Communicating with communities. Data. Information Management. Accountability to affected populations. To me, saying these terms in a row highlights how disassociated these different terms are for many, and how acutely humanitarian-centric, i.e. jargonistic they sound. They form – on the whole – mostly separate job profiles amongst different humanitarian organisations (including UNHCR), and are areas that have worked much better in rhetoric than in practice until this point in time.

But concepts around, data, engaging communities and the nexus/bridge that is the general rubric of ‘Innovation’ have more in common than many would think. The most forward-thinking organisations across the public and private sectors are doing more with data to support a new generation of service delivery focused around the needs of their clients, customers, and constituents than is currently achieved in the humanitarian sector. Why is this? What can we do about it?

Concepts of Feedback and Accountability in the 20th Century

Only a couple of decades ago was the ‘feedback box’ the latest technology for soliciting feedback from community members in humanitarian response. This, alongside humanitarian actors’ face-to-face presence on the ground, was the mainstay of our accountability to affected populations.

In some respects and contexts, sadly this is very much the same today. While societies have transformed across the world because of social, economic, and technological changes, creaking humanitarian architecture is struggling to keep up. And this is reflected in a lot of programmatic decisions that are taken by organisations that fall under the rather broad umbrella of ‘humanitarian aid and development’.

And one of the most challenging things to grasp? That we actually know a lot of what should be taking place, both in terms of the types of approaches, and technologies we should be using and even nuanced considerations to mitigate risk and uphold humanitarian principles. For example, we’re always talking about not letting the loudest voices shout down the quietest and most vulnerable across ‘inter-agency fora at a global level’. So much of humanitarian delivery is based on anecdote. How has this remained the status quo, and what’s preventing us from understanding the data behind the concepts put forward in feedback from the people we’re serving? [NB: A colleague pointed out that this point itself was anecdotal so to illustrate the point with evidence more or less: at time of writing the Humanitarian Data Exchange contained only 3 datasets that have ‘feedback’ in the title, alongside a couple from the Inter-Agency Common Feedback Project Nepal (CFP) – not exactly a goldmine!]

Let’s be realistic. We as humanitarians don’t have a good understanding of how feedback and perceptions function in humanitarian operations, in particular, what the data related to this looks like in practice.

There are many different approaches to how data is collected in the humanitarian system, and we know there are lots of pieces of data that are available within agencies. Beyond what is being captured, there is still plenty of work to be done around capturing non-digital methods from focus groups to workshops that either go undocumented or where feedback is not captured using tools that can electronically aggregate the data; paper files left on the shelf. For what is captured electronically much of this is kept in silos, either organisational or within organisations or disciplines.

We are increasingly seeing a need for more intelligent sharing, access to feedback and perceptions data amongst organisations working in humanitarian response. To address this, there are also initiatives such as the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL) which is aiming to align terminology used in humanitarian data, and the Humanitarian Data Exchange – a central repository for open humanitarian data, and more are making an effort to try and bring organisations together to better share and open up data to help develop a more nuanced understanding of the needs of people affected by crisis. On top of this, when we are compiling data, we’re often not sure what specifically is needed to bridge the gap back to humanitarian programme delivery.

This is not to say we have to be wedded to data, or even data in the form of feedback we’re getting from communities. Some fear that embracing data-driven implementation means removing all human intuition and the nuance from decision-making. The reality is potentially quite the opposite; the grounding of evidence can make it easier for managers to resist trends and opt for something that maybe the data doesn’t point to directly. They would be knowingly going against what the figures say, rather than blindly fumbling through the darkness. This requires absolute conviction and determination; something maybe less applicable when we’re unsure about precisely what we’re dealing with.

