Crowdsourcing the campfire: how our data visualization contest opened doors
BY Abigail Taylor-Jones | November 14, 2018
“Visualizations act as a campfire around which we gather to tell stories.” - Al Shalloway, founder and CEO of Net Objectives.
Telling our story well is key to ensuring we can influence policy and other key decision-making processes. In order to do so, it is important to get new insights from the evidence we generate from the data we collect. To give a sense of the scale, we collect data from 130 UN Country Teams, serving 165 countries. The types of data we collect ranges from operational data, socio-economic data, financial data, data on coordination and results. Sitting behind the walls of the UN can sometimes be lonely ploughing through all this data (other times it is quite daunting). So, we have to think of creative ways to gather new insights to tell a good and compelling story.
The UN is known as an organization that brings people together globally to participate in various ways, for example working towards realizing the goals set for 2030 Agenda. For us, being open and inclusive about the UN’s work is always at the forefront of our minds, even when it comes to data. We started thinking about ways to include others from outside the UN in our analysis and data visualization process.
As the Secretariat to the UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG) we have access to a wide range of data, so we thought, why not launch our first ever UNSDG data visualization contest and find out what others can see in our data? So, my colleague Kana Kudo and I did just that. In collaboration with Tableau, we launched the contest and invited data scientists and anyone interested in data visualization to use our data from the UNSDG portal, which pulls UN specific data, published by several agencies, using the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standards to report how the UN is contributing to the global development agenda.
Data is powerful but we don’t always know how to tell a story with it
After launching the contest, we realized there were blind spots that we failed to see. For example, some of the submissions did make use of the IATI data sets, while others did not. The guidelines we provided were clear, however the research questions were a little unclear. We ended up receiving several stunning visualizations, but they were not exactly what we were looking for. We learned that when it comes to data, it’s best to be specific. Another learning was that data scientists wanted the option to work with other data visualization tools and not be limited to Tableau; so we had to broaden the scope of tools for the contest.
We brought a selection panel together to assess the submissions, and we selected two winners. The first winner crafted “Visualizing Malaria: The Killer Disease Killing Africa,” an impactful visualization that analyses malaria deaths in the world, how they have changed, and how funding has evolved over the years, particularly in Africa. The contestant explained that she had been inspired by the experience of a dear friend who had been infected with malaria. We also liked this visualization on malaria because it focused on both the positive and negative aspects of the fight against this diseases. Whilst lives are been saved through the use of mosquito nets, there’s also a downward trend in other aspects, which means more still needs to be done.
[caption id="attachment_10399" align="alignnone" width="542"] Visualization by Rosebud Anwuri[/caption]
The second data visualization titled “Leave no one Behind”, included the UN’s spending on each Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) per country, looking at the financial distribution among the SDGs. The underlying calculations were just as impressive as the visualization itself! We liked this visual and we were interested in how the participant highlighted the leaving no one behind aspect, which is the central promise of the 2030 Agenda; and an overarching programming principle. Looking at how we are doing from a financial expenditure perspective is key to assessing the UN’s contribution to the SDGs.
Behind the scenes, our team in Headquarters was tinkering with developing UN Info, a tool that integrates the UN contributions to the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. This is an important aspect because it keeps us accountable and helps UN Country Teams with programme management.
From this contest, it was clear to us that data is obviously powerful but we don’t always know how to tell a story out of it. We were very impressed with the contestants’ interpretations and the visualizations. As a bonus, we also gained unexpected and useful insights that helped us refine our UN IATI data set.
[caption id="attachment_10400" align="alignnone" width="570"] Visualization by Pedro Fontoura[/caption]
One of the things that we also discovered, is that data scientists like to get involved. Chloe Tseng, founder of Viz for Social Good contacted us to find out how she could collaborate with us. Although she didn’t participate in the contest, we were keen to work with Chloe and her team of volunteers just as she was to work with us. Goal 17 of the SDGs relates to partnerships and we know how important it is work with others to realize our goals. We gave Viz for Social Good a particular set of data related to the partnerships that the Country Teams have beyond the UN. If you haven’t read Viz for Social Good’s journey working with us, and the beautiful visualizations that came out of our partnership, check it out here.
Our data was too fat!
The contest was a great learning opportunity for us. From our collaboration with Chloe and the Viz For Social Good network of over 2000 data visualization experts, we learned that our data is good but we need to look at ways of improving the way data is parsed through our systems and ensure that it is formatted in a manageable and easy way for data scientists to work with it. Chloe also gave us feedback on moving from larger chunks of data to smaller chunks. We took these recommendations very seriously and have made significant changes in our data systems for optimum use by data scientists. We trimmed down our data in smaller chunks that requires little time for data cleaning which allows for quicker analysis.
This experience was definitely an eye opener in terms of telling a more powerful and compelling story than we will ever be able to do if we stick to large sets of data in an excel format.
The campfire is still with us
Collaborating with Viz For Social Good and with the contest participants inspired our team to adapt our digital strategy work. Seeing the way these artists take data and communicate with it opened our eyes. Our taste has changed and boy have our standards gotten higher. We are designing dashboards for future projects and seeing the artistry has upped our game for the long run.
Photo: Wenni Zhou
Five ways the UN is experimenting together in 2018
BY Maria Blanco Lora | May 3, 2018
Here at silo-fighting HQ, for a fourth year in a row, we are trying to incentivize the UN to innovate together. This is our annual moment to listen to how UN country teams plan to go beyond business as usual and model next generation practices to meet the demands of Agenda 2030. We love this time of year, as the proposals themselves are great intelligence on the front line, and we get to know the problems teams want to solve and what tools they have at their disposal to solve them.
