Humanitarian Data Exchange: 'We want to surface data collected by mobiles in crises'

With the 2016 Open Data Awards just around the corner, we catch up with Sarah Telford from the UN’s Humanitarian Data Exchange, finalist for the Innovation Award.

The Open Data Awards celebrate innovation and excellence in open data across the world. Hundreds of inspiring people and organisations have been nominated. The awards will be held on 1 November 2016 at the BFI Southbank. Explore all nominees and finalists and follow #OpenDataAwards for updates on the night.


Humanitarian Data Exchange

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What do you do, in a nutshell?

The UN’s Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) is an open platform for sharing data about humanitarian crises. As its manager, I oversee the team, which is made up of OCHA staff and consultants who are geographically distributed around the world. My day-to-day work is focused on making sure we are delivering on our near-term objectives and ensuring the platform is sustainable in the long-term.

What first got you excited about open data?

I was working on improving OCHA’s information products and kept running into the problem of not being able to find data to do analysis. I went with my Director, Gwi-Yeop Son, to visit the World Bank in 2013 and spent several hours being briefed by their open data team. I was amazed by what they had accomplished with data.worldbank.org. Their experience also helped me to understand how hard it would be to bring the idea of open data into a large bureaucracy. I started to explore various open data initiatives and came across the Open Knowledge Foundation and CKAN, which we eventually used to build HDX.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

There are a number of challenges that we need to address if data is going to become an integral part of humanitarian work. These include increasing the capacity of people to use data, ensuring we have strong policy frameworks in place so that no one is harmed from the misuse of data, and continuing to prove the value of investing in data to senior managers and donors. OCHA is establishing a new centre for humanitarian data in 2017 in The Hague, so that we can take on these broader challenges.

What kind of open data would you like to see more of?

We would like to help surface data that is collected from mobile devices in crisis environments. This data is really important to understanding what is happening and who needs help in local communities but it is often time-consuming to process for broader use. We are working on a project to bring this type of data into HDX and the wider ecosystem by developing data-cleaning tools and ensuring that any sensitive data is handled responsibly.

What are you most looking forward to about the ODI Summit and Awards?

We love working with the open data community so any chance to connect with people in person and share stories is great. It is always reassuring to be around people who believe in what we are doing and want us to succeed.

The awards will be held on 1 November 2016 at the BFI Southbank. Explore all nominees and finalists and follow #OpenDataAwards for updates on the night.