Even some of the most forward-thinking pieces from humanitarian agencies only outline some of the first steps in how to better integrate concepts of data and community participation holistically in their programming. The language around the ‘participation revolution’ pervades the rhetoric, yet the frame of reference of this is squarely humanitarian reform. The CDAC Network is an inter-agency network that brings together local, regional and global actors to catalyse communities’ ability to access information and have a voice in humanitarian emergencies. Their 2016 annual report rightly highlights the need for strengthened coordination and even ‘common service’ models for engaging with communities. The  International Rescue Committee (IRC)  works with GroundTruth Solutions – a third party organisation that developed their own methodology on capturing perspectives of communities affected by crisis –  to independently gather perspectives of communities. They make a concerted effort to link these with IRC’s humanitarian programming, nudging the organisation forward.

This is all good and could be marked as best practice today. But this is where we should be today. Our future path to really ignite the ‘participation revolution’ needs to be a lot more ambitious. There is much more that can be done, and data lies at the core of this effort.

Using data to understand constituents

Beyond the general goals, what strikes me about the language used – and we’re guilty of this too – is how unambitious it is. Many who work in the realm of feedback data often see the challenge as how to ‘incorporate it into programming’. Incorporate doesn’t imply revolution, does it? We’re looking for a paradigm shift in how humanitarian programming works!

To do this, we first need to understand how data-driven decision-making can work for in the best interest of communities, and capitalise on what we can learn from others.

So let’s take the traditional approaches to capturing feedback: there’s more to making something client-focused than merely recording perceptions of individuals that we’ve gone out and solicited. In IRC’s Lessons Learned Report on the Client Voice Pilots, they acknowledge that feedback ‘is rarely considered in isolation of other data’ and that other information is considered when looking at decision-making processes. Let’s turn this around. When looking at data requirements for decision-making, is the feedback data solicited the only constituent-focused aspect?

Most of the documentation and policy guidance around Accountability to Affected Populations refers to feedback. When the policy wonks or even practitioners talk about this it usually means explicit, solicited, feedback from communities, either because they’ve been asked directly, or they’ve reached out to humanitarian organisations. But perhaps there are also ways to understand the needs of our constituents in a less direct way. By looking at their actions, and associated metadata we can gain insights about the community’s preferences around particular services they are receiving, or situation they are in. Improvements can be inferred from data points and actions allowing us to build better solutions that can be mapped onto other forms of feedback received by the communities.

And here comes the shift: We need to see client or constituent-driven programming which combines feedback data, with other types of data that drive or signal a shift in focus to constituent needs. This includes better capturing our face-to-face interactions securely. This includes passive reception of feedback data. This includes looking at the way services are being used, i.e. who is showing up to pick up goods at a distribution. Who is making a request to have more? Or who is accessing more or fewer medical services? It includes data on how community members are interacting with institutions and each other. This all paints a picture of individual’s perceptions of their needs and desires, mapped onto what they are doing, and what is actually taking place around them, to develop and enhance our insights as providers and/or regulators of protection and service delivery.

It’s not only the data that directly relates to the attitudes and actions of individuals. Metadata also provides a huge amount of insights that can be better leveraged by humanitarian agencies. When systems become digitised the amount of metadata generated can be leveraged to provide much clearer idea about how services are used, how people communicate and move, how people spend time, and what choices they are making. This metadata can enhance targeting, drive efficiencies and ensure that more tailored and customised solutions can be provided for individuals based on their interests and needs, just like many in the private sector are doing today with metadata generated by customers.

Nonetheless, the prevalence of metadata doesn’t come without its risks. Even if no personally identifiable information is captured, metadata can be used to triangulate individuals when it is cross-referenced with other data. It can also be used to infer locations, file formats of messages and more that, when in the wrong hands, can put people’s lives at risk.

Should these other data elements and metadata gathered from client behaviour be considered any less seriously than maybe the explicit feedback of one individual? By then connecting this data with feedback data – and other aspects of constituent contribution such as social media content – humanitarians could gain even greater insights as to what is going to have the most impact and deliver ‘satisfaction’ for clients.

