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Data Is Going Local, Thanks to Human-Centered Design

4Q4 Podcast, Interviews

Data advocates Heather Leson and Dirk Slater are taking IFRC's Data Playbook from beta to v1.0. Local collaborations will help make it happen.

Digital Impact 4Q4 Podcast: Heather Leson on IFRC’s Data Playbook


00:00 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: This is Digital Impact 4Q4. I’m Heather Noelle Robinson. We recorded today’s interview at the Digital Civil Society Conference at Stanford University. Our four questions are for Heather Leson, Data Literacy Lead at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In 2018, Heather launched the IFRC Data Playbook, which is a social learning tool for data literacy co-created by hundreds of people across the IFRC. The Playbook was developed with collaborator Dirk Slater at FabRiders. The beta version has opened up to hundreds of contributors from around the world, and various stakeholders continue to provide critical feedback on its development. The Playbook is a series of remixable content that includes games, checklists, slides, and scenario-based learning. The project is expanding to form a companion to the Playbook and includes a Microsoft Excel training called Cohorted Learning, eLearning modules called Data For Volunteers, and a research project called Decisions, Decisions. The next phase aims to reach more leaders with a new version that includes translations into multiple languages.

01:09 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Heather Leson, welcome to Digital Impact. Can you describe the “curate not create” approach you took to putting the Playbook together? What are some of the nuances of collaborating with local actors in such a volatile and rapidly changing space?

01:26 HEATHER LESON: Thanks for the question, I’m happy to be here. You know, when you’re talking about content, sometimes people assume that they know everything rather than asking what people know, and so we went across the Red Cross Red Crescent and asked what are your best training materials? How do you talk about data? What are some of the games, checklists, guides that you have? And so, I just asked everybody I knew and then asked their people if they knew anything and curated from them. That built a lot more respect and trust that I wasn’t some digital or data cowboy coming in to say this is how it has to happen. So, by curating, it really respected their knowledge and built trust, and it meant that you’re not creating new content, that you’re just trying to build but the base is already there.

“We don’t want to be an extractive organization in terms of data. We want to be supportive and understanding of what people really need and involve them in that conversation.”

I think there’s lots of great data training materials out there, but we felt that there were some other things, not necessarily in the Red Cross, but other like written content. We thought that, let’s find out how people are doing it and share that. We had exciting content that was created by people in Nigeria that’s getting used by people in Burundi. We had people who had created a data quality exercise in Haiti that is now like standard. I’m going to train next week in Malawi on it and train five people who are going to go train more people. So, this idea of creation, you know, by curating it, we were able to get some of the best practices and also some new ideas.

When it comes to local actors, you know, we are a large organization. There’s 191 national societies, 13.7 million volunteers. We aim to make sure that decisions about what data is and how it’s used is at a very local level. And so it seems to me that if it doesn’t have the local context or local language and the scenario doesn’t fit within that, that it would be remiss. And we don’t want to be an extractive organization in terms of data. We really want to be supportive and understanding what people really need and involve them in that conversation. So, the principles of open and creation and trust is absolutely critical for us to be able to think through what the Data Playbook could be and what it was. And that actually helped us get more buy-in for the use of it.

03:45 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: So, there are a lot of courses that cater to data scientists and take more of a technical tools-based approach. So, how does that differ from what you’ve just described to me about a more social learning-based model with a different kind of user, you know, specifically a humanitarian?

04:05 HEATHER LESON: When I arrived at the Red Cross Red Crescent, some people asked me to focus on big data and data science, and that’s what they wanted to focus on. And I said, pause, what do people really want? And that was a great question because the first meeting I held, I asked people what skills they had and what they wanted to learn.

So, instead of telling them and making assumptions, I really started from human-centered design right from the get go, and that actually was super important because I knew more about my audience and what they needed and the participants and what they needed. So, when you’re creating something, you have to think about the fact that people are at different levels, and their trust and understanding of technology and data is different. What I also think is super important about that lesson was that by building trust and listening and actually understanding what they needed, we were able to figure out that, well, it’s not one thing they need, they need a couple of different interventions.

“While I talk a lot about data, I’m more concerned about people having the power to make decisions about whether they want to use it or not use it, and that it’s their decision with it.”

The Data Playbook was created to be able to serve the trainers, who work in multiple sectors, and they are using that to train now, but now we’re thinking about new ways to kind of reach people, because you know, sure data science is nice and important, but honestly, what people really want to know is just basically how to use Excel.

And so, when you’re talking about a digital and data divide in an organization or trying to be more inclusive, our organization is not unlike any other one, meaning that there’s four to five generations of people who have different levels of skills, and so how do you upscale everybody and still use that, use their knowledge to be able to do that? And I think that changes the power.

05:41 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: When you collaborated with FabRiders and the UN OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data, you were inspired to build a data literacy consortium. First of all, what does that look like, and then one of the lessons that you said that you’ve learned from that is that co-creation and community building need to go hand in hand. What exactly do you mean by that?

06:04 HEATHER LESON: You know, so my background is in community building, and I think that if you want to build trust in a common language, you have to start from that kind of like human interaction. And I think when it comes to technology and data and digital, most people put the tech before the people, and that’s dangerous, super dangerous.

So, when it comes to this idea of the Data Playbook, we knew when we published it we’d already had contact with people who wanted it as soon as possible because it was like one-hour to 30-minute exercises and games and checklists that they could fit into their day, so it was already useful within the Red Cross but also in other organizations. Dirk, who is a very great community organizer, we had a conversation with the Centre for Humanitarian Data, which I had run a couple of sessions with and a couple of workshops with jointly with our different audiences.

We decided that there is something there that people were interested in learning from us but also using the content. And we thought, well, there’s so many data literacy practitioners out there and people who are trying to suss out for themselves but also more importantly for their organizations, whether they’re civil society or government—the Canadian government came to sessions—or development organizations. So, it wasn’t just humanitarians who were interested. We received phone calls and emails and people contacting us online, and we thought, well, let’s just put them all in the same conversation. That’s a natural thing for Dirk and I, and Dirk is just really good at this.

The Centre for Humanitarian Data also felt like they were also getting phone calls, and so we thought, let’s figure out that space between it. How can we build a place where people want to share this content and share their ideas and best practices? And so we convened in 2019 six calls, just having those kind of check-ins and asking people. First, we asked people to present, and then we got to the point where people just want to talk to each other as practitioners.

The consortium was birthed on the idea that collaboration is key and that, you know, not every organization has a complete—what do you call it—final decision on and understanding of what data literacy training might look like. And frankly, I’m taking everything I can throw at it for different audiences and different participants and different interactions to figure out how to bring my organization up to speed, our people up to speed in a shared way. So, I’m not going to be spending all that money and time building that content. There’s best practices out there in every organization. So, the thing about the consortium is that now we can have people sharing and learning best practices across the organization.

We really felt that by creating this space we’d be able to have a little bit more collaboration, and the Data Playbook is a beta version. We always kind of dreamed that we want to get to version one, but we would do that with the community. And we weren’t sure whether there was a community and what does that look like. That’s why we created the consortium because we thought, well, you know, we keep getting these calls and emails, and so our mailing list had, oh, so far over 70 organizations are involved. I get emails and contacts from people saying, hey, I use it for this, and I’m just overwhelmed by the fact that, you know, in my network and where I work, we’re using it, and our friends at ICRC are using it, but it’s just overwhelming sometimes to find out that other people are using it. Because if it solves a problem, great, and that’s why we put it free open online so that other people could test it out.

09:25 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: So, following one of your sessions, Dirk Slater at FabRiders described data as being less about spreadsheets and more about understanding the ecosystem and variety of roles needed to undertake a data project. The Playbook was made for humanitarians, but you released it with a creative comments license so that anyone else could remix and modify the content. Let’s say I want to repurpose the Playbook for my organization or a different domain area. Where do you suggest I start?

09:54 HEATHER LESON: Well, first the Data Playbook is beta, right? It’s a beta version right now, and so it’s PDF and Word documents. We did that because people wanted to be able to download it and write all over it rather than just read it online because it fits into their day. So, please go to the website. The global disaster preparedness site, and you just download the content, that’s one.

Two, when we envisioned the Data Playbook and Dirk and I were co-editing this and talking to people and curating in these rooms and getting their input, we said, okay, let’s do this beta version, but you know, we’re both community builders and come from the open space of open organizations, open source, open data. I believe in those principles, and I believe that collaboration across organizations is absolutely key because nobody owns data literacy, it’s all of our problems. There are organizations around the world who have the same questions.

“That built more respect and trust that I wasn’t some digital or data cowboy coming in to say this is how it has to happen.”

So, we thought, well let’s test out the beta and see how it’s going. Get the content close to good. Do some more pilots. Work with people. But then maybe if we have this data literacy consortium, people can co-create the next stage, that we might get to version one, where it’s put somewhere, put it on GitHub or what have you, and ask people to download it and fork it, you know, or add content that they have, because I know there’s really good scenarios and good exercises. Just today, in the workshop, somebody had a really good exercise for explaining data and AI, and I think that’s kind of brilliant, right?

If we have those best practices coming back in and feeding it, then it’s going to help not just us but maybe other organizations. So, I’ve always thought of it as maybe going from what we have now to something that might be like a corpus where people can keep building on it. But we’ll see. That’s up to the network that was kind of started.

11:37 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Any final thoughts?

11:39 HEATHER LESON: Yeah, so the Data Playbook right now is beta. Next year at IFRC we’re going to put it into four languages, and we’re going to do a couple edits. We’re also going to go back to the Data Literacy Consortium and see, hey, you know, do people want to kind of get to version one with us? But, I do believe that as we proceed in terms of some of our data literacy activities that the best thing I can do is just talk to anybody else who is doing this kind of work to figure out what the best practices are and how we might learn from them. I think that the power of open and the power to be able to use those principles of collaboration and curation and collaboration actually makes it stronger, and it actually builds a lot more trust with the communities who are actually pretty nervous of data, and you know, rightfully so. You know, there’s a lot of terrible things that can happen with it, but there’s also some good things.

And while I talk a lot about data, I’m more concerned about people having the power to make decisions about whether they want to use it or not use it, and that it’s their decision with it. And so, if we don’t have a shared understanding about what is data and how we use it or how it’s used, we’ll never get to the point where we can make the decisions about, you know, people don’t want to be involved in it. And so we need to kind of think about what does it mean to be as local as possible with data.

12:54 HEATHER NOELLE ROBINSON: Heather Leson, Data Literacy Lead at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, thank you so much for joining us.

13:02 HEATHER LESON: Thanks very much for having me. Have a good day.

Digital Impact is a program of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Follow this and other episodes at and on Twitter @dgtlimpact with #4Q4Data.