Disaster Communications: Humanitarian Information Exchange Language

By David Becker and John Crowley

Out of the chaos of the Haitian earthquake, there is a new effort to better coordinate humanitarian efforts in future large disasters.  The UN has proposed a simple and cheap way to improve data exchange with governments, UN agencies, and hundreds of non-governmental organizations working in the field of disaster response and reconstruction.  Elaborate and expensive software or hardware solutions do not appeal to most NGOs so the UN has begun implementing a new standard data exchange protocol (Humanitarian Exchange Language – HXL) that will improve response times and coordination in crises, without imposing new time and personnel costs on others or requiring new software systems.


Haiti was a wakeup call to the disaster response community. A coordination system designed for 20-30 professional response organizations to sort out who does what in a refugee crisis in Sudan or Somalia did not work nearly as well when 800 NGOs descended on UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) in the first three weeks following the earthquake.

The overloaded system generated long meetings and little useful information for decisions affecting the 1or 2 million survivors, although many NGOs were surveying, counting and estimating as fast as they could. Many of the NGOs had better data connections back to their headquarters in Europe or the US than they did with the UN agencies in the next tent over.  Passing papers in meetings, or even sending PDF documents via e mails posted on websites, did not allow speedy collection and sorting of the information that was being gathered.  Data was often out of date before it could be compiled. And few had the time to exhaustively review what was being collected.

In this information environment the organization formally responsible for coordination—UN OCHA—is asked to perform its work without the authority to impose rules on the system. While OCHA is underfunded and overstretched, it is trying a new way forward using a proven approach from other arenas: establishing open data standards with key players in the ecosystem. This approach seeks to establish the data standards to describe humanitarian actions using the Semantic Web (aka Web 3.0). In this way, organizations could continue to use their existing information systems with a HXL “adapter” to enable the systems to a) describe their data schema, and b) exchange and transform data between each other’s systems using the W3C’s Resource Description Format or RDF. OCHA has already built tools with UNHCR to describe human migration (i.e., focused on populations) using this new RDF standard, called the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL). It is now building support for the HXL platform for subsequent partnerships. To move this work forward, the UN will need the network effects of other major agencies adopting the standard, thereby making it more attractive for others to join in.

We propose that this effort be extended into another area where coordination is crucial: logistics. Again, Haiti was the crucible where the need for improved coordination became clear, as dozens of different organizations fought to get their planeloads of supplies into the airport, only to find that they still had no coordinated way to move supplies off the airfield, nor was it always clear which supplies should be going where once out of the airport, combined with supplies coming in by land or sea.

If the HXL language were built out to include logistics terms, with the imprimatur of the UN and the World Food Program (WFP) it could become a lingua franca for many different organizations to share information on manifests, contents, locations and other requirements.  For the US government, this may be particularly useful for the Department of Defense, as the Combatant Commands are called in for large disasters and suddenly have to coordinate actions with multiple players as they pick up and drop off supplies from multiple locations, juggle the priorities and work with the NGO community to deliver in the best and cheapest way. Using a common data protocol allows everyone from DOD to the smallest NGO to establish data exchanges, rather than rely on phone calls and e mails via a network that has to be established and re-established with every disaster.  And frankly, an open standard with DoD as a node in the ecosystem is far less threatening to NGOs than having to use a DoD portal on a USG server.

As such, we at CTNSP have begun exploring if DoD should foster both the adoption of HXL and the growth of the open data ecosystem around HXL by supporting this standard for HADR logistics requests. If WFP and OCHA can implement HXL for logistics, and build support for its use, there is an increased likelihood that DoD personnel or host governments or others managing ports and airports would have clear manifests of NGO shipments before they arrive for offloading and distribution.

For example, if DoD has increased visibility into shipment manifests, it will also become possible to publish shipment status/location to NGO recipients using an open, unclassified protocol instead of phone calls and emails. Partners could build apps that could provide additional visibility into shipment status. Given that the Semantic Web provides for additional support for unattended smart devices, it would be possible for the UN, NGOs or the local government to add sensors in supply chains, landing zones, and hospitals which could report on traffic jams, local weather conditions, and the like, without having these sensors be any one operator’s property. They could be an open standard that NGOs could choose to implement so that they can have more effective operations.  And this data could be instantly available to users of all types, to overlay on their maps, or feed into their systems.

Three points are key: 1) HXL allows hundreds of independent organizations to continue to use their preferred systems. 2) Using HXL will not require staff in a crisis zone to spend time filling out more forms or going to new websites for information. 3) This is already being developed for reporting on populations, but we need to go further and begin development and adoption for the HXL common data protocol for logistics to truly make a difference in the next big disaster.  

David Becker is the Director for Civil Military Activities Integration at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University. John Crowley is a Research Associate with CTNSP.  


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2 Responses to Disaster Communications: Humanitarian Information Exchange Language

  1. P. A. says:

    I’m wondering how this would work for logistics, can you provide an example use case? Say for example Haiti. How would the HXL Logistics Extension be used by a supplier to enable ‘distribution efficiency’ and meet UNCHO mission objectives, I’m assuming ‘speed and reliability of the delivery of necessary supplies (shelter, water, food, etc…) is somehow a measured objective. Thanks.

    • David Becker says:

      At the moment, supplies are sent from one country, handled by several intermediaries or the US military (case in Haiti) and then they arrive in port or the airport and are unloaded. By that time, it may well be impossible to know what is in the pallets without opening the packing list or even ripping them open.. This is especially true with diferent country donations arriving from different locations to one site. HXL would allow sharing of the data in a common format so that all who have the “translator” could see what was coming in their preferred systems as it was en route. So when it arrives, decisions on prioritization and handoffs to the right NGO or local government agency would be far easier. Also, a description of a pallet of food or water can mean mean different things. Size, weight, packaging, etc, can be clarified as part of the common data protocol.

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