Data Literacy is Only Half the Battle

by Ryan Winch

Discussions of data literacy permeate many of the conversations surrounding big data and the data revolution taking place today. Debates abound about what data literacy entails, who needs to be data literate and what it will take to increase data literacy worldwide. While these are all worthwhile debates, what often seems to get lost in these discussions is how to convince both individuals and civil society organisations (CSOs) that learning about and actively integrating data into their work is worthwhile. Accordingly, for all those who attended the World Data Forum from 15 – 18 January in Cape Town, South Africa, it is essential to move discussions beyond how to increase data literacy and to actively incorporate a focus about how to build enthusiasm within CSOs around working with data.    

It’s increasingly clear that data literacy is essential for CSOs in the 21st century. Data, in its many forms, can allow organisations to use their resources more efficiently, increase programme efficacy and develop greater understandings of the contexts in which these programmes operate. Despite these benefits, the fact remains that knowledge of how to work with data, the amount of experience CSOs have using it and their willingness (or reluctance) to increasingly incorporate data into their work are often not closely correlated.  This observation is supported by the DataShift team’s experience providing direct support to CSOs, where we have found that many data literate CSOs regularly choose not to work with data, while at the same time many CSOs with lower capacities are producing data heavy reports and literature.

What’s driving this phenomenon is a lack of enthusiasm for working with data. Even amongst those knowledgeable about how to work with data, it’s often seen as either boring, or as a distraction from “real” work such as project management, campaigning or grant writing. Changing this perception towards one where data is seen as a core part of all work will therefore be an essential step to ensuring widespread “data mainstreaming” amongst CSOs in the coming years.

From our experience, this disconnect between data literacy and willingness to voluntarily integrate data into programming is derived from two main sources:

  1. Training courses aren’t applied.  Students, professionals and organisations often take statistics courses or attend monitoring and evaluation (M&E) training sessions which may explain how to design a survey, how to work with SPSS or how to visualise data effectively, but which fail to explain in clear terms how using these tools actually improves project outcomes. How can data reduce child marriage rates? How can deforestation be reduced using data? Too often CSOs fail to see how data can answer these questions and thus, while they know how to use data related tools effectively, they don’t choose to expend their limited time and manpower collecting and analysing data.   
  2. Data is seen as a donor requirement.  Many organisations only work with data when it is requested by donors. Donors today almost always request quantitative accounting of projects’ successes and failures. This means that for many organisations their first experiences with data have been collecting data for donor reports. M&E of programmes soon becomes seen as a chore rather than a potential avenue through which to consistently evaluate and improve programming. This donor-driven process thereby frames data in a way where, while it is seen as an effective avenue to impressing donors and obtaining funding, it isn’t directly connected to the goals of improving programme quality. The result is many CSOs to only choose to work with data when asked to by their donors.  

On the flipside of this situation, it’s also common for CSOs with little experience working with data to be asked by their donors to supply demanding quantitative evaluations of the projects being funded. This leads to low quality, slapdash data being included in reports and publications, providing little value to donors or CSOs. This process is frustrating for CSOs, who can feel coerced into collecting and analysing data they are unprepared to work with. Through forcing data onto these CSOs it saps any enthusiasm these organisations may have had to work with data and leaves them with little understanding of its value. 

Even within the low capacity CSOs which remain enthused about working with data, DataShift has found that asking CSOs to work with data prematurely entrenches poor methodologies, creating habits that are difficult to break even after training or capacity building efforts that may (or may not) be provided later on. It also, and perhaps most distressingly, leads to reports making recommendations or reaching conclusions that are either untrue or that remain unproven. As a result, this improperly used data may actually be fueling inefficiencies and slowing efforts to drive positive change.

This has significant implications for how data needs to be presented to students and trainees, as it shows that simply building data literacy often isn’t enough. CSO’s first experiences with data need to be positive ones and they have to incorporate applied content that allows organisations to see the connections between data and their work. Furthermore, effective training or capacity building efforts need to include a clear marketing element, working to promote all the benefits organisations can reap through engaging with data so that the benefits of working with data become just as clear as the costs (such as staff hours and training).

This certainly isn’t to say that all CSOs have a negative opinion of data, that is certainly not the case.  What it is saying though, is that too often the way that CSOs are introduced to data is the wrong way.  If widespread use of data amongst CSOs is the goal, this trend is alarming as it means that a significant number of the efforts to increase data usage by CSOs are being done in an inefficient, possibly unsustainable manner. Fortunately, the solution isn’t backing off data, or suggesting that data-light training is necessary –  in fact doubling down on data, discussing it more often with partners and focusing on how these discussions of data are framed will be the key to increasing enthusiasm around working with data.  

It is thus essential that discussions of data need to expand their focus beyond the goal of building data literacy. A focus from those running data trainings, and from donors requesting quantitative reporting, on how data can be used to improve projects, as well as efforts to frame data as something essential and productive, rather than a laborious chore, is essential to increasing the number of CSOs choosing to work with data when they’re not required to, and to encourage them to use these data in productive, innovative ways beyond the specific M&E role they also may use it in.

The project I’m currently working on, DataShift, is working hard to overcome this disconnect.  Through our innovative direct support process, we’re able to implement a two-week direct support process that builds data literacy, while also building enthusiasm about working with data. Our training ensure that partner CSOs are engaged throughout the process and are customised to partner’s specific circumstances, so our training sessions and activities can be as applied as possible.  Specifically, we’re working to build enthusiasm though:  

  • Building Relationships – Our direct support consultants take the time to get to know the partner CSO’s we’re supporting.  Through making the process as personal and interactive as possible, partner organisations are able to feel comfortable asking questions, departing from the set curriculum to discuss other potential applications of data and taking their time to ensure all subjects are understood completely.  Most importantly, we’ve found having training run by those enthusiastic about data themselves allows the enthusiasm to rub off, creating an environment where growing enthusiastic about working with data is easy.  
  • Focusing on Applications – All units of our direct support curriculum allow for customisation, allowing topics to be applied directly to the work of the partner organisation.  Our curriculum centers around one specific advocacy project throughout, allowing partner CSOs to see how data can help them reach their goals through it becoming a core part of an effective advocacy campaign. Our units are flexible enough though that they also ensure partners see how data can improve their organisations other programming as well, making it easier for them to choose to integrate data into these aspects of their work.  
  • Collaboration & Networking Building – We work to connect our partners with other organisations using data in similar ways, especially those implementing similar projects. This process allows organisations to build off of each other’s experiences and ensures that once the direct support process ends, partners will continue to have avenues through which to engage with data focused programming.   

While the long-term results of the two-week direct support curriculum remain to be seen, DataShift is taking the important first step towards bridging the data enthusiasm gap. Data has the potential to unleash positive change in a way no one could have anticipated a generation ago, but this will only happen if CSOs have both the knowledge and the desire to engage with it. That’s why we see actively communicating the value of data as an essential step to ensuring data lives up to its potential. Our hope is that this focus extends beyond our programme and that all will work alongside us to build enthusiasm about data. Together, we can make data education both engaging and informative, allowing data’s true potential to be realised in the years ahead.  

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