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Focus and Objectives

Data and Displacement contributes to current debates surrounding the epistemic and political dynamics underpinning large-scale data and visual systems, specifically by exploring the ways in which such dynamics are embedded in operational and ethical challenges emergent in the data-based targeting of humanitarian protection. We examine the distribution of assistance to IDPs in conflict situations in northern Nigeria and South Sudan, offering the first systematic mixed methods assessment of the HDX data ecosystem and of the IOM’s DTM in each context, while providing a detailed qualitative analysis of the contextualised operational and ethical challenges to which these give rise. Our project recognises that distinctions are often drawn between Big Data, data mapping and visualisation techniques, and biometric identification as different types of digital information technologies. However, we also emphasise that different technologies frequently overlap in practice, and require unpacking as part of a distinct data ecosystem within a distinct context. By assessing the practical efficacy as well as the ethical tensions that emerge in the collation and use of data in humanitarian digital information systems, our research speaks to epistemic debates about where power lies in the production of digital data as well as to political debates about data ownership and the impacts of data collection and use on practices of inclusion and exclusion in diverse contexts.

We also speak directly to wider operational and ethical debates in the field of international development about the ways in which digital knowledge production changes humanitarianism as a field of action, in particular by exploring new challenges to the ‘do no harm’ principle in the provision of humanitarian assistance to IDPs . As such, the research will be of interest to various practitioners and agencies working across the fields of humanitarianism and international development, as well as to scholars researching the academic areas of ‘Big Data’, displacement and humanitarianism. It will also be of interest to donor communities, policy makers, local stakeholders, and IDPs themselves, both in the specific contexts under examination as well as more broadly . In a situation whereby digital databases risk giving illusion of full knowledge, algorithms are likely to become more contentious over time while forming the basis of profoundly political controversies. Moving beyond a dichotomy that assumes information-gathering ambitions should either be improved or reined in within such a context, our more nuanced analysis of opportunities and risks of the data “revolution” for humanitarianism intervenes in a field that will become of increasing importance over the coming years and decades.

The specific objectives of Data and Displacement are:

•To review and assess the production and use of existing large-scale quantitative, biometric and visual data in humanitarian targeting

•To identify operational and ethical challenges in data-driven humanitarian protection

•To combine academic and operational expertise, involve local stakeholders and engage IDPs as producers of knowledge, and contribute to processes of knowledge exchange and capacity building

•To provide timely analyses of data-driven humanitarian targeting that intervene in academic and public debates, inform policy developments and practitioner responses, and contribute to the successful implementation of Sustainable Development Goals

Work Packages

Research Context