Trends from the private and public sector

“The first step a company can take to stay competitive in the customer revolution is to unite traditional, social and demographic data under one roof in an easy-to-access location. This allows data to be seen holistically, enabling teams to derive more value and insights as opposed to separate, siloed bits of information.” – Andy MacMillan is SVP and GM of Salesforce’s

So what can we learn from others? To understand the potential of this approach we can look towards the public and private sector. It’s no surprise that in the majority of analysts reports on recent years point to a greater involvement of clients/customers in services delivered by organisations full stop.

From a scan of materials exploring this area, we see reports that to some degree formulate a broad consensus around different trends that are occurring and priority areas for action. There are also some good examples that demonstrate how different sectors and organisations have tried to revolutionise the way they operate to bring clients closer and utilise data in more creative ways to deliver solutions.

To start, this graphic from Deloitte (page 6) contains many of the elements included in other research that point to similar things. The priorities echo what has been on the mind of many at UNHCR. We’re seeing a drive for more customer-oriented solutions, and by this, meaning a tailored experience for the individual rather than the masses.

Given how far behind the humanitarian sector is, we have a relatively clear understanding of how to borrow many aspects applied to private and public sector reform to move us forward ten paces, yet there are still some contextual differences that make it difficult for the humanitarian system. Rather than act as ultimately one entity that governments are, there is an entrenched separation between humanitarian actors. The challenge remains though: McKinsey acknowledge that “governments have made efforts to improve service delivery through online portals or “one-stop shops” like centralized call centers…[Citizens] find it’s often still necessary to speak with multiple parties before their question is answered.”

Governments are increasing the amount they are opening up their implementation of policies and have developed principles to citizens to give install a sense of democratic accountability. For instance, the UK government for instance prioritises involvement of individuals and organisations within their main portal. Highlighting a variety of issues they refer to the relevant organisation who take responsibilities for different things.

McKinsey highlight the need to identify natural break points in customer satisfaction. They state that by understanding data around customer satisfaction (specifically ‘breakpoints’ where satisfaction falls off the cliff edge) they can determine acceptable levels of service delivery to ensure that resources are prioritised effectively. They point to an example of call centre staffing and waiting times, something traditionally challenging for humanitarian organisations.

Further to this they also recognise the importance of blending different types of data to gain further insights. They cite the example of the Australian Tax Office that combined different types of feedback data and general data from call-centre operation to improve IVR systems. They allude to it in this section of the article but if we transpose this onto the wealth of data created within humanitarian operations, rarely do we cross-check feedback data for correlations on other types of data sets (that may be easier to gather!). By doing this, we might have a better understanding of issues before clients/constituents even raise them.

For many years the private sector has used the framework of ‘customer journeys’ to bring together different aspects of a business from data to resources to product to make this as smooth as possible. As humanitarians, we have a very hard time coming to an agreement or an understanding of what a container could be to bring the different types of data to better understand the needs of our constituents, and this practice could have application in this sector. By putting ourselves in their shoes as a starting point, it helps us frame our understanding around different aspects of our work with the impact it has on this journey. Research has proven that those companies who have focused on journeys rather than isolated incidents or interactions are doing better at meeting customer needs than those who don’t.

From these examples and trends, some might argue there is an ideological bent in that it assumes the model of support and protection will see a greater role for the private sector and an evolution of the role of humanitarian organisations. It is a natural occurrence in modern liberalised economies and the link with general economic development is unequivocal. When we think about how this integrates with the commitments made in the New York Declaration, we need to start thinking how comprehensive solutions are providers and that humanitarian organisations work more closely with the private sector, both in delivery and learning, to make humanitarian programming more client focused.

What do we need to work on?

This challenge may appear insurmountable, ‘not my job’ or just a plain headache to affect. There are simple things that you can do today to help us on this journey, and maybe kick-start a sort of domino effect regarding how we’re using the vehicle of data to make our programming more constituent-driven.

1. How to work as one: collaboration not competition

Time and time again it is the underlying politics of competition that hamper progress in the humanitarian sector. We find it hard to reconcile feedback, and data more broadly, across different humanitarian agencies. If we can’t overcome this, we will fragment and disintegrate. That’s not to say there aren’t a number of individuals within organisations that endeavour to make this happen, but I know I’ve been looked at with surprise by internal colleagues when opening up data or (securely) sharing information to partners that has previously been siloed. To start building a better collective understanding, we need to open up data, collaborate transparently, and build insights around our constituents needs together, rather than in isolation from each other.

