Using data to bridge gaps in the humanitarian sector

Volunteer mappers at the iHub in Nairobi during the deployment of Uchaguzi in 2010, spearheaded by nonprofit software company Ushahidi to monitor the Kenyan constitutional referendum. Photo by: Cody Valdes / CC BY-NC-SA

In the tech industry, terms such as “iterate,” “test,” “lean” and “pivot” have turned into buzzwords. These ideas we all now expound point to a central thesis: Continually ask questions, listen to your customers, and gather as much relevant data as you can while spending as little money possible until you identify the right solution.

In the development industry, we could heed this advice. Monitoring and evaluating our work is something we often do after the fact. Too often, M&E is done once a year, and only to appease funders or for future program planning.

In humanitarian crisis response, we often don’t focus enough of our efforts on assessing needs and asking questions. In the wake of disaster, we instead get tunnel vision focused on delivering services as quickly and to as many people as possible.

To help break that pattern, the relief industry has recently become fascinated with data. But we need to ask ourselves what data is truly helpful, actually useful, really helps us improve our impact, and better aids our beneficiaries. We often get excited about uncovering gems in big data archives. But the reality is that the most important and useful data is the real time feedback from those we serve.

Data shouldn’t be a snapshot, and our programs don’t need to be held rigidly to the path set out in the program description — often written years before implementation. We need to be continuously listening to our communities, our users, our constituents, and then adapting our programs, projects, and initiatives accordingly. We need to listen to the tech community; not only about technology and data, but about the process of building by listening.

At Ushahidi, we build data collection tools to help ease the communication between marginalized communities and those who aim to help them. That might be a government actor, a nongovernmental organization, or a local community organization. We sit at the intersection of the humanitarian and tech sectors. And we, too, have had to learn the value of constant listening and iteration.

In 2008, we built a tool to gather testimonies from people on the ground to help everyone understand what is happening and stay safe. We built that tool into a platform, and our products have since been used in more than 100,000 different cases in over 160 countries. The biggest sectors of use are crisis response, human rights and government transparency.

But even within those industries, we saw people using the tool in different ways. Some used it for advocacy, others for surveys and research, and others to triage and coordinate immediate response. We set out to rebuild our platform in 2014, and struggled to listen to our users. We got distracted by many different opinions and needs and had difficulty prioritizing them.

It was easier when we first built Ushahidi in 2008; we were the only users. But now we needed to listen to thousands of people.

We took our tech brethren’s advice about listening, and spent the past six months researching and testing with more than 100 users. These Ushahidi deployers included Kahtmandu Living Labs’, the 2012 Barack Obama U.S. presidential campaign, the amazing team behind, and the Red Cross. We ran structured surveys with our community, asking what they needed, what their biggest problems were, and then we designed Ushahidi accordingly. We built prototypes of our tool and tested them with users, getting their feedback before sinking a bunch of development work into it. And then we did it again. And again and again.

Today, June 14, we released the fruits of that process: Major design improvements and new features that bring clarity to the data and storytelling within Ushahidi deployments.

Platforms such as Ushahidi’s should exist to help ease the process of gathering data and turning it into action. Gathering data is challenging, but it’s just the first part of the data life cycle. Next, you have to manage that data. Then, most importantly, you have to act on it, whether through better decision-making, advocating for change, or responding to a direct need.

In the development industry, we need to design our programs in partnership with the people we aim to serve. We need to be asking questions from the start, and then adapting our work based on the continuous feedback we receive. Data is most relevant in real time, and should be managed as such.

We built Ushahidi to help do this — to allow our sector to gather data from people, manage that information, and then act upon it. We want to make data more personal, to help us remember that people are usually at the end of a data point. As an industry, we can be so much more impactful and effective in our work if we build the communication pathways to ask questions and listen continuously with those we serve, engaging them in the work itself.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Nathaniel Manning

    Nathaniel Manning is the COO at Ushahidi, where they build software to help people raise their voice, and organizations gather and use data to advocate for and respond to those they serve. Nathaniel also helps run business development for BRCK, which builds rugged internet connectivity solutions for people and things in emerging markets.