Of course, neither data nor data visualization are silver bullets. The data have to be good, clean, comparable, reliable, and open. The visualizations have to be accurate, credible, and contextual.
Even then, you have to be willing to use these tools and then change the way you work. For example, here's the latest whiz bang online tool - real time monitoring of water wells built by the group Water for The People. We can watch this cool app on our (android) phones to see which wells work and which ones don't. But what really matters is if Water for the People and its partners in Rwanda use the technology to keep the wells working.
See this wonderful piece by Clay Johnston on bad data visualization (he calls it "the lies visualizations tell.") Just because you have data doesn't mean you know anything. Just because you have a map doesn't mean you're an explorer. And just because you have data and cool visualization tools doesn't mean you'll make better decisions or be a more effective grantmaker.
For donors and foundation program officers, data and data visualizations have to meet an even higher threshold - they are going to have to make it easier to know something than to not know it. Right now, most of the structural incentives in philanthropy make it OK to not know what everyone else in your field is doing. Plus, it's hard to find out. Those two factors - making it necessary to know and making it easy to know - are big barriers to adopting these tools or changing the way foundations make decisions. Technology can make it easier to access data and easier to show the data in new ways. But unless the incentives for knowing and doing the work change, we'll have a lot of very cool tools that few will use.
A very nice new Strategy Landscape tool from The Center for Effective Philanthropy and The Monitor Institute proves this point. There's no magic in the pictures, no secret key in the data. What matters is the sense making - the collective effort to understand an issue in a new way, to know what your peers are doing, and to make funding decisions with that information at hand. The interactive demo lets you play with this very impressive visualization of data. You can "see" by foundation, by geography, by date and by strategy. Who funds energy efficiency in the Midwest? How much of the foundation's funding goes to that strategy? How do they define the strategy? These questions can all be answered by clicking and looking. No magic here - just good clean graphics and data that have been coded and categorized.
Let's talk about that last little bit. Cleaning and coding and categorizing data are tough things to do. They take time, money, expertise, and storage space. They require "definitional conversations" - what do you mean by "energy efficiency?" Doing this work to develop the Strategy Landscape tools means that Monitor consultants and staff from CEP will have to engage clusters of funders and help them through these conversations. This is not rocket science, but like all collaboration, it's not a walk in the park either. Some good comes from the process. People realize there are better terms for things and there is a way to avoid jargon. They find peers and potential collaborators. They may find an ally in making an argument for a certain approach that they've been failing to make before. That's all good. The Strategy Landscape tools will help with this.
Somewhat similar is a Social e-Valuator SROI tool being launched by the SVT group and an enterprise in the Netherlands known as Social Evaluator. The Social Evaluator Tool is a guided, online Theory-of-Change maker that yields common indicators and outcome measures and allows for the monetization of SROI. (Demo Video) Like the Strategy Landscape Tool it involves a cool website and some careful data coding and management. But mostly it involves thinking hard about what you're trying to achieve, identifying outcomes and indicators, and working together - as funders and grantees - to name, track, record, and report those things.
Both these tools show that 1) we have the data and 2) we have the visualizations. The hard part is changing how we work to share our data, think collectively, and put in the time and effort to hold ourselves accountable to outcomes.
There is another tricky part here. Public access to the data. The data that power the Strategy Landscape tools are foundation grants. These are publicly reported data. Anyone could download a lot of 990s and answer the questions that the Strategy Landscape tool answers for themselves if they the time and inclination. The tool makes it easy. But it needs to make it visible to those whose data is not yet included. It's a good first step for the foundations that provide the data to have access to the visualization, but what really matters is 1) letting others see it so they make strategic decisions from it and make their own visualizations, 2) let other data be added to it and 3) make the data storage solution accretive, so years from now you only need to fold in new data not do the whole thing all over again.
For the SROI tool, the data are different. They're subjective inputs from the funders and grantees involved. But these too should be public so that others can use them, improve and iterate on them. After all, if every group of funders needs to come up with its own proxy indicators for youth development outcomes what's the point? We need to get to a shared set of public measures, like the IRIS Standards.
Unfortunately, the default position on the data in both the Strategy Landscape tool and the SROI Tool is "not public." Those involved say they want the data to become transparent and open, but they can't start there. I think if they don't start there they won't get there.
If these tools are going to get used, get traction, get better, and be useful the processes that they inform need to be open. The data need to be accessible, machine readable, and mixable. The data are public and the tools are commodities. It's the knowledge and decision making from the data and the tools that really matter - and in order to fuel real change these need to be open. Otherwise, it remains too easy to not know, to not ask the hard questions, and not to hold ourselves accountable.