Design, Monitoring and Evaluation for Peacebuilding

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Galvanizing Internal Data Demand: Designing with the User in Mind

Author, Copyright Holder: 
Josh Powell, Paige Kirby

Nearly 90% of the data on Earth has been created over the past couple of years, providing a bountiful supply of datasets. But to foster a sustainable data ecosystem, we also need to pay attention to the other side of this equation: data demand.

Why is demand important? Because demand is critical in order to derive value from all this data production. Without information uptake, the time and financial resources invested in making data open, machine readable, and interoperable may as well be for naught.

Also important to note: quite often, the intended consumers of data are not external actors, but internal users who could leverage data in their operational, strategic, and financial decision-making. This could be an NGO, a USAID Country Mission, a partner country Ministry of Finance, or a private sector firm. In Development Gateway’s (DG) institutional experience, one of the biggest challenges in building an internal audience for data-driven tools is a discouraged user base. The cases below of two organizations leveraging data to tell a compelling narrative of impact provide lessons that can be applied to user bases writ large.

USAID-Colombia: Efficiently Sourcing Information

For several years, the USAID mission in Colombia has tracked funding, location, and performance indicators for its in-country programs through its MONITOR Management Information System (MIS). A desire for richer visual and analytical capabilities led the mission to work with Development Gateway and its AidData partners to create an interactive GIS module, integrated with MONITOR. This platform, currently under development, will allow users to filter all data by key criteria, visualize funding, overlay statistical layers, share customized maps, and export filtered data – increasing the value of information through better analytical and narrative capacities.

However, more important than the specific features of the platform is the way in which it was scoped and designed, through close collaboration with various USAID/Colombia technical offices and key user groups. While the program is still ongoing, a few key lessons, which match other experiences we’ve had, have emerged.

Lessons learned:

  • Make sure it’s the right data: An important challenge facing USAID-Colombia has been data fragmentation and few “core” indicators, which has resulted in datasets difficult to use beyond the project level. The ability to understand which data are important, and the extent to which they must be standardized, is critical. Working with the Mission, we defined the proper level of aggregation needed based upon USAID’s actual decision-making processes.
  • Use external data sources when appropriate: One of the major benefits of MONITOR GIS is that it gives users the ability to overlay mission-level data with statistics from the USAID GeoCenter or other trusted sources, enhancing analysis without increasing workload. Quite often, organizations are too focused on “their” data, failing to recognize that data are only useful to inform decisions when they are placed within the proper context.

African Development Bank: Accounting for Internal Realities

As part of a bank-wide initiative to increase transparency, the African Development Bank (AfDB) invested in MapAfrica – a public facing portal featuring the bank’s entire geocoded portfolio of projects. Featuring a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, users may filter through projects by key criteria. Currently, the AfDB is piloting a “project stories” feature to communicate its program results and is considering integrating citizen feedback into the map.

Lessons learned:

  • Policy, culture, and skills matter: MapAfrica required an internal culture shift towards sub-national data collection, being accomplished through an incentive structure and rigorous mandatory trainings on the new system.
  • Avoid data extraction: To minimize duplication of efforts and data production for production’s sake, data collection for the map was streamlined into existing tools, and the database was integrated with their Results Reporting System – ensuring sub-national data was useful for public and internal documentation. Far too often, new stand-alone tools are introduced to tackle new problems, requiring users to be trained on another system, maintain multiple user accounts, and enter different pieces of their data picture in different places – this often causes discouragement and disuse.

So – how should we tackle data demand?

Time for a controversial culture check: more data is not always better. Individuals need to actually use data in order for it to be effective.

As data suppliers and ecosystem facilitators, we can encourage uptake by:

  1. Designing with, not for, users. This includes designing for how people actually work, not an idealized vision of such.
  2. Prioritizing information. In some cases, providing or requiring more information does not add value, but only increases reporting burdens.
  3.  Providing useful tools for visualizing and analyzing – not just reporting – data. Individuals want to know “what’s in it for them,” and internal audiences can just as easily benefit from a strong user interface.

It’s time to shift the focus toward data use, and reap real operational benefits from our data systems and efforts.

Paige Kirby is an External Relations Associate at Development Gateway;

Josh Powell is the Director of Innovation at Development Gateway and AidData.