Connecting the Dots: Why Ethical Standards in Humanitarian Data Are More Important than Ever

 IDP camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed 2019

Geneva – As new ways to collect data continue to grow, humanitarian actors need to improve ethical and operational data practices for internally displaced persons (IDPs). In a joint research project on Data and Displacement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and academics from the Universities of Warwick, Juba and Ibadan looked at the impact of data collection and assistance to IDPs in north-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan.

Over two years, the research team conducted 174 in-depth interviews with a range of stakeholders including international data experts, donors, and humanitarian practitioners, as well as with regional humanitarian actors and IDPs living in camps in north-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan.

Currently, there appears sometimes to be a disconnect between practices in displacement contexts and international humanitarian standards, principles, and guidance which have been developed. Some of these are linked to operational challenges on the ground, coordination of data and, to some extent, ethical issues around gaining informed consent of IDPs.

While this project elucidates the many ways in which humanitarian actors acknowledge and are attentive to some of these challenges, findings also underline the demands of the “data revolution” on the lives of IDPs and everyday data practices of stakeholders in displacement sites.

Among several findings, the research recommends that collecting feedback from displaced communities is critical not only for establishing trust and fostering IDPs’ willingness to participate in data collection processes, but also for addressing some of their frustrations.

“The humanitarians take the information to [the] funder, but they don’t give feedback to us and explain to us that this is what happens to the data that we have [given],” said an internally displaced person from South Sudan interviewed for the research.

North-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan have suffered protracted internal displacement for over a decade. In north-eastern Nigeria, 3.2 million IDPs remain displaced by the ongoing conflict between the Nigerian army and non-state armed groups, which has left over 8.4 people in need of humanitarian assistance. In South Sudan, 1.4 million people were internally displaced at the end of 2021, as the country’s humanitarian crisis rages on.

To address the various operational and ethical problems identified by the Data and Displacement project, further attention and resources need to be directed toward the training, education, and meaningful engagement of affected communities and stakeholders in the collection, management, and use of humanitarian data.

Lead Author and Principal Investigator of the project, Vicki Squire, Professor at the University of Warwick, notes that this research “highlights the importance of IDPs understanding why their data is being collected, how it is being used, and what their rights are at all phases of the ‘data journey.'”

This joint practitioner-academic research project is a unique multidisciplinary collaboration, integrating academic expertise alongside operational expertise of humanitarian practitioners from IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). The results of the study provide important new insights into the lived experiences of data collection and use for IDPs across north-eastern Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as into humanitarian and regional stakeholder perspectives regarding the challenges of data-driven humanitarianism.

To learn more about the research project, visit the Data and Displacement website and download the report from the Data and Displacement project.  

This research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office.


Co-authored by: 

Robert Trigwell, Senior Humanitarian Data Coordinator, IOM DTM, Tel: +447800579404 Email:

Prithvi Hirani, Humanitarian Data Programme Officer, IOM DTM, Tel: +447413951236, Email:

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals