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Five Tips for Building Data Visualization Capacity Remotely

Over the past six months, JSI has been helping grantees of the Advancing Partners and Communities (APC) project  in Zimbabwe and Guyana build capacity to transform data into usable information through data visualization.

Data visualization is a powerful way to illustrate trends and outcomes, whether for routine program monitoring or telling success stories. But learning how to design great visualization products as part of routine monitoring, evaluation, or communications can seem daunting, particularly if your data visualization coach lives on another continent.

Through my experience conducting dozens of workshops and collaborating with teams around the world as part of APC’s Local Capacity Initiative (LCI)* and other projects, I came up with a list of five tips for building visualization capacity remotely.

  1. Be user-centered. Find out and understand your audience’s existing capabilities and motivation for learning about visualization design so you can develop a training approach that is appropriate for their level. Use examples from their work to demonstrate how visualization helps data come alive in a relevant and practical way.
  2. Simple is wonderful. Don’t overcomplicate the process of building great visualizations. A simple, well-designed chart or map can be more powerful than an overcomplicated infographic. Think strategically about who you’re sharing your data with and what questions they want to answer.
  3. Don’t disregard paper. As part of one of our workshops, we developed simple “data placemats”– printed dashboards of community score card data–to facilitate a data-centered process to identify success stories and advocacy opportunities. These oversized, tabloid sheets weren’t anything revolutionary. They used basic charts (line and bar graphs) to show trends in the data, and were designed with a clean, uncluttered aesthetic that made them easier to comprehend.
  4. Think small and manageable. When working remotely with one of our colleagues to help him build an Excel-based dashboard using Pivot Tables and Charts, we started with an hour-long demo that set up the data and created the basic dashboard. But when he tried to watch the recording and follow along, he found that his bandwidth wasn’t strong enough to download or view the long recording. So we recorded a series of 19 videos, each one-to-four minutes in length, that broke down the process in steps and sent them via Dropbox. That way, he didn’t have to worry about massive file sizes, and he could easily re-watch the steps that were harder to grasp on the first try.
  5. Make it fun! Teaching professionals new skills shouldn’t be boring, especially when you’re thinking about data visualization, which taps into some of our favorite childhood activities (sketching!). Focus on learning, but also on how to make the activities fun and hands-on to get participants excited about their new skill.

*The LCI was established by the U.S. Government in 2013 to strengthen the sustainability of national HIV and AIDS responses by increasing the advocacy capacity of local civil society organizations.

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