Why does data visualization matter?

We all know that we live in a world of big data. Information on a nearly limitless number of indicators may be aggregated at a dizzying rate. This is fantastic for NGOs, who want to find out if the programs they set up are actually effective. Now the only question is what to do with that data. Organizations such as PATH or Akros simply can’t make improvements to their malaria prevention efforts by just looking at a vast spreadsheet of numbers.

Humans are visual creatures. Data is often meaningless without context and visually representing information offers audiences important context for understanding the information.

This is the crucial step where TerraFrame comes in.

We mold the data into maps, charts and graphs that really allow these NGOs to really SEE their data in a meaningful and actionable way. The best data visualizations are ones that reveal the underlying patterns and relationships contained within the data, allowing the viewer to arrive at new insights and is key to good decision making.

The power of our visual mind is explained in this great TEDtalk by David McCandless, who runs the site Information is Beautiful. By comparing our senses to computing power, we can see that sight provides the highest-bandwidth channel into human cognitive centers. We’re doing our part to make sure that NGOs turn their datasets into action.

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Data Colonialism

We’ve been using the term “data colonialism” for awhile to describe the appalling asymmetry of information that often exists between NGOs and the communities in developing countries where they work. It turns out, others in the development community feel the same way.

Specifically, we recently came across this talk entitled “Data Colonialism” given by Najeeb Al-Shorbaji, Director of The Knowledge and Management Department at the World Health Organization (WHO). Al-Shorbaji states that an African Health Minister recently used this term at a conference in Tanzania to describe when intervening entities such as NGOs collect, use and share data without much benefit coming back to the African countries themselves.

We could not agree more.

Information asymmetry in the world of international development is a huge issue and TerraFrame seeks to be at the forefront of correcting this problem.

Too often the scenario is this: An NGO comes into a developing country to study and monitor a particular project, such as tracking malaria prevention efforts. The NGO contracts software developers to build a one-off data collection and evaluation program for the project. However, the data collection software is non-intuitive, and specialists are required to maintain the program. If funding dries up or even when the project ends, the data collected disappears with the NGO and locals are left without the power to continue combating malaria in their community.

TerraFrame is actively working to build intuitive monitoring and analysis software that any entity can use. Although we also have been in the business of building proprietary software for individual clients, we want to change this paradigm, as we believe this is no way to scale massive change in the development sphere. We are in the process now of building our existing software into a user-friendly, all-purpose platform for all M&E needs so that communities can help themselves turn data into meaningful and actionable knowledge.

International Development Enterprises (iDE)

TerraFrame is in the process of building a data visualization tool for International Development Enterprises (iDE) is a Denver-based organization that finds innovative solutions to development problems by creating income and livelihood opportunities for the rural poor in developing countries worldwide. Partnering with local organizations, iDE helps to develop and sell products such as low-cost latrines and water pumps. These affordable technologies allow for a sustainable source of income for those who sell the products and improved quality of life for product users.

iDE tracks the sales of affordable products in a number of countries using SalesForce, but wanted a means to visualize that data to better understand how to strategically grow. TerraFrame has created a “GeoDashboard” as a means to import the existing SalesForce data and present maps, chart and graphs in a dashboard that decision makers can use to make sense of the numbers. See below for examples of the GeoDashboard project.

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TerraFrame worked in 2012 with Akros, a monitoring and evaluation research group, specifically looking at infectious disease interventions. They approached TerraFrame to build a map to visualize malaria data in Zambia. The data was collected through the District Health Information System (DHIS2), a popular healthcare monitoring platform used by health ministries throughout Africa.

Zambia has already vastly reduced malaria in many parts of the country and is a leading African country in terms of malaria prevention and control. Platforms such as the map built by TerraFrame allow Zambia to take the next step towards fighting the disease, this time on the path towards malaria elimination. By systematically analyzing malaria intervention efforts through powerful visualizations, organizations like Akros are able to take meaninful steps towards disease eradication.

Akros screenshot


TerraFrame collaborated with PATH, an international, nonprofit global health organization based in Seattle, to executive a unique malaria mapping project in Zambia in 2012.

The map screenshot below shows how malaria data flows in a way that has never been done before. To see malaria cases and intervention applications in Zambia over time, you can move your mouse over the timeline below and click on the individual districts. This type of smart integration of data and dynamic visualizations allows for real-time assessment of progress and gives decision-makers wore tools to further disease prevention efforts.

PATH screenshot1

PATH screenshot2

Innovative Vector Control Consortium

TerraFrame partnered with the Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC), a nonprofit based out of Liverpool, England and Colorado State University. In 2009 TerraFrame was approached by CSU to build a monitoring and decision support GIS platform for malaria disease prevention efforts. The resulting collaboration produced the Malaria Disease Support System, which has been implemented in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. The major deployments were in a number of African countries, training health workers to deploy the software. Mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying (spraying walls).

The software allows you to see if mosquitoes are building up a resistance to prevention efforts, and see effectiveness of treatments such as mosquito nets by helping to visualize that data, as in the sample map below.

MDSS map