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Private Sector Data for Humanitarian Response: Closing the Gaps

Jos Berens is a Data Policy Officer at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Centre for Humanitarian Data. Launched in 2017, the Centre is dedicated to increasing the use and impact of data in humanitarian response. Learn more about the Centre or visit Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) for access to almost 18,000 datasets shared by 281 organizations. 


Insights from private sector data could make a difference in the global COVID-19 response, but we need to invest in partnerships to close the gaps.


As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, timely and accurate data is essential. This is not unique to the COVID-19 response: whether planning food distribution or gauging community perceptions of assistance, data management has always been a key part of humanitarian decision-making. 

One source of data for humanitarian response is the private sector. Facebook’s population density maps can help locate people in need, and have been downloaded more than 60,000 times from HDX. Twitter data has been used to monitor xenophobia and public attitudes toward migrants and refugees. Mobile phone records are being used to help map and predict the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19

Despite these and other examples, data sharing between the private sector and humanitarian agencies is still limited. Out of 281 contributing organizations on HDX, only a handful come from the private sector. 

So why don’t we see more use of private sector data in humanitarian response? One obvious set of challenges concerns privacy, data protection and ethics. Companies and their customers are often wary of data being used in ways not related to the original purpose of data collection. Such concerns are understandable, especially given the potential legal and reputational consequences of personal data breaches and leaks.

Figuring out how to use this type of sensitive data in an already volatile setting seems problematic, and it is — negotiations between public and private partners in the middle of a crisis often get hung up on a lack of mutual understanding. Data sharing partnerships negotiated during emergencies often fail to mature beyond the design phase. This dynamic creates a loop of inaction due to a lack of urgency in between crises, followed by slow and halfway efforts when action is needed most.


To ensure that private sector data is accessible in an emergency, humanitarian organizations and private sector companies need to work together to build partnerships before a crisis. They can do this by taking the following actions: 


  • Invest in relationships and build trust. Both humanitarian organizations and private sector organizations should designate focal points who can quickly identify potentially useful data during a humanitarian emergency. A data stewards network which identifies and connects data responsibility leaders across organizations, as proposed by the NYU Govlab, is a great example of how such relations could look. Efforts to build trust with the general public regarding private sector data use for humanitarian response should also be strengthened, primarily through transparency about the means and purpose of such collaborations. This is particularly important in the context of COVID-19, as noted in the UN Comprehensive Response to COVID-19 and the World Economic Forum’s ‘Great Reset’ initiative.


  • Foster organizational buy-in. To build a culture of collaboration between the public and private sectors, leaders must understand the potential value of data sharing. This helps increase buy-in that can lead to ‘break-glass-in-case-of-emergency’ type frameworks, in which the necessary approvals for use of private sector data are secured ahead of a crisis. Ideally, buy-in also leads to data sharing ahead of time, as in the case of Facebook sharing its population density maps on HDX on a rolling basis.


  • Negotiate governance structures and contractual language in advance. Establishing agreements and governance mechanisms ahead of time is critical to avoiding delays once a crisis hits. An excellent example of this is the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters, which guides the release of satellite imagery specific to disaster areas by 17 public and private satellite imagery providers. For bilateral data sharing, Contracts for Data Collaboration (C4DC), a collaborative effort led by the SDSN, GovLab, University of Washington and the World Economic Forum, is developing a repository of vetted and commonly accepted modular contractual clauses to use in data sharing agreements that organizations can use to establish robust partnerships.


  • Reach clarity on the dos and don’ts before crisis hits. More research is needed to understand the contextual sensitivities and risks associated with the use of private sector data in crisis response. Such research might very well lead to the conclusion that the use of specific data in specific contexts is not possible in a safe, ethical and effective manner. Even this conclusion would save practitioners valuable time now wasted in scrambling for the wrong data in the midst of a response. In other settings, research will identify data that could in fact be used responsibly. This will pave the way for more sustainable and effective approaches to humanitarian action, making use of the vast amounts of data currently sitting unused as humanitarians struggle to get their hands on relevant insights to inform their lifesaving work.


The OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data’s COVID-19 Map Explorer combines 60+ datasets from 20 organizations to help humanitarian decisionmakers prioritize resources and ensure that assistance efficiently reaches those in need.  Click to view it or access the underlying datasets.


With the potential of private sector data becoming increasingly clear, it is frustrating to see the lost opportunities as this space continues to struggle. We can do better and we owe it to the communities we serve to at least understand when and where we could make use of private sector data for humanitarian action in a responsible manner. 

At the OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data, we are determining how best to responsibly facilitate public/private partnerships around data in humanitarian response. We are focused on building trust across the humanitarian data ecosystem, and are working to identify high-potential private sector partners to work with while increasing our internal capacity to do so. Reach out if you want to learn more about the potential of private sector data sharing, or if you want to start contributing data on HDX.

We are pleased to share these insights from our expert collaborators on applying data and AI to humanitarian response. We welcome readers’ insights and perspective as they consider how the private sector can play a meaningful role in increasing resilience amid and beyond the global pandemic. 

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