Data is important. Obviously.

UNHCR sits on a data goldmine. Data is gathered, circulated, cleaned, analysed, continuously visualised, every second of every day, in emergencies, through to durable solutions. From registration, to financial verifications of partnership agreements, we are irrefutably an organisation that relies heavily on data. This won’t be the first article that tells us that data is important, and that we need to become more of a data-driven organisation, and it certainly won’t be the best-written article making that case. Instead, it recognises that for UNHCR to become increasingly data-driven, we need a cultural change around data rather than simply to say that, ‘data is important’. Because that we already knew.

How are data and culture linked, and what needs to change in our culture to become data-driven?

Culture is defined by the way we do things, our behaviours, learnings, and the values we attribute to things. If the way we do things needs to be increasingly through the use of data, then to make our organisation data-driven, means that we first of all need to change how we use data, and how we understand data, as something with a value. It’s important to underline that this is not an argument for collecting more data; it’s about using better data, and using data better. We’ve got loads already, let’s use it more smartly. Secondly, if the value that we attribute to data is increasing, then our investments in this resource, should also increase. We will use data to make, or complement, key decisions at all levels, and decision makers will have direct access to the data that they need, when they need it. Newly recruited colleagues will understand that data has a value, and that they will need to display competencies that support the production, and use of data. More experienced colleagues will understand that they now need to invest in data as a core part of their job. If they do not have the competencies, they will need to invest in those who do, and we should invest in supporting the acquisition of relevant competencies among those who have been with us for a more extended period.

It seems that we need to become comfortable with the understanding that a specific team does not own data. That is to say, that financial data cannot be owned and guarded by colleagues working in finance, and protection data cannot be owned and guarded by colleagues working in protection. Instead, data needs to integrated better across operations, across divisions, and across bureaus. Operations cells that form around specific situations, comprised of people from multiple divisions and bureaus, joint analysis exercises, data optimisation exercises, and good data governance are some of the ways we can start, but our most senior management will need to set the example. It would seem prudent to go one step further still and to make data increasingly open to the public. There is a myriad of examples of organisations doing this successfully – and when we say successful, we mean not only the act of doing so, but the positive impacts this has brought to bear, including inter alia The World Bank Group, the European Union, and of course the Open Data Institute. Thirdly, and linked to both of the above, having the confidence to say that there will be mistakes made, some data will not be as accurate as we would like. Finally, placing a higher value on data, and placing it as a valuable commodity that we have a vested interest in nurturing, and using to create better protection outcomes for refugees, the displaced, and the communities that extend support to them by hosting them.

But why do we need to become data-driven?

Because it will make us better. We will be more transparent, we will provide more dignified protection and assistance to refugees, and others. We will produce better evidence on which to base decisions. Data-driven organisations make data available to decision makers when they need it. It also means allowing people to explore data independently, trusting that they can, and will, do so. Decision making needs to be done on the basis of one version of the truth, not many different versions, and data contributes to the compilation of evidence. This is not to say that interpretations and different proposals for action should not be proffered, indeed, diversity is to be encouraged.

Diversity of thought, including analysis, is important

To make the most of your data, you need diverse groups and users analysing it. Connecting most critical data sources also includes connecting critical people, many of whom will have very different understandings of what it means. This diversity should be encouraged, because it encourages, and speaks to creativity, to innovation, and to initiative. It makes us more inclusive, and it makes us more effective. We need to be able to make links between data that for example, is gathered around protection incidents, and data that is gathered on outputs of our programmes. We don’t necessarily need to look for cause-effect relationships, but we do need to better understand the impact of our interventions. Likewise, how we understand relationships between different actions, and feedback gathered from communities – host and displaced. Introducing stronger links between critical data sources, and new data sets will also uncover new understandings and new people who want to understand the data – including non-traditional actors.

To add to this thought soup, I’d like to add some other ingredients to our fermenting mash of thoughts. The below are some of the things we will need to do, in order to change the culture of our organisation around data.

1) Partnerships

We don’t have all of the tools, expertise, knowledge, products, services, and processes that we need to become a fully data-driven organisation. We’ve got a lot of existing resources, and a lot of very smart people, but we do not have enough. Partnerships with large private sector organisations, with the World Bank, with smaller private sector organisations, with academia, with civil society, with other UN agencies, INGOs, NNGOs, and the public at large, will help to harness these, and will help to guide us, as well as to get us, to where we need to go. If I look at the experience UNHCR went through in the Europe Refugee Emergency, one of the many challenges was overcoming the potentially harmful effects of winter on a population that had been on the move for some time. We needed to find the most at-risk points over a large geography, and we needed to understand not the tactical implications, but the strategic implications that weather would have on our operations. To do that, first of all, we had to recognise that we had a gap in knowledge, practice, and expertise, and secondly, that we were prepared to plug that gap. Which we did with the UK Met Office, among others. We’ll learn a lot along the way, and we will likely discover more unknowns that we will then need to address, but we will advance.

