and ethical issues involved with data about crisis-affected people – from names and locations to fingerprints and iris scans. When not handled responsibly, data can place already vulnerable people at greater risk of harm or exploitation.

As you have been discussing over the past hour and a half, the need for data responsibility has been recognized by a wide variety of organizations and senior officials in the humanitarian sector. Consequently, a number of frameworks have been developed, including the ICRC and Brussels Privacy Hub ‘Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action’, the UN Privacy Policy Group ‘Principles on Personal Data Protection and Privacy’, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative ‘Signal Code’, to name just a few in addition to those I have heard about here.

Nevertheless, the technical tools for managing data have evolved faster than the policy instruments that govern their use. This is why I am particularly pleased to see that OCHA has now developed ‘Data Responsibility Guidelines’ to help our staff make good decisions when it comes to managing sensitive data.

OCHA has an important role to play in bringing data together from our partners to understand humanitarian crises. In fact, I was at the Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague just last week, and it was incredible to see how many partners and datasets are part of this initiative.

As we move forward with our work on data sharing and management, we are committed to protecting affected populations from harm, and earning the trust of data-sharing partners.

In addition to supporting the adoption of the Data Responsibility Guidelines, OCHA is starting a new project to ensure the safe sharing of data about crisis-affected people. This will involve creating a secure way to share critical data between operational partners in conflict environments, while also providing options for releasing non-sensitive data through the Humanitarian Data Exchange platform. We always need to balance the risk of data being exposed with the risk of critical data not being used to inform life-saving decisions. I am confident that the work ahead of us will help staff and partners navigate these complex issues and difficult decisions.

OCHA’s work on data responsibility is being supported by ECHO. On behalf of OCHA, I would like to thank our colleagues at ECHO for their partnership. Our collaboration on the safe handling of data will go a long way in advancing the issues discussed here today.

It will also reinforce work that is underway as part of our commitments to the Grand Bargain, and specifically in relation to better data for needs assessments. I encourage you all to join the panel discussion on ‘Operationalizing the Grand Bargain Needs Assessment Commitment’ organized by ECHO and the REACH Initiative later today.

Before closing, I would like to ask our audience to join me in thanking all our panelists and participants for their valuable insights.

We look forward to working closely together with all of you to increase the use and impact of data in humanitarian response.

Thank you.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit