The Problem

During a crisis response, information managers within the humanitarian community face a significant challenge in trying to collate data regarding humanitarian needs and response activities conducted by a large number of humanitarian actors. The schemas for these data sets are generally not standardized across different actors nor are the mechanisms for sharing the data. In the best case, this results in a significant delay between the collection of data and the formulation of that data into a common operational picture. In the worst case, information is simply not shared at all, leaving gaps in the understanding of the field situation.

Most prior attempts to address this problem have focused on building new tools in the form of databases or forms for collecting this information from humanitarian actors in a standardized way. These attempts have had limited success because they require humanitarian organizations to
  • change their internal information management processes or
  • add additional work to already over-burdened staff who must fill out the standard form (online or otherwise)

A New Approach

OCHA, in collaboration with the Preparedness and Prioritization Community of Interest is undertaking an initiative to build a data exchange language to address this problem in a new way based on an approach that has been successfully used in other domains. Key to the success of this approach is that it does not require changes to existing information management tools and procedures in use in a given humanitarian organization. Instead, an open export format is defined that allows organizations to publish their data in a machine-readable format. 



This format is called the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL), and once data published in this open format, anyone can use it:
  • Response planners
  • Donors
  • Researchers
  • Monitoring and evaluation staff
  • Reports officers
  • Analysts
Because the published data is machine-readable, products such as humanitarian dashboards or other analytical products can be updated in near real-time. Overloaded information managers in the field become consumers of these data streams, focusing on analytical products needed by decision makers, rather than spending time cleaning unstructured data coming from numerous actors.


The initiative will incorporate existing standards developed by the clusters as well as other exchange standards that address parts of the problem domain. OCHA is working with subject matter experts drawn from traditional humanitarian actors (through the Information Management Task Force) and from within OCHA as well as technical experts from the crisis mapping community to collaboratively build and implement an evolving data exchange standard to streamline information flows during crisis response.

HXL Components

Like similar exchange standards in use in various business domains, HXL will provide a flexible, extensible framework in which additional components can be added as needed.  Some of the initial components to be developed are shown below along with necessary support tools.