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Notes From The Field: The Open Humanitarian Initiative

Gisli Olafsson, EmergenNotes From The Fieldcy Response Director at NetHope describes a large-scale project underway that is using open data to transform and coordinate humanitarian crisis response: the Open Humanitarian Initiative. If you’re involved in humanitarian work and/or crisis response, feel free to add your comment here on ways that you’re working with open data or seeing it at work in the field. Or, just drop us a note:

The humanitarian community is facing an enormous coordination challenge. Over the past 20 years, the number of NGOs that respond to major global emergencies has skyrocketed from a few hundred to a several thousand.

As a result, information about who is doing what where (and who is planning to do what where) has become as complex to compile as it is critical to the success of the mission. With an expected increase in global disasters and a predicted order-of-magnitude increase in the prevalence and bandwidth of information and communications technologies (ICTs), the challenges are only going to get amplified.

While most organizations recognize that any solution to this complex issue will require some framework to allow organizations to exchange data in a neutral space, the policy, technology, and funding mechanisms to create this space have remained inchoate.

This is why NetHope has brought together a number of other humanitarian, private sector and academic partners to launch the Open Humanitarian Initiative. The Open Humanitarian Initiative (OHI) is a five year effort to create a framework that brings the concept of open data into the humanitarian space by addressing the political, technological and capacity issues that currently limit information sharing during disasters. Other components of this framework include the Open Humanitarian Alliance (OHA), a broad public-private partnership alliance of organizations that are working towards better information sharing during humanitarian response and the Open Humanitarian Fund (OHF), a multi-partner trust fund that will finance the initiative.

NetHope, a consortium of 38 of the leading international NGOs around the world built around the concept of collaborative effort, is leading the development of this effort. After years of lack of information sharing being identified as the key factor limiting effective coordination of humanitarian response, NetHope and its member organizations felt it was important to move from talking about the issues to addressing them.

To bring about such a crucial change it was important however to build a broad partnership between the various organizations that could address this issue. Thanks to seed funding from The Patterson Foundation, NetHope was able to conduct the necessary advocacy work to reach and engage across a wide set of critical participants: the major humanitarian organizations, a broad group of academic institutions involved in humanitarian research and capacity building, a number of key private sector technology companies interested in helping develop open source solutions to enable better information sharing and analysis, humanitarian donors who are trying to improve efficiency in the humanitarian space, and governments in disaster prone developing countries that want to improve their capacity to respond to natural disasters.

This task of bringing everyone together around this shared vision was not light work, but it has paid off with the launch of the Open Humanitarian Initiative and the upcoming launch of the Open Humanitarian Alliance.

With support from Cisco, the next 9 months will be used to also formally launch OHA and OHF as well as drive an innovation lab that will incubate quick-win proofs of concept of some of the key issues faced. We selected this incubation approach, because it is important for all parties involved to fully grasp the significant impact that embracing open data will have on their operations. It allows the humanitarian organizations to buy into this approach with tangible examples in their hands, while at the same time convincing the donor community that the investment in an ambitious five-year initiative will provide the return on investment they look for.

We will also leverage the incubation period to work out the political aspects of putting in place a governance structure for OHA and OHF that provides the agility and speed required to bring about change in this field within the initiative time frame.

We welcome humanitarian organizations, academic institutions, private sector companies, governments and donors to join us in this important initiative and become part of the Open Humanitarian Alliance, helping us transform humanitarian response through open data.