Between the Dashboard and the Chair: The Human Side of Data for Good | Beth's Blog

Between the Dashboard and the Chair: The Human Side of Data for Good

Measurement, Social Media Policy

Yesterday and today, I am attending the Markets For Good workshop at the Gates Foundation. Markets for Good is an initiative with a purpose to support the further development of the information infrastructure that enables sharing and use of information for the social sector. You can about the vision here.

I was invited to do a “lightening talk” covering the “human side” of data for good.  I will also be writing a regular column on the Markets for Good site called “Between the Dashboard and the Chair,” which will focus on the cultural change, capacity building, and practical tips and skills for using data for learning for nonprofits.  You can read the first post here.

The Human Side of Nonprofit Data Practice is the Yin, Technical the Yang

Good data practice is not just about the technical skills.  There is a human side to nonprofit measurement and data .  It is found between the dashboard and the chair.   It includes organizational culture and its influence on decision-making – from consensus building on indicators, agility in responding to data with action, and sense-making.   It is the human side that helps nonprofits use  their data for learning and continuous improvement.

Effective nonprofit measurement and data practice requires a balance of both the human side and the technical.   It is like yin and yang, because these seeming contrary ideas and skills sets are actually complementary, interconnected and interdependent.

In the world of nonprofit data, we might look at yin yang narrowly as data visualization and spreadsheet data, but I’d like to frame it more broadly as the technical and the human.

This column will examine some common situations where the balance gets out of whack, while  offering examples of how some nonprofits have kept the yin and yang of their data and measurement practices in check.   You’ll find lots of tips, examples, and resources that will answer questions like this:

  • What are the tips and techniques for presenting data results to your board or senior management?
  • How can we get past counting beds and heads and measure transformation?
  • How can we get started with using data to support experiments?
  • Can real-time data help our organization?
  • Don’t Fear the Spreadsheet!
  • How do we extract learning from our data?
  • What are some examples of nonprofits using qualitative data effectively?
  • How do you create useful data visualizations if you don’t have a graphic designer on staff?
  • Our organization is allergic to spreadsheets, how do we find a data scientist to help us for free?

We all know that the first step when collecting data to measure a strategy or program is to identify outcomes, which is also the single most important metric that tells you if you are on track.  That’s easier said than done.   It is often easy for nonprofit staff to describe results and match a KPI, but it can be much harder to get consensus.    For example, the board may have different interpretation than staff or marketing director and fundraising directors may have different interpretations.

This classic Dilbert cartoon says it all.    It is an all too familiar situation where an organization has a dashboard with all the bells and whistles to track its progress, but when it comes to decision making the data is ignored because of organizational politics.   Or, metrics are gathered to justify a strategy favored by organizational leaders.

How to avoid this?  Using design thinking and consensus building facilitation techniques and taking the time to identify and discuss can help.     The critical step of getting buy-in on the data and an organizational commitment to stop making gut decisions is what I will explore in the next column at Markets For Good site.

Does your organization have a story about balancing the human and technical side of using data and measurement?  Share it in the comments and it could be part of a future column.


5 Responses

  1. Fascinating piece, I was particularly struck by the yin and yang diagram and noticed how much this reflected Operational Research (O.R.)which is the discipline of applying appropriate analytical methods to help those who run organisations make better decisions.

    The Yin (Technical) is like ‘Technical/Hard’ O.R. where the problem is analytically studied using
    experimental data, measurement, quantification and mathematical modelling.

    The Yang (Human) is like ‘Practical/Soft’ O.R. which employs predominantly qualitative, rational, interpretative and structured techniques to interpret, define, and explore various perspectives of the problem.

    By using techniques such as problem structuring methods and mathematical modelling to analyse complex situations, O.R. gives executives the power to make more effective decisions.

    The OR Society set up the Pro Bono O.R. initiative in September 2013 after recognising that many Third sector organisations needed help in this area.

  2. Beth says:

    Felicity, thanks so much for sharing the information about Operational Research. Is there a link or a post about the techniques that you’d recommend reading?

  3. Beth,

    I’m really glad nonprofit admins are moving more towards this conversation. From experience, I’ve seen open-source data make such a remarkable impact in communities world-wide, since by it’s nature open-source tech removes bureaucratic and political hurdles so data is free for everyone to use without restriction.

    Immediate examples I can think of was Crisis Cleanup in response to Hurricane Sandy, and Code for America’s Honolulu Answers project.

    Definitely looking forward to what you learn from the Gates Foundation!

  4. Kris Wittenberger says:

    Beth, this is very inspiring and I’m looking forward to reading the post-event roundup. It makes me think of the potential for collective impact that we’ve seen happening in isolated areas. Thank you for taking this challenge on!


  5. Beth says:

    Kris: Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing that link!