Dealing with Covid-19 in humanitarian action : What can we learn from the latest UN Data Forum ?

Reading time : Less than a minute. | Update date : 25/11/2020
The Covid-19 pandemic has raised multiple questions about the role of data in the global crisis response. The UN Data Forum took place in mid October to discuss those challenges and how data can help achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised multiple questions about the role of data in the global crisis response. Indeed, there is an unprecedented need of aggregated and disaggregated data to evaluate the spread of the Coronavirus, as well as to anticipate the future peaks and impact at the global scale.

The pandemic has also shown and somehow exacerbated the existing gaps between different regions of the world around data accessibility. As some of them have been participating in the monitoring of Covid-19 thanks to efficient official statistics institutes, others have faced multiple challenges to follow the spread at the national and local scales. The UN Data Forum which took place virtually for three days in mid-october gathered the global data community to share experiences and raised issues on how to deal with data in 2020, with a special focus on the last Covid-19 good practices and lessons learned. Experts from around the world discussed the critical need of integrating data in their work, as it is known to be a strategic asset in responding to humanitarian crises. Not only data can actually help understanding the complexities of crises and conflicts, but it can also support the organizations and governments on following social and economic dynamics.

The Covid-19 crisis has strongly impacted humanitarian actions on the field. In Africa, health measures and national restrictions were difficult to put in place. Indeed, a great quantity of individuals still relies on the informal sector to make a living, the confinement was then seen as a negative governmental measure which would prevent people from earning money. Moreover, the health barriers were difficult to respect in parts of the world which have a lack of access to sanitary products and water. Many actors, from private sector to research institutes, have deployed technological solutions, using data to support the global response. For instance, health centres have been identified and digitized on OpenStreetMap by the global community and by local communities. It allows humanitarian organizations to use reliable data and implement more efficient and appropriate programs on the field that respond to the local needs.

With the Covid-19 pandemic striking, NGOs have been multiplying innovative solutions to continue implementing their programs on the field, using technology to reach local communities. Whatsapp has been of great use for many NGOs as it was easier to reach beneficiaries and follow the impact of the virus on their daily life. As Randa Azad (Accountability Advisor, Syria Response - FAST consortium / World Vision) says, “complaint mechanisms have been impacted by the virus, travel restrictions and lockdowns led to a disconnection with the field and less inputs from the community, especially from women”. In Syria, the Covid pandemic drastically reduced the opportunities to have face to face interaction with the communities. At this scale, both aggregated and disaggregated data are useful (for instance subnational gender disaggregated data), but the latter remains the most important as it allows for more precise analyzes about the impact of Covid-19 on different populations, especially the most vulnerable.

One particular aspect of humanitarian assistance which needs to be taken into account while collecting data is to leave no one behind. As Raj Kumar (President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex) says, to better respond to the pandemic, we need to reach local communities, involve them in the collection of disaggregated data and understand which groups are the most vulnerable, especially people with disabilities. For that, we also need to compare and bring together reliable sources, which can be done with the creation of consortiums and the existence of open data platforms.

Last but not least, data privacy and security of beneficiaries, data protection and data governance remain important challenges while we also need the support of donors to invest in data so that organizations can deploy technologies, hire professional experts and give more time to data collection and analysis.

To put in a nutshell, data represents a strategic asset, which can support decisions makers in informing policy and planning. The Covid-19 pandemic has raised multiple challenges but it also has been a huge game changer which accelerated the evolution of data among the humanitarian sector. It will also help build new strategies to reach the 2030 SDGs and we should use the Covid-19 crisis as a springboard to accelerate our global initiatives. As Beth Blauer (Executive Director of John Hopkins University Centers for Civic Impact) says, “there are no international standards to measure Covid-19”, which allows us to think about innovative solutions while also fostering the development of consortiums and networks to share experience and knowledge. The private sector will also be more included in the discussions as it will play an increasing role towards data and technology accessibility. The whole world is facing a new challenge, and we need to create a common language to facilitate a more efficient and rapid response to the pandemic. The UN Data Forum has brought together more than 10000 data users and producers and agreed to launch the data community’s response to Covid-19 which will support the response to the pandemic.