We were looking for joint efforts across UN agencies to innovate in the areas of data, behavioural insights, finance, collective intelligence and foresight. With thanks to our donors, these are investments in innovations which can either be scaled from one agency to the rest of the system efforts, from one sector or field to another, from one country to another, or from one geographic area to country-wide applicability.
We are also funding UN teams that want to break new ground and test hypotheses for more proof-of-concept type innovations. The competition among country teams for the funding was tough, but thanks to our review team, after 100 proposals, we finally decided on 34 experiments and scaling efforts that we are thrilled to present in this blog.
Data for preparedness, prevention and prediction
Innovations in data was the most popular area in the proposals this year. A good chunk of winning pitches focus on new ways of gathering and analysing data to allow countries better prepare and respond to natural disasters along with citizen-generated data for predictive analytics.
In the Pacific, the UN country team in Samoa, will use new technologies to analyse households preparedness to cyclones, while Fiji will be scaling VAMPIRE to measure the impact of cyclones through data mining and build predictive analytics. In Viet Nam, the UN team will develop digital tools to link baseline data on vulnerability and resilience to preparedness to long-term planning disaster recovery planning.
To prevent food insecurity, the UN in Malawi will be using geospatial information to assist farmers and, in Ghana, the team will use remote sensing and drones to provide the government with timely data to respond to food security threats. In Iraq, crop productivity mapping through the use of mobile data collection and satellite imagery will explore new ways of measuring poverty beyond traditional surveys.
Sudan, PNG and Jordan will use participatory methodologies, based on mobile phone data, to test water and sanitation projects in camps for internally displaced persons to predict development investments and to look for future development trends.
The UN team in Dominican Republic will build on their previous experience to develop a national SDG data lab to integrate sustainable development into the development planning in the country. Also, Serbia will be developing an algorithm to assess the alignment of the national development plan and sectoral strategies to the SDGs. Last but not least, Uzbekistan will be using blockchain to improve public services testing whether this will reduce transaction costs and increase transparency.
Ramping up participatory programming with collective intelligence
Lots of UN teams are trying to tap into the best collective minds in the countries they serve, with an increase in the use of new methods and technologies to engage the general public in policy development, budget allocation and monitoring. Based on what we got for our call for proposals, UN country teams feel comfortable using mobile tech to tap into collective intelligence to triangulate data or test their hypothesis while undertaking planning processes.
Albania and Mexico are using mobile technologies and social media to gather perceptions on the progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Digital tools, such as Rapid Pro, will be used by Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Somalia to enhance the dialogue with local authorities and, in the case of T&T and Suriname, to engage young people in policy monitoring and development. Colombia, through automatic speech recognition, and Lesotho, through open challenges, will also use collective intelligence for participatory planning and accountable governance respectively.
In Senegal, the UN country team will be supporting community health workers with a real-time monitoring tool, SMS-based, to prevent health emergencies. Monitoring will be also the scope of the project in Honduras, where women will be able to share and identify safe zones in the city of Choloma through crowdsourced audits facilitated by a real-time data collection app.
The UN country team in Iraq will engage youth IT developers and activists to harness the power of new technologies to oversee public investments in the documentation, conservation, rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country's cultural heritage.
In China, the UN team will link up farmers with tech companies to find solutions to connectivity gaps among poor farmers and decision makers using mobile technologies, e-platforms and drones.
The Pulse Lab Kampala in Uganda will advance their machine learning driven radio tools to develop an open software platform for the UN country team to enable open access to existing software applications developed by the Lab that will allow programme colleagues harness collective intelligence for their work. The UN team in Moldova will be on a quest to experiment, test and fine-tune a platform-based organizational model to explore if this type of platform would be feasible in the case of the UN global mandate.
Behavioural insights to meet people where they are
2018 was the first year we opened up to proposals in the area of Behavioural Insights. We will be funding initiatives to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse (Nigeria), to learn from devients to halt male violent behaviour towards women (Palestine) and to eliminate female genital mutilation/cutting (Mauritania). In Costa Rica, the UN country team will use behavioural insights to understand and tackle structural development gaps among the most excluded communities. Popular technologies in these proposals are social media, SMS polling, big data and the use of radio.
Innovative finance to channel private funds to development
UN teams in three countries will be experimenting with new forms of financing in 2018: Colombia, Somalia, and Armenia. Team Colombia will develop innovative blending finance solutions to support enterprises with peacebuilding impact in remote locations in the country. The UN in Somalia will set up open innovation challenges and crowdfunding platforms and the UN and the government in Armenia will be leveraging private finance for SDG-related objectives through social impact bonds as part of their SDG innovation Lab.
Imagining possible futures and seeing the future that is already here
To begin to use the future as a tool for development work today. Two UN teams will be using foresight and alternative futures as part of their sustainable development work.
In Egypt, the idea is to build scenarios to encourage foresight dialogues as a tool to increase civic engagement to define Egypt's future. The team will make use of forecasting tools such as Three Horizon Framework and Verge Foresight Framework. In the same region, Lebanon will apply a participatory approach to foresight, asking citizens to contribute to a foresight exercise using a mapping tool.
Pinky swear: we promise to work out loud….
This work will be led by a growing community of innovators within the UN. We are proud to have colleagues from almost every agency working in the field leading these innovations and we are aware that there are many more out there. The idea is to connect and learn from each other, so we are looking for mentors to help us (data scientists, human-centered design, machine-learning among others. Webinars and our One UN Knowledge Exchange group will be our main channels to support our innovators. We will also tap into the UN Innovation Network.
This was just a taste of the innovations that are coming up this year, for more, keep showing up to our Silo Fighters Blog. The UN innovators will be sharing their own stories in this space. And while you are at it, follow us on Twitter.
Photo: Trevor Samson / World Bank