Data is Not Information

lt. data from star trek

I just spent three days in a training on data use. The trainer made a distinction between information and data. Data is the stuff you collect – raw numbers and observations. Information is what data turns into after you analyze it. Information is stuff you can act on.

The distinction affects most of what we do. I’ve written about this before, but monitoring and evaluation is a constant struggle to actually use the data we collect. Your indictors are useless if you don’t know what their results mean for your program.

It’s also the reason I get less excited than other people about crowd-sourcing data tools. Trues, at times we have a genuine shortage of data. But we always have a shortage of information. Adding crowd-sourced data doesn’t fix that unless it comes with the analysis to make it information.

When we talk about evidence-based medicine, or evidence-based policy, the same things come up. How does a physician use a new study to guide his clinical practice? If a Ministry of Health official reads a report on urban health, what should she do next?

Sometimes, it is clear who should turn data into information. In any project or intervention, the person(s) responsible for monitoring and evaluation should translate monitoring data into something that can be acted on. A crowdsourcing project, though, may have no plan from processing or analyzing data; they may just make the dataset available for others to analyze.

For health care providers, it’s more difficult. When study authors include practice recommendations in published papers, they can’t they hope to cover every medical specialty and client population. Sometimes professional associations step in, developing practice guidelines. In publicly funded systems, the government can development treatment regulations. Sometimes outside organizations like the Cochrane collaboration get involved.

And for policy? Well, think tanks try. And lobbyists, advocacy groups, industry collaborations, trade associations, and dozens of others. We expect, somehow, that government officials will weigh it all and make the best choice. Does that work? Your guess is as good as mine.


photo credit: T

(yes, I am an enormous geek)

Change Hurts

There has been an interesting blogosphere discussion of crowdsourcing in the last few days. The usual crew of people who think about aid – this time humanitarian response in specific – seem to be polarizing slowly into pro and anti-crowdsourcing camps. I linked you to the calmest posts there. There are positions staked out all the way along the spectrum from “crowdsourcing is evil and will hurt innocent people” to “crowdsourcing is going to change the world all by itself.”

As always, I’m somewhere in the middle on this. Crowdsourcing is just a tool. It’s not a miracle cure for anything. It’s a good tool, and sooner or later most competent emergency response groups will find a way to use it. Some will be early adopters, some will trail in at the end. Eventually it’ll get trendy with donors and everyone will start mentioning crowdsourcing in proposals, whether they have a decent plan for it or not.  (I’d also like to point out the remarkable similarity between the rhetoric on crowdsourcing and the discussion of the last big miracle, microfinance.)

But this post isn’t actually about crowdsourcing. It’s about change.

Look, we all know international aid is a mess. The system is not selecting for efforts that work. Bad programs get rewarded. Useless programs get extended. Good programs vanish for no apparent reason.

There are a whole lot of reasons that aid doesn’t really work. Personally, I like to blame democratically elected governments and their need to control where taxpayer money goes.* You can also look at international politics, the challenges of data collection in poor countries, and the sheer complexity of the system. Just for a start.

Anyway, everyone who works in this field knows it’s deeply flawed. The chance to work for an effort that really works is like gold. It’s what we all dream of. We cling like barnacles when we find it. Because it’s too rare. (Too rare, but does happen. Let me make that clear. A broken system means inefficiency, not utter failure. There are development efforts that succeed, and we don’t want to lose them. That’s one reason that feelings run so high.)

Something has to give. We can’t make this broken system keep flailing along forever. Heck, even Rajiv Shah knows it. And when the system changes, it’s going to hurt everyone invested in the status quo. I don’t know if it’s going to be a formal system shift like Cash on Delivery aid, or a disruptive innovation born of some technical advance. But it’s going to hurt, and everyone that’s part of the current system is going to struggle to adjust.

So when tempers flare over whether SMS messaging has actually been proven to save lives, I think what we’re really looking at is fear and hope. Is this the disruptive innovation that’s going to change everything? And if it is, is that good or bad? What if the change makes a flawed system worse?

* No, I am not arguing for dictatorship. But I am saying that most democratically elected representatives aren’t going to be aid experts, and they do control the purse strings. This leads to inevitable mess.


photo credit: fd

Chosen because barnacles were the only decent visual in the whole blog post.

Ushahidi, Twitter, and the future of foreign aid

Text of a short talk I’ll be giving next week:

I want to tell you a story about crowdsourcing, social media, and how the world is changing.

A little while ago, we saw an outbreak of brutal ethnic violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Southern Kyrgyzstan is largely populated by ethnic Uzbeks, and they were being attacked – in really horrible ways – by ethnic Kyrgyz. They had been living together calmly for 20 years. It was an ugly shock.

I have spent a lot of time in both Southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and I was pretty upset about what was going on. I was reading about the situation obsessively, and talking to all my Uzbek and Kyrgyz friends about it. I learned that the violence was being driven by rumors. The first Kyrgyz attacks came in response to rumors of Uzbek atrocities, and rumors and distorted stories were still triggering violence.

So I thought, Kyrgyzstan needs Ushahidi, to cut through the rumors.

Ushahidi is an open source software platform that aggregates and maps crowd-sourced information. It receives information via SMS or the web, and then presents it in a user-friendly way that people can view on a computer or a cellphone. It was first used to map post-election violence in Kenya.

Five years ago if I’d thought that, there would have been nothing I could do. I could have told my friends, written a blog post, and worried. This year, I posted about it on Twitter. A couple people on Twitter gave me the contact information for the Ushahidi team. I wrote to them, and they told me that there was an Ushahidi Kyrgyzstan effort going on.

A guy called Altyn Ismailov was working on an Ushahidi platform for Kyrgyzstan. I got in touch with him by email. He told me that by now the violence had mostly stopped, but there was a constitutional referendum coming up in three days that threatened to trigger it all over again. Alytn wanted to have a referendum-specific Ushahidi platform running, to both monitor the voting and track any violence that occurred, but he had hit a wall.

Altyn was out of money, and he was exhausted. He asked if I would help him write a grant application to get funds to finish the Ushahidi platform and educate people about how to use it. I said yes, but I was worried about trying to get DfiD or USAID to mobilize funds in four days. Then Altyn told me he needed 564 dollars.

Now I don’t have a life where I can just write a check for $564, but I do have a bunch of Twitter followers. I told Altyn I thought I could fundraise the money for him, and leave major donors out of it. I put up a ChipIn widget with a project description, and described the effort to my Twitter followers. My goal was to raise $564 in 48 hours.

We raised $610 in 8 hours. It was amazing. Altyn got his money, and the platform was up in time for the referendum. The voting went smoothly, and there was no further violence. Odds are it would have gone smoothly anyway, but we were proud to be part of the insurance.

This isn’t a story about me or Altyn, though. This is a story about change. Ushahidi is an open source platform, developed in the global south. Ten years ago, Africa didn’t have the connectivity to develop and distribute a platform like Ushahidi. And ten years ago, cell phones didn’t have the power or the ubiquity to make Ushahidi a useful tool.

I learned about Ushahidi from the web. I got the contact information for its team via social media. I was in touch with Altyn by email. I raised the money using the ChipIn widget to let people track and donate, and all my fundraising requests were on Twitter. Nothing about the fundraising effort would have been possible without social media and new technology.

This was a small scale effort, and there were a lot of reasons that it got lucky.* But I have a feeling it’s going to be the model for a whole lot of bigger efforts in the future.

*Specifically, Ushahidi is a social media darling, the amount of money needed was small and specific, and Kyrgyzstan was in the news.


(Photo credit: Robert Thomson)

Chosen because this is a gorgeous picture of Kyrgyzstan and looks just like I think of it.