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3 Steps to Be a Data Minimalist: Collecting Less While Learning More

By Guest Writer on November 5, 2015


The “Data Minimalism – How to Collect Less and Learn More” session at the MERLtech conference taught us how to collect less data. More importantly, it taught us how to ask fewer questions to get the right, meaningful information that will help people make better, more informed decisions.

Data minimalism sounds refreshing especially to people who hear about the lure of Big Data everyday. Amid the opulence of information and analytical tools, we often need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of the information we collect: it is to facilitate good decision-making.

The ability to make prompt decisions based on good and accurate data is required even more in specific environments such as conflict-settings or during a humanitarian crisis. Monalisa Salib, from Dexis Consulting Group asked, “Without having to go into the level of rigor, what data we can use to shorten the time span to get analysis to make decisions?” These are the main takeaways form this interactive session:

1. Drive yourself to deeper levels of observations.

What? How? And Why? You need to ask these three questions to reach a deeper level of observation that will help you understand the users of your service or the beneficiaries of your programs and their particular situations.

To spark creative thinking the participants were asked to analyze a random photo and answer the questions of What, How, and Why to uncover unexpected realizations about the situation in the photo. Great observations lead to great questions.

This approach to generating good questions and insights, called scaffolding, can be done in an interactive and creative way using tools adapted from the product design world. Try this exercise the next time you want to generate creative questions and insights.

2. Spend more time “learning” than collecting data

Once people were in a questioning mode the session leaders presented a “learning agenda” or framework for generating and answering questions about an organizations work that, when answered, will help the organization work more effectively. The session focused on two key aspects of the Learning Agenda: learning questions and learning activities.

It can be easier to focus more on specific data collection methods than what the organization wants to learn and how leaders will use the information collected. Learning agendas help organizations to situate monitoring and evaluation in a broader learning process to improve the impact and effectiveness of their programs. Once you know what questions you want to ask and who you want to learn more from, you can choose the appropriate learning activities for your organization.

Teresa Crawford from the Social Sector Accelerator at Counterpart International presented an engagement grid of techniques for conducting learning activities, which was crowdsourced from the session leaders’ network and updated during the session by the session participants. The learning activities will vary depending on what information needs you have, the size of your target respondents, and technological capacity of the organization and respondents.

3. It’s time to cut the questions!

Vanessa Corlazzoli from Search for Common Ground (SFCG) asked, “Why do you think we usually have lengthy surveys?” Participants mentioned different reasons why each organization often comes up with a lengthy questionnaire.

Some said that they feel pressure to develop a thorough understanding of the local context by asking more questions or they need to make the most of field surveyors’ time and energy especially in remote and isolated places. Many said that there is a tendency for organizations to repeat the same questions because few related organizations share their data with others.

Vanessa shared an example from their recent work conducting a rapid conflict assessment using text-message surveys. They had access to approximately 40,000 mobile phone numbers and an opportunity to ask four questions about how secure respondents feel in their communities, and the response rate was nearly 25 percent. With this information they could quickly adjust programming and develop new strategies. This rapid assessment was compared to intensive, year-long conflict assessments which given them little valuable timely information.

Vanessa acknowledged it was a long and difficult process to winnow down their questions to 4 from the 50 questions of SFCG’s Conflict Assessment, but she explained that those four questions, combined with a strong literature review and analysis by experts with relevant expertise in the conflicted country, answered all of their learning objectives, provided higher response rate and quicker analysis.

By asking “fewer and smarter” questions, more emphasis could be placed on the planning process and creating a learning agenda. Understanding what you want to learn and asking questions with purpose will largely benefit the learning, use, and design process of your organization.

By So Yoon Sim, a graduate student at John Hopkins SAIS.

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