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Investigating Safe Data Sharing and Systems Interoperability in Humanitarian Cash Assistance

2023 — By International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

This report offers a technical landscaping of the current state of data sharing and interoperability in the sector and evaluates the potential of emerging technologies and operating models to address challenges in current approaches. The analysis is focused on cash programming, and specifically on two use cases: deduplication of beneficiaries, and referrals of individuals.

Key insights from this workstream:

  • There is no silver bullet technical solution – Given the tremendous diversity in organizational capacity and resources, operating environments, data protection regimes, stakeholder relationships, and nature of the response, there is no singular solution or technical approach that is ideal in all contexts, even for a single use case. Instead, we believe a plurality of technical approaches will continue to be used for data sharing, and that this plurality is healthy for the sector overall – e.g. it reflects the demands and capacity of local context, and provides resilience against monopolization and failure.
  • Spreadsheets still matter – While there have been significant advancements in technical solutions for data sharing – in particular, for deduplication – a huge number of organizations still rely on emailing spreadsheets and other insecure methods. Many if not most recognize the risks associated with processing and sharing data in these ways, but the lack of resources and technical capacity limit their ability to procure more robust systems.
  • Interoperability is not just a technical challenge – Although this analysis is technical in nature, it’s important to recognize that technical systems are just one aspect of interoperability.
    The ‘interoperability stack’ model (see section ‘About technical interoperability’ below) highlights the need for alignment at the organizational and legal layers as well; in fact, these non-technical aspects are likely more challenging than the technical layer.
  • Power asymmetries shape data sharing – There are significant power asymmetries between the UN agencies and international NGOs and smaller, lower-resourced NGOs, and these asymmetries are reflected in the access to and control over data-sharing technologies; in short, larger organizations have systems, power and control, and smaller organizations typically have little agency in how they engage with technical data-sharing processes.
  • Data standardization is the key – Regardless of the solution or technical approach, effective data sharing requires alignment on data standards, which we see as a clear opportunity for improving the foundation and potential for interoperability across the sector. Importantly, data standardization is not threatening to any actors, and in fact was explicitly encouraged by virtually all key informants, including private sector vendors.