2) Human Resources, training, and new profiles

Part of the change we need to see, includes recruiting new profiles of people, and new training opportunities for the outstanding people we are already fortunate enough to work with. More data scientists, coders, front and back-end developers, data governance experts, data architects, UX and UI specialists, will all help us to unleash more meaning and more impact from our data. But we also need to continue to invest in the expertise that we currently have, provide the training, or find the training that our teams need to pivot and to adjust. This cannot only be for those with roles that currently include heavier interactions with data; rather, this needs to include those who view data as being for other people. If we are not doing the latter, then we are not able to connect the most critical people with the most critical data sources, and we are failing. I was asked the other day if data isn’t just the latest buzzword in the humanitarian industry. Aside from such myopic and cynical comments not helping us to advance, of course, the answer is no, it’s not. It’s the latest tool to make us better at what we do, and investing in the right competencies is part of moving the needle.

3) Setting the pace

We – as a humanitarian community, need to feel comfortable in setting the pace, and stating more assertively, our needs. For a long time, the private sector has been almost fetishised for its resources, for its approaches, but this almost becomes a form of commodity fetishism – we’re seeing results, which often gloss over the internal processes, or politics that it took to produce that result. The relationships that we foster, and we garner with the private sector are two-way relationships. We learn from some of the expertise, and some of the skills, services, products. But we also impart knowledge, and expertise, and some of the skills, services, products. And we should not be afraid to recognise that, and increasingly state the needs of our sector, and where the private sector should perhaps be looking to invest. Free stuff is unsustainable, so too is finding a fit for many things that already exist. We are starting to see some substantial private sector organisations learning from innovations produced within a humanitarian organisation, repackage these innovations, and then attempting to sell these ideas and solutions back to humanitarian organisations.

4) More innovation

The universal truth is that we need more, and more, and more innovation – and that innovation needs to be understood as a set of tools and practices that are accessible to all rather than simply as the application of technology. And that includes Blockchain. We’ve experimented, tested assumptions, iterated, scaled, learned valuable lessons with our constituents globally, with the previous High Commissioner, with private sector partners. It works. It needs to work more, and it needs to work better – including for newly emerging approaches to data. We now need to make sure that our own innovation processes constantly change and adapt to match the needs of UNHCR. The danger that we almost fell into a couple of years ago was again, looking to private sector innovation efforts, and thinking we could simply replicate these within our own, often complicated organisation. As soon as we began to blend private, and public sector approaches, from smaller as well as larger organisations, innovation started to have more impact. A renewed emphasis on the importance of data will require innovation to be front and centre, as an engine for constant iteration and improvement. As soon as we start to free the data, as soon as we start to make certain data sets technically open, and available to more people and organisations, then we will reinvent what is possible, and innovation will help us to do so.

5) Data security

UNHCR is an ever-changing, constantly re-written, multi-layered, multi-depth, swirl of data, and it goes without saying, that new approaches in data need to go hand in hand with evolved data security practices, protocols, and technologies that reflect the best of the latest available tools. Indeed, we must also make sure that evolved becomes evolving – static updates and changes will not suffice. Data is an asset and can be used in a multitude of ways, with a multitude of motivations, and this is evolving rapidly. Unfortunately, some actors have nefarious motives. As we become more digitally, and data driven, we will need to understand that protection now exists in new dimensions as well. This is all obvious to say, nevertheless, also important that we do not approach data protection as an extension to the status quo. Rather, as a new lens through which to manage and understand risk, and mitigation(s) of an evolving risk.

6) Governance

A forward-looking governance structure will be essential to making investments sustainable and effective. Governance will need to optimise what already exists, and allow us to do more with what we already have. It will also look at what we should have, and what internal clearances, practices, and structures need to change in order to make sure that we are as agile, and efficient as well should be. We will need to remember that – if we’re doing it right – the consumers of UNHCR data, and analysis, are going to be increasingly much wider than our current consumers. Governance will need to underscore the importance of open data, of breaking down internal silos and making real-time a reality. This requires a radical shift in mindset.

7) Management

All of the above require skilled approaches to management. It takes humble, and experienced colleagues to shape, to guide, and to manage a complex change within a complex organisation, which serves an increasingly interconnected, and complicated world. “We the people” have and will, become more connected, and more complicated. We will constantly need to adapt, and more managed through more processes of change and adaptation, as we will require more sophisticated tools and processes to offer support to the displaced, and those that host them.

So a lot needs to be done. And this isn’t even an exhaustive list. Culture change is complex, and it’s something that is managed with care, and should be managed strategically. UNHCR currently has many of the right ingredients to affect a cultural change around data, and it has a history of being agile, adaptable. With the above in mind, we’re moving through one of the most exciting crossroads in UNHCR’s history. If we move through successfully, we will see an organisation that convenes and connects, and one that enables quicker, more effective decisions made, one that catalyses change within many more organisations – current partners, as well as new.

It’s a change that we’re excited to support, but we will need to make sure that it is inclusive, and does not ostracize the constituents of change that we most need to bring with us on the way.


This essay was originally posted in the recently released report: UNHCR Innovation Service: Year in Review 2017. This report highlights and showcases some of the innovative approaches the organization is taking to address complex refugee challenges and discover new opportunities. You can view the full Year in Review microsite here.