The Centre’s data literacy work is focused on increasing the capacity of humanitarians to access and use data. To achieve this, we aim to create easy entry points for people from different roles and backgrounds to build their data skills. Below, we detail why there is a need for humanitarians to build data skills, the types of skills needed, and our take on the best approaches for learning.  

Our data literacy programme is just getting started. It will include intensive training courses, microlearning on specific data tasks, curated online resources, and a speaker series on data and technology. Read more about elements of the programme in this factsheet and further down in this blog.  

Why build data skills?

Data literacy includes the ability to read, work with, analyze, and converse with data. Earlier this year, we conducted design research to understand the state of data literacy in the humanitarian sector. We gained insight into how to best move the needle on data skills for humanitarians, their organisations and the sector as a whole. 

User research with OCHA staff in New York in February 2019.

We found that, in some form or another, all humanitarians are working with data. At the same time, most humanitarians are not hired for their technical capacity and have not received formal training or guidance to support their work with data. Some have the benefit of sitting with data-savvy colleagues who can offer support. Others troubleshoot data challenges by watching short videos or quickly scanning how-to documents. 

We believe that building data skills has the following benefits:

  • Empowering non-technical humanitarians to use data more effectively
  • Bridging the gap between technical staff and decision makers on data needs
  • Increasing demand for better data and more targeted data collection
  • Improving conversations around data so that no one gets lost in technical language
“A key test moving forward in this space would be to look at the level of comfort Humanitarian Coordinators have with asking for and using data.”
-OCHA staff member

What data skills should be prioritized? 

Data literacy is more than a narrow set of technical skills. Functional data literacy means that individuals have the skills and tools necessary to be able to use data effectively in their day-to-day work. 

For senior managers, this means having the analytic understanding and terminology necessary to ask framing questions and make data requests. Data managers require the skills to carry out data processing and analysis. Humanitarian advisors need to be able to contextualise and synthesise analysis for decision makers. 

Following a broad-based survey, our qualitative research has focused on the data skills required by mid-level managers, often referred to as Humanitarian Advisors or Humanitarian Affairs Officers. We heard about their need to do simple data analysis or to present data to different stakeholders. 

Key to performing these tasks is a comfort level in working with spreadsheets. The Humanitarian Advisors said they were regularly trying to interpret data and use data to inform critical decisions, but were unsure about how to assess data quality. We saw that they would benefit from a basic understanding of statistical terminology and techniques.   

Humanitarian Advisors need to be able to do the following data related work:

  • Articulate the purpose and overarching questions for data management processes;
  • Identify data types and create questions and forms for acquiring and managing data;
  • Assess the quality of data, and understand the techniques for cleaning and triangulating data; 
  • Conduct exploratory data analysis and synthesise qualitative and quantitative data; 
  • Create basic, informative visualisations guided by design best practices; and 
  • Understand the considerations necessary for working with data responsibly.

How to best build data skills? 

Data skill building takes time and humanitarians are busy people. Based on our research and good practice in learning uptake, we think the best way to support humanitarians is through microlearning for specific tasks, intensive training followed by on-the-job support, and exposure to experts in the field. 

  1. Microlearning for specific tasks

Often people need to learn how to perform a single task. This can range from trying to create a dropdown list in Excel, choosing the right chart for a presentation or adding HXL hashtags to a spreadsheet. Often times, people get blocked in the middle of a task. This is not the time to stop what they are doing and sign up for an online Excel course. For this audience, how to’s, quick videos and cheat sheets can be surfaced within a workflow to quickly support task completion. 

  1. Intensive training followed by on-the-job support

It is critical to create the space for humanitarians to step away from their day-to-day work to acquire new skills. However, these trainings have to be followed with rapid on-the-job application or the new skills will be forgotten. This is especially true when you are new to working with data. After you’ve made 1,000 pivot tables, it becomes second nature but with your first few, you are going to have challenges. Having trainers available after training programmes to answer questions and troubleshoot as learners develop their confidence can make all the difference.  

  1. Exposure to experts in the field 

Issues around data and new technologies are in the news every day and it is easy to get overwhelmed. Humanitarians are often left wondering how blockchain, predictive analytics, big data and drones may impact their work. One way to gain knowledge is by listening to experts who are focused on data and technology in their daily work. Experts can also help humanitarians cut through the hype and the jargon to understand the practical application of new and better ways of working with data. 

Developing this knowledge within the senior leadership of an organisation is essential. Not only are they crucial to the data management process, they can drive an organisation’s data culture and can use their influence to ensure smart investments in data.

Beyond data skills – data teams and data culture 

The humanitarian sector needs to bring technical talent together with decision makers, communicators and subject matter experts to get the most from data. To truly move the needle on data literacy, we need to create a strong data culture where every decision is informed by data. Future blogs will explore the benefit of cross-functional data teams and how to foster a data culture within organisations.

The Data Literacy Team includes Katelyn Rogers and Lisa Peterson.