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Data skills for all humanitarians

08 Oct 2019


User research with OCHA staff in New York in February 2019. Credit: Katelyn Rogers

Data literacy is increasingly crucial for today’s humanitarians. There has been a rapid and significant shift in the role data plays in the humanitarian sector. Many aspects of the work are shaped by data and nearly all humanitarians are using data. Yet while data use is ubiquitous, data skills are not. OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data is working to change this.

Data is seen primarily as the work of information managers, who carry out data processing and analysis. Non-technical humanitarians often believe that data management is a specialized domain, though often they are required to contextualize and synthesize analysis for decision makers. 

This past January, more than 1,200 humanitarians participated in a broad-based survey carried out by the Centre. The survey results found that all humanitarians are working with data. At the same time, they generally are not hired for their technical capacity and have not received formal training to work with data. The most commonly reported challenges: Collecting primary data and assessing and improving the quality of data, as well as presenting data to different stakeholders. 

As part of the survey follow-up, the Centre, which is in The Hague in the Netherlands, recently hosted 20 OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officers (HAOs) for its first data literacy foundation programme. Improving the data skills of HAOs will allow for better collaboration with data and information management teams and improve their ability to communicate data-driven insights to senior leaders.

Training objectives included:

  • Empowering non-technical humanitarians to use data more effectively
  • Bridging the gap between technical staff and decision makers on data needs
  • Increasing demand for better data and more targeted data collection
  • Improving conversations around data so that no one gets lost in technical language

It is recognized that data skills-building takes time. Based on research and good practice in learning uptake, OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data is supporting humanitarians through microlearning for specific tasks, intensive training followed by on-the-job support, and exposure to experts in the field. 

In addition, it is essential to develop data awareness and knowledge within the senior leadership of an organization. Not only are senior leaders crucial to the data management process, they can drive an organization’s data culture and use their influence to ensure smart investments in data.

Improving the way we interact with and use data has the potential to affect every step of the data management process and, ultimately, the humanitarian response. The Centre will continue to help bring technical talent together with decision makers, communicators and subject matter experts so that humanitarians can get the most from data. To truly move the needle on data literacy, we need to create a strong data culture where every decision is informed by data.