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3 Steps for Data Transformation: Turning Numbers into Knowledge

By Guest Writer on May 26, 2014


Do you feel like there’s a new software or platform offered every day, promising to streamline your business process, reduce costs, and make you an instant data analyst? Do you feel skeptical that it really is that easy? Or perhaps you’re overwhelmed by all the options? Don’t worry, you’re in good company. While most people understand that getting data and using it wisely will lead to better results, and that technology can help, most don’t know where to start.

At IREX, the question of how to leverage appropriate technology for better data management has been an ongoing conversation. From customizing an online database that integrates mobile data collection to building an Access database that allows for quick data queries across multiple tables, our approach is to match the software to the need. In the paragraphs below, I describe how this process works; that is, how to diagnose your data management needs and from there, pinpoint what data management software is best for you.

1. Conceptualizing data management: the information value chain


A helpful way to begin investigating your data management needs is to consider the concept of an information value chain. Data management is really a combination of several processes, starting with data collection and ending with reporting and delivery. At each stage of this value chain, technology can add value to raw data by reducing errors, “preparing data for use, making data and findings available sooner, explaining what they say, or making it easier to access or use them.” The goal is to leverage technology so that it adds value to the process of data transformation, outweighing any costs.

2. Mapping the flow of data

You can begin by mapping the flow of data in your project or organization. Start by asking what you want your data to do for you and what questions you want data to help you answer. For example, do you want to know what impact you’re having, which project sites are meeting their targets, or what approach has proven most effective? Starting with the end goal and working your way backwards will help make sure you’re collecting the right data for the right reasons. From there, you can map out 1) what data you need to collect and how, 2) what data cleaning or editing may be needed, and 3) what reports or analyses you plan to do.

Once you’ve mapped your data flow along the value chain, you can identify challenges and start brainstorming how technology can add value. Rank these challenges according to how much of an impediment they are to reaching your end goal(s). Keep in mind that this process of data mapping and brainstorming should be done collaboratively with your colleagues, as well as at least one tech expert who can contribute ideas on the added value of technology.

Common challenges I’ve encountered:

  • Lack of time, resources, and skills to effectively collect, prepare, analyze, and present data.
  • Data collected is not timely. Too often, by the time data gets to the end of the value chain, things have changed on the ground and it’s no longer useful for program management.
  • Sharing and collaborating around data is cumbersome. This results in reduced use of data or data confusion, as multiple copies of databases (e.g. Excel spreadsheets) are shared and updated separately.

3. Matching your needs to the software

Now that you’ve mapped your flow of data and assessed your most critical data challenges, consider what data management platforms are offering. Some database platforms can automatically populate routine reports as data is entered; others offer data dashboards for analysis at your fingertips; some are offline and stored on a local server; while others are accessible online, anywhere. Decide what you want technology to do for you based on your critical data management needs, then identify a software that best meets those specific needs at an affordable price.

If you put in the effort upfront to reflect on your information value chain and data needs, technology really can streamline your business processes, reduce costs, and facilitate analysis. It’s a collaborative process, sometimes arduous and often tedious, but almost always worth it.

Charles Guedenet is a Monitoring & Evaluation Advisor at IREX

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