A Rising Reign without Regulations: Responsible use of humanitarian data

Throughout the last two years, the pandemic has compelled humanitarians to rapidly meet evolving and growing needs of the population in a fast-changing landscape. Border restrictions and lockdowns have facilitated the development and use of new technologies and innovative techniques. Such technological advancements have fostered faster, more accessible and more effective humanitarian actions. 

On June 24, a High-Level Panel Discussion was held to discuss the use of new and emerging technologies and innovations in the collection of humanitarian data. Panelists shared the previous achievements in providing humanitarian aid with data collected. For instance, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) collaborated with Facebook to collect big data and identify the differentiated impacts to different groups of victims affected by the Australian bushfire. Providing such information to emergency managers significantly improved the response plan to future disasters. In general, collection of national demographic data allows humanitarian assistance to be more predictable and directed.

Responsible Data Usage

Despite the achievements, the use of big data analytics subjects beneficiaries to the risk of infringement of personal privacy. Humanitarian actors must preserve humanitarian principles and ensure responsible data usage.

Responsible data usage generally refers to a collective duty to prioritise and respond to the ethical, legal, social and privacy-related challenges that come from using data in new and different ways in advocacy and social change. It includes three principles: (a) provision of transparent and reader-friendly data policies while obtaining prior consent, (b) protection from using personal data for unfair discrimination, and (c) respect to the expectations of the people affect by prohibiting third-party access to the data. Public trust, which comes from responsible and ethical data usage, is a cornerstone for further digital innovation.

The main threat to responsible data usage is often monetary motives. Around the world, there have been little restrictions on sale and purchase of personal data, in addition to the legal defence of ‘consent’ even if regulations prohibit it. In fact, an estimate of over US$ 19 billion was spent by American companies alone in 2018 in acquiring consumer data, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. In the context of humanitarian assistance, this creates a novel form of corruption.

Next Steps Forward

Data coordination is currently an unchartered territory. The United Nations called for systematization of the guidance, framework and best practices on data responsibility to ensure a minimum common standard imposed across all stakeholders. A holistic approach to accountability must be adhered to by all humanitarians, not only UN organizations but also its local partners. 

Furthermore, the pace of technological advancement is nearly always faster than that of legislation and policy development. Enforcement of established rules and regulations may not be sufficient to eliminate unethical use or sale of data. Humanitarians and data-handlers must be trained to exercise their independent judgment to ensure responsible data usage at root. Authorities must also strengthen the incentives for better practices.

Writer: WIT Intern Tracy Cheng





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