University of Warwick – latest research shows ethics of humanitarian data need improving

Researchers at the University of Warwick and its partners have published a report. Data and Displacement: Assessing the Practical and Ethical Implications of Data-Driven Humanitarianism for Internally Displaced Persons in Camp-Like Settings reveals that, as new ways to collect data continue to grow, humanitarian actors need to improve ethical and operational data practices for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The AHRC and FCDO-funded team of researchers for the Data and Displacement project come from the Universities of Warwick, Ibadan, Juba and Glasgow, and from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Over two years, the team of experts conducted 174 in-depth interviews with a range of stakeholders, including international data experts, donors, and humanitarian practitioners, as well as regional humanitarian actors and IDPs living in camps in north-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan.

The results of the study provide important new insights into the lived experiences of data collection and use for IDPs across north-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as into humanitarian and regional stakeholder perspectives regarding the challenges of data-driven humanitarianism.

Among several findings, the research recommends that collecting feedback from displaced communities is critical not only for establishing trust and fostering IDPs’ willingness to participate in data collection processes, but also for addressing some of their frustrations.

To address the various operational and ethical problems identified by the Data and Displacement project, 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.

Lead Author and Principal Investigator of the project, Vicki Squire, Professor at University of Warwick, said, “This research highlights the importance of IDPs understanding why their data is being collected, how it is being used, and what their rights are at all phases of the data journey.”

Robert Trigwell, IOM Senior Humanitarian Data Coordinator and a co-author of the report commented, “Currently, there appears to be a disconnect between practices in displacement settings and international humanitarian standards, principles, and guidance that are being developed.”

An internally displaced person from South Sudan, interviewed for the research said, “The humanitarians take the information to [the] funder, but they don’t give feedback to us and explain to us that this is what happens to the data that we have [given].”

North-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan have suffered protracted internal displacement for over a decade. In north-eastern Nigeria, 3.2 million IDPs remain displaced by the ongoing conflict between the Nigerian army and non-state armed groups, which has left over 8.4 people in need of humanitarian assistance. In South Sudan, 1.4 million people were internally displaced at the end of 2021, as the country’s humanitarian crisis rages on.

This joint academic and practitioner research project is a unique multidisciplinary collaboration, integrating academic expertise alongside operational expertise of humanitarian practitioners from IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix.

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