What can I do today?: Start by reading “10 defining principles of radical openness” on our website for simple actions you can take.  Be open-minded to working with others and leave your ego at the door. If they’ve got a good thing working, see how you can get involved, rather than build a competing system/product.

2. Borrowing from the private and public sectors: be faster

There are a number of documents discussed in this article that outline trends, but there are many more pieces available that don’t fall across the desk of the humanitarian practitioners. We need to get better at seriously considering them, along with other analyses of societal, business or other trends, at a high/senior leadership level. The lessons learned can help save humanitarian’s time and money, but also provide ideas for how we can do more practical things for instance with customer service approaches, or intelligent use of metadata for gaining insights.

What can I do today?: Think about how aspects of your job are tackled by public/private sector organisations. This could be anything from design of transit areas for large groups of people to developing call-centres. There’s a wealth of resources, many referenced in this piece that are a mere google away. Take the time to reach out and learn.

3. Innovation is here to stay

Perhaps I’m biased, but if there’s one thing I’ve gathered from speaking with peers in the private and public sector, and from documentation and reports such as the above, it is that innovation is here to stay. There’s the oft-quoted phrase ‘We need to innovate to survive’. This is how it should be. We have a nasty history of resting on our laurels in the humanitarian sector and to provide client-centric services based on solid data, we need to be able innovation, and adapt quickly to changing contexts. We have to bring the end-users into our solution design and development at the earliest stages to make sure that it’s driven by their needs. This is the modus operandi of the UNHCR Innovation Service.

What can I do today?: Give your staff space to innovate. Take time out of your busy schedule to think about how to do something differently. Apply for our Innovation Fellowship or work with us.

4. Ask for evidence

So we need to start organising the data we have, jettisoning what isn’t useful (i.e. stop capturing it) and start capturing things that are going to provide real insight. Securely store your data and learn how to leverage it in the right ways to support decision-making processes. Think about what these processes look like, what you/your manager needs, be transparent and allow the data to speak for itself.

What can I do today?: Invest in the right staff and tools to work with data. Learn about data. Stop working from anecdote and do your best to make the data backing up your decisions as robust as possible.

5. Bringing constituents closer is the only way forward

Perhaps the hyper-involvement that we’re seeing on the fringe of some private sector organisations (who are using crowd platforms to determine the overall direction of service delivery and philosophy) would be too much for humanitarian organisations. Ultimately, there will be demand for greater input from all constituents involved, including those who are providing the finances to make the work happen, and those who are recipient to that.

Where this hasn’t been applied, organisations fail. Simple as that.

What can I do today?: Check out our practitioner’s guide to Communicating with Communities. Be pioneering in your programme design by getting tangible involvement from communities in decision-making. Make sure you’re open to and acting on feedback from communities and don’t shy away from opening up channels because of lack of capacity. There are ways to deal with it, and groups that will support you in this journey.

The ‘refugee journey’ of the future

The lives that people are leading are not determined by humanitarian actors. In reality, despite UNHCR, national governments, and partners providing services, occasionally managing settlements and so on, a large portion of people’s lives are lived amongst their friends and family without intervention. When interventions do take place, perhaps it would be good to consider these in their entirety? From the above resources, we saw the idea of a ‘citizen journey’ put forward as a framework for making sure data was being used to make services more customer-centric. I’d like to re-frame this for UNHCR as the ‘refugee journey’. Not the journey they take to flee a country, but the metaphorical journey they take when they interact with the humanitarian response community. If from now on we start thinking more holistically about this journey, we will be better placed to understand the motivations of individuals, what they want and don’t want from their journeys and how they can be more satisfied upon completing each journey. Maybe even easing the real journey they’re taking towards a life free from persecution.


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 and download the publication here.