Doing no digital harm – towards data responsibility in humanitarian action

Author
Stefania Grottola

The session ‘Doing no digital harm – towards data responsibility in humanitarian action’ which was part of the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week focused on the enormous amount of data available to humanitarian actors, its opportunities, and risks. It highlighted the importance of data protection and the responsibility that stakeholders have to fulfil while collecting and using the data for humanitarian activities. The panellists addressed the need for awareness raising, minimum standards, and viewing access to information as a form of aid.

The event was moderated by Ms Androulla Kaminara (Director, DG ECHO, European Commission) who briefly introduced the session by addressing the evolution and challenges of data protection. From a European perspective, she stressed the progress made by the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018. Nonetheless, digitalisation does not have to be considered as an objective in itself, but rather, as a result or response that humanitarian actors have to put in place. With this regard, it is important to explore and address the challenges posed by the creation and use of digital identity in humanitarian settings. In order to address these challenges, she proposed a framework for discussion to achieve more effective collective actions. First, awareness raising needs to be fostered by humanitarian actors. Second, there is a crucial necessity to inform the beneficiaries about what will happen to the data collected, and give them the option of opting out; in other words, a responsibility to inform the beneficiaries about the meaning of biometric data, and the implications of its use. Third, better standards for the collection of data are needed, possibly learning from other sections, such as the private sector and academia.

Prof. Nathaniel Raymond (Lecturer, Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, Yale University) stressed the importance of facing the current challenges posed by data protection as a form of improving humanitarian activities. He stated that if beneficiaries do not trust how data is treated by humanitarian actors, they will trust them in other activities in the future. He then introduced the concept of understanding the right to information as a form of humanitarian aid. Access to aid is indeed more and more linked and dependent to access to information. Arguing that the focus of discussion should not be on the innovation in itself but rather on the protection before innovation, he proposed five suggestions for improving the work of humanitarian actors:

  • Clearly state and explain how access to information is directly linked to the access to aid;

  • Update the current provisions of International Humanitarian Law in its application in the cyber warfare scenario;

  • Create minimal technical standards that humanitarian actors have to respect in using technology in their activities;

  • Create a new cluster, specifically designed for data protection;

  • Create a better understanding of critical incident reporting and management, meant to assess what constitutes a critical incident, as well as the duty of care for humanitarian actors.

Ms Sarah Telford (Head, Centre for Humanitarian Data, OCHA) explained the structure of the centre, which focuses on the following four areas: data service, data policy, data literacy, and network engagement. Moreover, she explained the work of the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) platform, focusing on the sharing of data respecting the principles of sensitivity and confidentiality.

Mr Massimo Merelli (Head of Data Protection, ICRC) addressed data protection in humanitarian action, arguing that the need for data protection reflects the need to respect the rights and dignity of individuals, as well as the necessity to enhance the do not harm principle in the digital environment. In addition to that, the practices should aim to enable the use of technology while keeping a beneficiary centric approach, and foster practices around data management ensuring confidentiality. Finally, he presented the new ‘Handbook on data protection in humanitarian action’, published as part of the Brussels Privacy Hub and ICRC’s Data Protection in Humanitarian Action project.

Ms Christine Knudsen (Executive Director, Sphere) explained the importance of data as a crucial aspect for carrying out humanitarian activities. Data and data protection has gained importance in the course of the last decade. From an ethical perspective, data protection is based on the principles and values of the Humanitarian Charter. In terms of operations, there is an increasing need for guidelines addressing data protection in cash systems and health records collection, to cite a few. Finally, she recalled access to information as a form of respect for individual rights, which however needs a specific proper framing in order to be as effective as possible.

Ms Ursula Muller (Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, OCHA) addressed the concluding remarks arguing that we need to move from data protection to data responsibility. The enormous amount of data currently available implies opportunities, such as allowing a better understanding of humanitarian cruises, and risks that the humanitarian sector needs to explore, especially with regards to the do not harm principle. There is indeed a constant need to balance the risk of exposing data and the missed opportunity of not using critical data.

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