William A. Brindley, Chief Executive Officer of NetHope.org discusses the building of a data-sharing ecosystem.

To paraphrase English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, sometimes it seems as if there are data, data everywhere, nor any bit makes sense.

NetHope is a consortium of 37 leading international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) collaborating to address the world’s most pressing challenges through the smarter use of technology. We want all this data to make sense and help us do our jobs more effectively.

So earlier this year we started the Open Humanitarian Initiative, which aims to drive the increased use of data within the development and humanitarian communities. We invited academia, the private sector and national governments to improve information sharing and use data more effectively in the cause of data-driven development.

Data drives our decision-making. But in this information age, new data sources are making sharing, analysing and applying all this data far more difficult.

For example, we now have crowdsourcing (the ability to communicate directly with the communities we are working in); open data (large data sets provided free of charge by governments and agencies); and big data (massive data sets created as a by-product of transactions in systems such as mobile networks).

And let’s not forget “small data” – the operational and internal data we need to run our organizations efficiently. Small data is hard to collect, making it difficult to draw solid evidence-based conclusions. It is often stuck in silos where it can’t be shared. We need to release it. If we share our small data, collective large data sets will emerge, potentially offering useful insights in how to deal with complex situations more innovatively.

We must find new ways to combine all these new and traditional data sources. But this is harder than it sounds. One of the major hurdles is a lack of data standards, making interoperability and sharing tricky. We also lack a common Application Program Interface (API) for easy access to open data. And we also need a way of presenting all this data in a visually appealing and easily understandable way.

Innovation, technology and capacity building can change humanitarian efforts

With these challenges in mind, we have to provide training within our organizations and communities, especially in developing countries. Building capacity should happen at headquarters and at the grassroots levels.

Those with existing technology skills should help develop volunteer communities capable of handling the massive flow of information arising from crowdsourcing. We already have best practice information from previous digital volunteer efforts that we can transfer to developing countries.

We must also drive innovation and research in the data space, especially within the developing countries. It is no surprise that some of the most innovative solutions to have emerged over the last few years have come from countries like Kenya.

But how can we make all this happen? By building a data-sharing ecosystem – an alliance of organizations that will champion data-driven development and humanitarian response. Such a collaborative and ambitious long-term initiative could inspire people to supply the necessary funding to take the project forwards.

If we work together we can ensure that not only are we making more effective decisions through improved use of data, but also involving communities, making them more informed and empowering them to deal with future challenges.

Author: William A. Brindley is Chief Executive Officer of NetHope.org, a consortium of non-governmental organizations.

Image: Port workers in Kenya load relief food to a Somalian-bound ship REUTERS/Joseph Okanga