In August 2018, the Centre for Humanitarian Data posted a tweet stating that one of the most common challenges in the area of humanitarian technology and data today is the proliferation of solutions in search of problems. The “humanitarian innovation” explosion characterised by the proliferation of data solutions is intertwined with the recent efforts to strengthen information management and assessment and mapping capacities across the humanitarian community. It is also linked with the broader explosion of what many call ‘Big Data’ as a means of predicting and responding to key challenges in a timely and effective way. While such developments have been broadly welcomed within the field based on the promise of enhanced decision-making and facilitation of better programme design and improved accountability with affected populations, questions nevertheless remain as to the ethical and operational implications of this new form of data-based humanitarianism. As the Centre of Humanitarian Data tweet implies, the production of data is not necessarily a ‘good’ in and of itself. Assessment of the production and use of databases, as well as of the operational and ethical implications of a data-based approach to humanitarianism, is thus of central importance.
This project provides an assessment of the production and use of large-scale quantitative, biometric and visual data in the humanitarian field by focusing specifically on the development and implementation of data-based protection targeting in sub-Saharan Africa. This region is one that involves high intensities of conflict, and that forms a focus of high levels of international donor activities, including humanitarian overseas development aid. Our research focuses on the cases of northern Nigeria and South Sudan, due to the centrality of data collection in each of these contexts, and the interlinkages between those most affected by displacement and protection issues.The comparative contexts of displacement in northern Nigeria and South Sudan provide a comprehensive, varied and fertile ground to analyse the complexities of data access, coverage and targeting. Nigeria is one of the most populous nations in Africa and has 1.98 million IDPs in the northern region, while South Sudan has 1.42 million IDPs: these are active humanitarian contexts with active Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs).