Interview with Manuel Pralong, Protection Data Adviser


Despite its importance, there remains some confusion about the role of a protection-data manager at the ICRC. We asked Manuel Pralong, our protection-data adviser, to explain what the work in protection data entails and share his experience.

We should begin by describing what a protection-data manager does, which is very different from Data Protection. The role of the protection-data manager is to ensure that all information related to protection activities is recorded, organized, and used correctly. These activities include work done in the areas of detention (DET), protection of civil populations (PCP), and the work of the Central Tracing Agency (CTA). Protection data is the backbone of any protection activity. “We like to say that without data, there is no protection,” Manuel noted. “Having effective data and information management ensures well-organized protection work. It allows us to keep track of the activities that have been carried out and the protection cases that require follow-up. It also helps us to plan activities and report on them accurately.”

The protection-data manager’s role – ensuring efficient archival of information, be it in paper or digital form – is indispensable in preserving the life stories of protection beneficiaries and in interacting with weapon bearers. “We are the central nervous system and memory of protection action,” says Manuel. “We capture, organize, analyse, and transmit information from and between the different Protection organs (DET, CTA, PCP) and record them in the brain, so to speak, as memory.”

No description of this role would be complete without keeping in mind that there are people in need behind all the data gathered; affected people we are here to protect.














How to best proceed with our narration if not to tell a story from the field? Manuel shared his experience from one of his early assignments – when he was sent to Colombo, in Sri Lanka, to work as a protection-data manager:

I was still new at the ICRC when I was sent to Colombo. I had never really managed people before, and there I was, leading a large team. The protection team had planned an ambitious project to support the relatives of people who had gone missing during the conflict. The goal was to assess the needs of these families and give them protection as well as mental health and financial support. The project required a multidisciplinary approach involving a number of different departments or units: Protection, Mental-Health and Psychosocial Support, and Economic Security.

The project was already underway when I got there. It was operating with remarkable efficiency and generating a substantial amount of information: comprehensive records of the families visited and of those yet to be contacted, their location, and their active involvement in various initiatives, such as psychosocial support sessions, micro-economic initiatives, and humanitarian aid. That assignment really took me out of my professional comfort zone.

My foremost objective was to immerse myself fully in the project, along with its pressing deadlines. This entailed collaborating with different teams, proposing solutions, and devising means to translate large amounts of information into data concepts and workflows. Determining the relevancy of various pieces of information, entering the data/information into the system, establishing a coherent structure, and prioritizing tasks were all essential elements of this process. It was also really important to react and adapt quickly to changing circumstances. I also had to empower the data team, boost their confidence, develop their capacities, and hire new people and get them on board. In the end, we had things under control and knew where we were going, but I went through moments of intense doubt.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the great data team and the colleagues taking part in the project. If they read this now, I want them to know that I will carry them all in my heart forever. Thank you for the ride!














Now that we know more about the Protection Data Manager role, let’s look at the skills needed to work in this field. Manuel provided us with a detailed account of his professional journey that led him to undertake this demanding yet vital position:

“Personally, I did not study data management, nor did I even know at the time that this kind of work existed. I studied biology and first worked as a lab technician. After that I worked in a number of different areas, such as professional photography, assembly-line work, purchasing, and finally, a bit of data management for a private company. I was lucky that the ICRC was looking for new talent when my previous position was made redundant.

To be honest, you don’t need to be an expert in Excel or in any of the other tools we use. Rather you have to be flexible, curious, open-minded, willing to learn, and humble enough to ask “stupid questions”. You also must be able to understand and translate complex ideas and problems into simple words and devise the solutions necessary. Being rigorously logical and paying attention to details, but also having a highly pragmatic mind.

The ability to communicate is also crucial. In the past, most people thought of data managers as portrayed in popular movies: geeks working mainly in dark basements and out of touch with much of the outside world. It was never quite that, and today, our role further includes informing, training, explaining and discussing how to turn a strategy into data workflows. We also have to persuade colleagues why certain pieces of information are more important than others, understand their needs and provide them with solutions. And – this is really important – we have to be able to speak to groups of people and make presentations that don’t bore them: emptying large amounts of data concepts over their heads can make an audience drowsy very quickly, especially if they have to endure this after lunch.

In addition, a protection-data manager has to understand the ICRC’s protection work and programmes, which means an ability to understand related contexts, strategies, etc. You could say that a protection-data manager has to be some combination of data-management professional and ICRC protection delegate.  

All that being said, I believe that the most important skill for any position you hold at the ICRC is the ability to adapt and stay positive. Nothing can really prepare you to work for a humanitarian organization in conflict and post-conflict contexts. You have to adapt to a new lifestyle, far from your comfort zone, leaving friends and family behind. I have to admit, I went through a wide range of emotions during the last few years: from doubting my abilities and wondering why on earth did I accept this job to gratitude for the most rewarding and heart-warming experiences, and breakthroughs. Realizing that “I can do this!”. Pressure and stress teach you a lot about yourself and help build self-confidence steadily. There are moments of unsuccess, of course, but there’s always growth, professional and personal. Working with exceptional people from diverse countries and cultures opens your mind. Colleagues become close friends. Even if working, eating, sharing living spaces, and traveling with them has its own challenges 😊


We thank Manuel for bringing us so much closer to understanding the indispensable role of the protection-data manager at the ICRC.



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