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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Indicator data visualizations: The Guardian Datablog and Data Store


“Facts are Sacred”, The Guardian Datablog says, and the Guardian challenges us to examine those facts carefully, as its recent story on the "3 Little Pigs" illustrates.

While creative visualizations of  indicator data undoubtedly make it more interesting, without informed explanation of what the information means, the visualizations can often be misleading.  The Guardian Data Store and the Guardian Datablog provide an example of how journalists bring images, indicator data and intelligent analysis together.

 [Edited to update links, June 2018]
Level of Difficulty: Moderate to Complex
Primarily Useful for: Aid agency communications managers, creative programme reporting staff
Most useful: The Development Data directory
Limitations:  The raw data searches work only intermittently, and the Kindle format reduces the utility of the Ebook.

Who this is for

Not everyone will be able to produce the kind of data visualizations presented by the Guardian, but we can all benefit by the examples the news site provides of where to get data, how to present it, and what kind of questions are necessary in determining the reliability and validity of indicator data.

Those who may have the resources to actually produce these kind of visualizations will probably not be working at a project level.  But aid agency communications staff, and some large agencies at the country level, may have the intellectual and financial resources to do what the Guardian data team does.

Background - data visualization

Many development workers, project managers, monitors, evaluators, wading through dense international development project reports and evaluations, may wish that more attention could be paid to making indicator data more understandable.

The late Hans Rosling, for example, is well known for creative presentations on indicators.
These are intended, as the Gapminder Institute  puts it, to “unveil the beauty of statistical time series by converting boring numbers into enjoyable, animated and interactive graphics”.  But doing this at the project and programme level in international development can be challenging.

And as entertaining as animations, graphs or pictures are, by themselves they  can be misleading.  Hans Rosling  does more than provide the graphics, of course. He interprets what the data and the graphics can tell us, in clear, compelling language.

The Gapminder Institute is not alone, however, in presenting – and interpreting - indicator data in a compelling manner.

The Guardian Data Post and Datablog

News websites  reach millions of people a day, and among these the most creative in obtaining and utilizing data in compelling visualizations is by far the The Guardian.  The Guardian newspaper’s online site  with more than 29 million unique visitors in December 2011 alone, is the fifth most visited newspaper, and among the most respected sites on the internet.

The  most interesting part of the Guardian site, (aside from 3 Little Pigs ad) for many of us working in international development is the Guardian Datablog, and the associated Data Store,  its directory of all of the statistics the Guardian uses as it reports the news.  This includes World Government data search, a Development data search, examples of featured data visualizations and a link to an electronic version of Facts are Sacred, a new book by Simon Rogers, one of the Guardian’s news editors, on how The Guardian collects and presents data,. He is also editor of both the Data Store and Datablog.

The Guardian itself, in its main economic, political, health or education pages publishes mainline news stories. What the Datablog does, as far as I can see, is highlight the stories making innovative use of publicly available data, explain where the data come from, and then challenge readers to question it, or do more with the information. In some cases the Guardian Datablog appears to produce its own visualizations from raw data sources, but in most, it seems, the Datablog team provide a link to, or a variation on another agency’s visualization – and then they provide The Guardian’s explanation of what the information means.

Scope of the Guardian’s data

The Manchester Guardian, one of the UK’s oldest newspapers, was founded in 1821 and established its online site almost 175 years later, in 1995. The Guardian Datablog was established in 2009 to explore what editor Simon Rogers refers to as data journalism – journalism which mines available data looking for hidden or emerging stories.

As he points out, data journalism is not new – good journalists have been using obscure data as the basis for breaking news for centuries.

The Datablog, between January 15, 2009, and the time it produced a summary of all of the blog’s comments on data journalism, on July 15, 2011, listed 1,407 articles or blog posts, including links to all of the available underlying data in spreadsheet format.  It is unclear why that information had not been updated since it was posted in 2011,  but by my very rough estimate as I write this in March 2012, there have been approximately 490 - 500 additional posts between August 2011 and February 28, 2012.  This brings the total to approximately 1,900 articles -  all with some form of graphic – tables, charts, static or interactive, simple or complex, and all challenging us to use the underlying data ourselves in whatever way makes sense to us.

This is a mind-boggling number of analyses, given the detail involved - over 10 such articles a week for two and half years – and it does not necessarily represent the true extent of the work The Guardian has done.

As just one example, one story, by The Guardian Data editor about Malaria, referenced in the Datablog on February 3, 2012, for example, was preceded and followed within a week, by at least three other stories on Malaria in the main section of the Guardian  (by the health editor), in the Guardian Weekly, and in the New Review section  of the Guardian’s sister publication the Observer.

Old data - new presentations

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Online RBM Training -2: The UN's Programme Performance Assessment in Results-Based Management

--Greg Armstrong --

The UN’s Programme Performance Assessment in Results-Based Management, is a jargon-laden, time-consuming and partially out of date production that, whatever its original merits, is too frustrating to be useful today. There are more productive ways to spend your time.

Level of Difficulty: Moderate to Complex
Primarily Useful As: Difficult to say - a history of UN RBM jargon?
Most useful: Section 4-5 on data collection and reporting
Limitations: Out-of-date RBM language,jargon-laden, boring format


Online RBM training is unlikely to provide the hands-on practice and the opportunities for learning of group processes which are the foundation for effective Results-Based Management training and implementation, but some courses are definitely better than others.

After my December 15, 2011 post describing the University of Wisconsin’s effective interactive online results-based management course, I was asked by one reader for my opinion of other online RBM courses. The University of Wisconsin’s Logic Model course, is, in my opinion, excellent, making the most of interactive opportunities available in the absence of live training.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is an online course available from the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services–Programme Performance Programme Performance Assessment in Results-based Management.

Google search results - Online Results-Based Management Training
CLICK image to enlarge

If we do a plain word search for "online results based management course" (without the quotes) on Google's .com search we will get, depending on the day, more than 80 million hits, and on page one of this search – at least as of January 31, 2012, the first and third results shown are for this specific UN RBM course.

Those search results may vary slightly given country-specific versions of the search engines, but  Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo search return several million results on this topic too, again with this UN RBM course ranking very high in the search results.

The highest ranked result --with a 2011 date-- is UNESCO’s Open Training Portal, and if we click on the UNESCO link, it takes us to what appears to be the home of the course, the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which is number 3 on the search list.  The course also appears as a link in some other UN documents.

So - how does this highly-ranked course stand up to scrutiny?

A disappointing use of the web

RBM Training

RBM Training
Results-Based Management

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