As Michael Quinn Patton emphasizes in his literature on utilization focused evaluations, an evaluation is only as good as it is useful. In the DM&E field, we spend a substantial amount of time working with data. From the utilization focused perspective, what you do with your data matters significantly. If you want your findings to be understood, internalized, and used by a specific set of people, it is important to report your findings in a way that enables this to happen. Furthermore, peacebuilding M&E is typically done in a high stakes environment where the extent to which findings are put into action can make a big impact on a community.
Data visualization and graphics-based reporting are gaining popularity in general and specifically in the M&E world. This emerging trend can be especially beneficial for visual learners, but there are also some understandable critics of the practicality and usefulness of focusing on graphics in a resource-limited setting. So the question is whether spending resources on data visualization is an innovative way to increase usability of your findings or an impractical drain on resources.
Below is a list of pros and cons of data visualization and its potential to be used in peacebuilding M&E.
Graphics can be used to reach a variety of stakeholders, including those with less technical expertise and low literacy. With participatory methods recognized as a way to increase the sustainability and buy-in of peacebuilding M&E, having a reporting method that reaches a variety of people can be very useful. Reporting findings to the community in which the intervention takes place can increase learning for the community as a whole, give feedback to local staff, and increase program reflection and accountability.
Graphics can be more appealing to review than a written report and can attract a wider audience. They can make data fun! With the high importance of evaluation for peacebuilding work, making the evaluation findings more appealing can increase the chance that they will be reviewed and used.
Graphics can allow you to display a lot of information in a small space. A huge dataset can be summarized in one well-made graphic. While peacebuilding work is inherently complex and multi-faceted, displaying evaluation findings in a graphic can allow you to organize lots of interrelated information in useful ways.
The use of maps and GIS can be especially relevant for peacebuilding work, when location is so often a very relevant factor. Maps can be used to show where things are happening, giving an idea of the severity of a conflict, the spread, and the populations who are affected.
It can be time and resource intensive to develop graphics, and professional evaluators don’t necessarily have the skillset. In peacebuilding work, organizations are often working in resource-limited settings, and getting evaluation results in a timely matter can often be of high importance. For this reason, spending time and other resources on extensive graphics could cause unnecessary delays and prevent data from being available when it is most needed.
When creating a graphic, it can be tempting to focus more on form than on function. If the primary goal of a graphic is to add visual appeal, then the overall value of the graphic is minimal. Graphics should be used to attain a specific purpose not achieved through more traditional reporting methods. In a resource-limited setting, it is important to think carefully about how resources can best be used and not get caught up in the graphics trend without a clear purpose.
Poorly made graphics can actually make data harder to interpret or lead to misrepresentation. Data visualization expert, Andy Kirk, discusses the issue of graphics that look great but are hard to interpret on his website called Visualising Data. In peacebuilding M&E, effective communication should be priority over visual appeal to ensure that data reporting increases understanding.
Graphics often rely on symbols, and the way in which a person interprets a symbol can vary dramatically based on their background, culture, etc. This can lead to misinterpretation of the data. Often peacebuilding aims to increase communication and dispel misunderstandings, so it is especially important that data be presented in a way that is consistent with these objectives.
Types of data visualization:
There are a variety of ways that data can be reported visually. Here are a few examples of potential methods and how they might be appropriate for peacebuilding.
This graphic shows the breakdown of racial demographics in the US. With interactive features, it is easy to explore the data in whichever way the user sees as useful. The ability to show multiple types of demographic information in a succinct way can be particularly useful for data related to peacebuilding.
Another example of an interactive website, this graphic displays the history of violence in subnational Asia across time. This type of reporting can be useful for showing the development of conflict over time in a certain area in a simple and visual way.
The Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham produced this graphics-based report on International Criminal Tribunals. The report combines graphics, maps, timelines, and text for an attention grabbing method of telling the story and highlighting key points.
What challenges or successes have you had in incorporating data visualization into your peacebuilding work?
I think that infographics in particular are an especially effective way to attract attention and raise awareness. Eye-tracking studies have shown that web visitors pay close attention to “images that deliver content messages”
An infographic is “an image containing graphics and text including statistics about a certain subject”
Infographics are systematically created to deliver a message concisely and clearly. Although infographics communicate limited amounts of information (usually key facts and statistical information) they have the ability to convey important quantitative data quickly. Individuals frequently share infographics via social media, which allows the message to reach an even larger audience. Inforgraphics can be created easily and quickly, templates are available online. I think that using an infographic to capture the initial attention of an audience (with notable facts and figures) will entice potential readers to further investigate the message you are trying to send and compel them to read a full report or further information. What do you think?
Below are the links to examples of infographics that I found online.
"How People Read on the Web." National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. N.p., n.d. Web. Sept. 2013. <http://nichcy.org/dissemination/tools/webwriting/reading>.
Murphy Kelly, Samantha. "Mashable." Mashable. N.p., 9 July 2012. Web. Sept. 2013. <http://mashable.com/2012/07/09/how-to-create-an-infographic/>.
These are all great resources. Thanks so much for sharing! In your experience, is it the program staff that develops these infographics or are they created by the M&E or research team?
I have seen them created by program staff and the M&E or research teams. Below is a link to a webpage that lists twenty free online tools that allow you to create your own infographics and a link to an article that lists some other resources that are helpful in creating infographics. I think that Infogr.am is great.
Actually IInfographics are specifivally established to send a message precisely and elaborately. Although infographics communicate small amounts of information (usually key facts and statistical information) they have what it takes to spread key quantitative data quickly. Individuals frequently share infographics via social media and essay papers, which allows the message to reach an even larger audience. Inforgraphics can be created easily and quickly, templates are available online.
At the American Evaluation Association conference last week, there were several sessions that emphasized the importance of effective dissemination of evaluation results, and the use of infographics came up again and again.
The question that repeatedly came up however, was that tools like infographics are only used to communicate positive information and what can M&E professionals do to make sure that the practice of data visualization doesn't just become a marketing and communications exercise?
I think that tools like infographics can easily become marketing and communications tools (after all an organization is most likely not going to create something that is designed to be easily shared and reach many individuals that highlights it’s short comings). However, I think it is possible to use infographics to increase awareness about a particular issue that a program is working towards fixing. Additionally, I think that creating an infographic intended for internal use only could be a potentially effective tool in motivating staff members to correct the issues within an organization. If staff members have a concrete, easy to understand, representation of what the organization needs in order to succeed it is possible that they will be more focused on those particular issues. Below are some links to infographics that communicate issues rather positive information. Do you think it is possible that infographics can be effectively used to increase awareness about issues?
Thank you for sharing these useful ressources. Data vizualisation tools should be used for "positive" and "negative" findings.