“Do no harm” in the era of environmental emergency: revisiting Information Management in the aid sector

Across sectors of activities, we have been hearing for almost two decades now a recurring maxim: “data is the new oil”. How to best manage data has also become a central question in the aid sector, that has followed the trend of becoming data-driven. We, as humanitarian and development practitioners, now massively use technological solutions as part of our programming, be it Mobile Data Collection, cash transfers, online dashboards, satellite imagery analysis and mapping, or cloud-based data storage and services, to name a few.

When used responsibly, it is clear that such technologies are a game-changer for our internal decision-making, and also help save time and increase efficiency by offering, for instance, solutions for reducing non-essential travelling. They also play a role in increased accountability towards partners, donors and affected populations. What’s more, innovative data production methods help us build better, more robust models to decipher the complexity of our world.

It is interesting to note that in recent analyses around the COP26 concerning our sector’s carbon footprint, data as well as the digitalization that often comes with it, is usually only seen as part of the solution. It is true that data and new technologies help better understand and measure our footprint, and guide us towards more resilience. Yet, although long regarded as “immaterial”, Information and Communication technologies recently surpassed the airline industry – of all industries – in terms of carbon footprint.

As the world is struggling with an unprecedented global crisis – with environmental, sanitary, social, political and humanitarian dimensions – it is thus worth asking to what extent the data solutions we develop in the aid sector to help better understand and respond to the various crises we face, are also contributing to these crises? And in particular, when following the “do no harm” principle that is at the heart of our actions, should we not further assess the environmental side effects of what we do, and not just consider our short-term programming results?

This is the conversation we invited you all to have during the 2022 GeOnG forum: looking into, on the one hand, how aid practitioners can play an active role in being part of the solution in revealing and responding to the environmental crisis and its impacts, as well as, on the other hand, how they can embrace technologies and approaches that uphold the “do no environmental harm” motto.

There is, of course, no miracle solution – especially as assessing one’s environmental impact is a complex topic that aid actors cannot tackle on their own – but, during this forum, we explored what the aid sector can actually revisit in its Information Management approaches to adjust to the environmental emergency.

To this end, we identified four main tracks for the event and encouraged all of you to submit ideas for sessions via our Open Call for Suggestions. Suggestions going beyond the scope of these tracks yet addressing the main theme of the event were, of course, also welcome.

Track 1 – Information sobriety, data minimization, low tech and green tech

Imagining how aid actors can limit their environmental impact considering alternative solutions or revisiting their approaches.

  • How can low carbon approaches, such as low tech and green tech, be better embedded in emergency and development programs?
  • Can we be bolder in our “less is more” approach to data and software?
  • How can we better evaluate the environmental impact of the Information Management systems we set up?
  • How should we better think through our technological choices and operate the digitalization of our processes?
Track 2 – Information and localization: autonomization, empowerment, participation

Reflecting on how data can empower the people most at risk of this global crisis, who are the best placed to adapt to and prevent disasters, leveraging technology in support of localization and new approaches of humanitarian action.

  • How can Information Management systems help the most vulnerable people with tools and means to better address and advocate about the consequences of climate change?
  • How can digital technologies become allies of localization efforts, building on new practices born during the Covid-19 health crisis?
Track 3 – Information Management and its role to reveal or better respond to the environmental crisis

Presenting examples of projects and showcasing technologies which outline how Information Management can both help shine a light on and address the environmental crisis and its consequences – such as: increased number of natural disasters, populations forced to migrate, chronic humanitarian crises.

  • What are the best uses to which data  – in particular GIS and mapping  – can be put to give clearer insights on the environmental situation?
  • How can Information Management help address the environmental crisis, through preparedness, emergency response and sustainable development?
Track 4 – Collaboration and more sustainable and resilient systems

Reflecting on how collaboration can help make Information Management tools and approaches a cornerstone of a more sustainable world. For instance, by considering how aid actors furthering collaboration around IM systems is key to a more open, distributed, trustful and, ultimately, efficient system.

  • How can collaborative and open technologies and digital commons be harnessed to build more resilient societies?
  • What good practices are there to foster collaboration and encourage efficiency (open source, Open Data, etc.) between the different stakeholders of IM (data users, solution providers, authorities, etc.)?