Data Visualization and its role in M&E

Monitoring and evaluation is all about using evidence to guide practice. Data Visualization is the process of putting your data into charts and pictures which provide information about what the data is showing. Doing this well is the difference between telling a high-impact story that your audience will remember and losing them in a sea of confusing numbers and unclear connections.

Why is Data Visualization important?

When working with groups of people, and in projects where engagement is a significant as part of a process, knowing precisely which visualisation to use to tell the story, and to engage role players, is key. Dashboards, pictures, stories, graphical representation and conceptualisation – these all provide a snapshot of the story the that data can tell. Providing graphical representation of information in charts, maps, diagrams, and doing this well can be critical in your developmental journey – whether it is gaining buy-in of a critical player or telling your story to a funder.

Whether your data is qualitative or quantitative, you will want to know not only what graph is best, but perhaps which type of data visualisation software is best suited to handle your particular dataset. Having design and creative tools can also help you to put different visualizations together into the ever popular, digestible one-pager.

Quantitative Data Visualization

Quantitative Data can be represented with simple graphs or charts in excel. This is a way of putting 2 types of information together into a single view. For example, you may want to show month by month attendance at programmes using a bar chart, or the proportions of different age groups that attended. For change, you may wish to use a dumbbell plot, and for a trend over time, a line graph would be best.

As your data becomes a little more complex, you may find that you need more than simple graphs in excel. For this, you may want to begin to explore pivot charts for quick and easy analysis of clean and clear data. You can use the slicers to help to create simple interactive dashboards for face-to-face presentations.

Sometimes however, you may want to use a specific software to serve your purpose, especially where the ‘look and feel’ of the final presentation is important or where you’re circulating documents for high-impact advocacy or the promotion of your learning and ideas:

Piktochart

Piktochart helps you to easily create charts and infographics. This is very useful when you need to condense lengthy reports into high impact, visual presentations for audiences short on time.

Venngage

Venngage is another great infographic software if you aim to tell the story of your impact using pictures and diagrams.

Tableau

As you become more skilled, and your data increases in complexity, try Tableau for simple statistical correlations. In tableau, you can conduct some basic statistical analytics on quantitative data without having a degree in Stats!

Power BI

If you’re proficient in excel, and a bit more ambitious with your coding skills, Power BI may be an ideal tool for you to try when you need to visualise complex data. One of the great benefits of Power BI is that it is a Microsoft Product and as such, is easily interoperable. It also allows you to conduct your analysis on your computer allowing for greater data protection.

R

If you’re conducting a true impact study where you’ve got data for control groups, and you’re looking to use advanced statistical methods to analyse the attribution of your work, then you may need to look into a range of statistical software to help you present your data best. R is likely to most accessible of the statistical software as its free to use, and there is plenty of training material online. Take caution however, as finding the right statistical test is absolutely key – and this may be an exercise you wish to outsource to specialists. This may be costly, but there are few things which will boost your programme’s legitimacy (and your team’s morale) more than a true statistical correlation which shows that your work is truly having an impact on key measured indicators.

Qualitative Data Visualisations

There is also a range of software for analysing and presenting qualitative data which can provide significant rigour and value to your impact presentations. These systems enable you to automate the analysis of content, interpretation of text and in coding complex qualitative data into logical systems. Apart from simplifying your analysis, this provides the added benefit and rigour of increased objectivity in analysis. There are so many on the market that it can be difficult to decide which is the best one to use. Also, the price of these programmes varies significantly.

Nvivo

NVIVO is a great tool for qualitative data analysis, and there are many great training tools online. If you’re running a survey and you would like to better understand and express, in the most rigorous terms, what your data is saying, be sure to give NVIVO a try. Although positioned at a relatively high price point, this tool may prove to give your M&E practice the leverage it needs.

ATLAS.ti

ATLAS.ti is a great tool for analysing textual, graphical, audio and visual data. The platform includes a range of simple tools to help you analyse your qualitative data with low coding requirements, and easy ways of building these analytic structures. What makes ATLAS.ti unique is the range of media which it is able to process. The website also offers online face-to-face training.

Wordstat

Although more of a text mining tool, Provalis’ Wordstat is a useful tool for more straightforward analysis of text. If you have a lot of long-text responses and you aim to draw out key themes, then this may be the best bet. The software also has a 14-day free trial so you can really try it out and know what you are getting when you purchase it.

Timeglider / Preceden

Timeglider is a tool for generating timelines or project roadmaps. If you’re involved in a strategic evaluation, and you’d like to quickly and clearly show how key events may have influenced each other across different parts of the project, then this software is the solution.

About Angela Biden

Angela Biden is a consulting strategist and M&E consultant. She has worked across a range of development, and business contexts. She holds a Masters in Economics and Philosophy, and has worked in the nexus of M&E and social impact; to help those doing good do more of it; for some 15 years. From policy board rooms, to Tech start-ups, to grass roots NGOs working in the face of the world’s most abject challenges; Angela is focused on conducting relevant and meaningful M&E: fit for purpose, realistic, and useful for stakeholders creating positive change.