Using Data for Greater Impact

Have you ever opened up your email in the morning and found a message from Amazon saying: “Come on, you know you really want that game you were looking at last night and didn’t buy?”

There has been a lot of discussion recently about “big data,” and the increasing ability of companies to track and profile consumer online behavior and use these data to customize offerings. There is also a parallel discussion going on within the international development community, but here the question is:

how can we better use existing data to design more customized and effective programs?

There are an astonishing number of publicly funded databases in the world. And while getting valid data is sometimes a problem, a much bigger problem is turning existing data into information that is useful for action, by policy makers or donors. Dr. Hans Rosling makes an engaging case for the creative use of existing data in his TED talk. He has gone on to found the Gapminder Foundation, which provides free software to help nonprofits better aggregate and present their data.

In December, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop hosted by the Population Council, focused on the use of data in designing programs targeted to adolescent girls. The Population Council has long supported the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), a periodic survey given in many countries in the world. More recently they have been focused on trying to make this often rich, country and regional information more accessible. For example, for a donor (either institutional or individual) interested in working to increase the age of girls marriage in Ethiopia, a map like the one below makes it clear both that the problem is more localized than it might appear from looking at national statistics overall, and that there has been change over time, at least in certain places.

For individual donors, it is probably the rare person who has the time or inclination to wade through a lot of data, even if presented in a more digestible way. Ideally, donors would like to have confidence that the organizations they support have looked at the existing data, know the local context, and have designed their programs with both in mind. Here are some things donors can look for and questions to ask:

  • Who is the organization trying to help? How do they talk about that group or groups? In general, the less specific the target group or groups, the less confidence that the program design will reach a specific sub-group of interest to you. For example a program targeted to “poor youth” may not actually reach “poor girls.”
  • Where is the organization active? Do they indicate why they have located their programs in this place or places? Was it happenstance, or convenience, or was the selection made in a more directed way and related to needs?
  • As always, how does the organization’s approach to a problem fit within the evidence base of what works? You may not be familiar with the evidence base, but you can certainly tell if an organization is at least trying to convey how they took this into account, and if they talk about results measured broadly, or simply provide anecdotal evidence of success.

There is always a certain amount of homework associated with making a purchase or an investment, even a philanthropic one. Even the two-click ease of an Amazon purchase is likely to result in buyers’ remorse if you didn’t bother to read the reviews. The good news is there are an increasing number of organizations (including our Center) trying to make information more useful and accessible.