4th IODC

Blog IODC 2016
Madrid. October 6-7, 2016


Humanitarian Exchange Language: a simple standard for messy data

May 27, 2015 by IODC

A guest post from UNOCHA on the Humanitarian Exchange Language data standard.

hxlUNOCHA is excited to announce the 1.0 beta release of the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL) standard, developed with the help of representatives from British Red Cross, the UK Department for International Development, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, the International Organization for Migration, Save the Children, the Standby Task Force, the UN Refugee Agency, UNICEF, USAID, Ushahidi, the World Food Programme, and the World Bank.

How it works

Inspired by social-media hashtags, HXL helps humanitarian organisations add value to the data they’re already creating by improving automation and interoperability.  The principle of the standard is simple: we ask organisations to add a row of HXL hashtags to their spreadsheets, between the headers and the data, like this:


To support use in the field, the core standard is small enough to fit on a 4×6 inch (10×15 cm) postcard, copies of which we will be handing out at the Third International Open Data Conference in Ottawa, Canada.


Cooperation, not competition

Unlike most data standards, HXL is cooperative rather than competitive. A competitive standard starts by dictating to data providers how they should work:

  • Switch to a different data format (and acquire and learn new software tools).
  • Change the information you share (and the way the organisation collects and uses that information).
  • Abandon what is valuable and unique about your organisation’s data (and conform to the common denominator).

For HXL, we reversed the process and started by asking humanitarian organisations how they currently work, then instead of trying to clean up the (so-called) mess, we worked out how we could build a cooperative standard to embrace and enhance that work:

  • Users told us that they use spreadsheets for data sharing, so HXL works with tabular data (e.g., Excel files, Google Sheets, CSV API output).
  • Users told us that every crisis and activity has different data requirements, so HXL offers a selection of hashtags to mix and match to suit different reporting needs (e.g., activity reporting, population data, needs assessments, facility locations).
  • Users told us that organisations often collect types of information that no one else has, so HXL allows providers to leave some columns untagged, or to invent new hashtags for additional types of information.

Accompanying the standard’s beta release are public-domain Python and Javascript libraries for HXL processing (Java and PHP coming soon), as well as an early prototype online service for validating, filtering, transforming, and visualising HXL-tagged data on the fly.

Next steps

HXL has already gone through early trials during the West Africa Ebola and Nepal Earthquake crises, and we will be expanding to much-more comprehensive implementations over the next few months. We will also be releasing video tutorials and cookbooks of best practices, as those emerge from field trials.

For debate: Can we make all standards as simple, and cooperative, as HXL aims to be? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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