Our Perspectives

Changing the discourse on humanitarian innovations and partnerships


Young women and men review crime statistics and add their stories to complete the picture at the 2015 Youth and Innovation Exchange in St. Lucia. Photo: UNDP Barbados


In this blog series leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit, UNDP experts and practitioners share their experiences and views on responding to conflict and disasters.

How can new data sources and real-time information systems improve decision-making?

This is a question UNDP and its partners, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and Datapop Alliance, were asking at a side-event at the World Humanitarian Summit, together with the Governments of Denmark and Finland, which fund innovation in UN agencies.

Innovation and data are important themes in humanitarian relief, as well as in the larger Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda. It underpins the entire agenda as a vehicle to solve wicked challenges across all the SDGs.

One example of real-time information systems is UNICEF’s U-Report, a simple SMS tool that enables decision-makers to source the opinions of young people. Currently, U-Report is live in 21 countries and more than 2 million people are sending or receiving messages every week. A recent poll of U-Reporters in Liberia triggered government action to address the rampant problem of sexual abuse of students by their teachers.

Phones against Corruption’ is an SMS-based tool powered by UNDP to report corruption in real-time in Papua New Guinea. A first version was made available to 1,200 public servants, and within four months, more than 6,000 SMS were received and investigated. There are now over 200 cases of alleged corruption under investigation.

These initiatives are not worthy of mention because they leverage mobile phones or include an app, but because they are examples of initiatives that led to actual action. They influenced decision-making and were designed based on innovation principles that underscore the importance of designing with the end-users.

Leveraging new and emerging data sources to improve humanitarian aid and development is the second component of our question at the WHS.

In Kosovo, UNDP and UN Global Pulse tested if data analysis can help to improve emergency services. We found that analyzing anonymized emergency calls can help predict peak times and locations of future emergencies.  

Our responses to the question of how new data and real-time information systems can improve decision-making are very much work in progress. However, we believe that the underlying principles are worth pursuing for future innovation.

Here are four thoughts on the future of data in development:

  • Ensure representative data. Traditional data collection mechanisms often have built-in biases and are particularly prone to overlook women and girls. We have to work with National Statistics Offices to develop ways of collecting inclusive and contextual data – for example, thick data with ethnographic methods.
  • Plan for data equity. More and more governments have opened up large data sets to their citizens in the spirit of transparency. “Provide it and they will use it” is the logic. But this requires data analysis capacities that few people have. Data needs to be provided in a more accessible way to all parts of society, particularly the most excluded.
  • Invest in R&D to understand the users' needs. Currently, the majority of user research is based on small samples and is difficult to scale. Data needs to support people’s agency. “We should ask at every step of the way how can we empower communities and frontline workers to take better decisions,” Isobel Roberts and Giulio Quaggiotto argue.
  • Navigate politics. Data innovation is about triggering change. This will necessarily lead to some being empowered, while others losing either material assets or privileges. “Despite innovation efforts and optimism across the development sector, few innovations lead to actual sustainable, systemic change,” the Overseas Development Institute has noted. Barriers for scaling up innovations are often political in nature, and navigating the politics must be planned for and transparent.

The innovation discourse in the humanitarian and development spaces is evolving. The global networks launched at the WHS, the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation and the Global Humanitarian Lab, are a testament of this.

Our focus on supporting local innovators and partners reflects that our innovations will not solve their problems. Data innovation needs to provide communities, individuals, and governments with the means to trigger change. It is our mandate to ensure it benefits the most marginalized and protects human rights of everyone.

This post was originally published by Devex.

Innovation Sustainable development Benjamin Kumpf Blog post Donors and other countries Crisis response blog series

UNDP Around the world