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Data Visualization Interview: Lela Prashad, NiJeL

NIJEL LOGO sqNiJeL is next up in our series of interviewswith people and organizations on the frontlines of data visualization work. The idea is to bring a focused perspective on the practices and tools that are shaping the way we use data visualization and the broader conversation about it. NiJeL partners with organizations and individuals focused on social and environmental good to help them tell their stories, working closely with their partners to develop the best technology to tell their stories, through data, with minimal disruption. Most of their projects involve data analysis, visualization, and mapping built with open source software to tackle problems ranging from better delivery of elder care services to ensuring water quality protection and microfinance for water and sanitation. Thanks again to Greta Knutzen for the guest curation of these interviews.

Why did you and your fellow founders settle on Data Visualization & GIS for social good as the focus of your business?

My friends Nancy Jones, JD Godchaux, and I started NiJeL in 2007. We were all working on research projects at Arizona State University after graduate school and we were all using GIS in different ways to understand how environmental problems impact people and drive policy. I was working on urban heat island effects in Phoenix, Nancy was working on water decision making in the West, and JD was analyzing land use policy in urban areas. We were excited by the free and open source software movement that was coming out with graphical applications, like QGIS, that could make the kinds of tools we were using much more accessible.

At the same time we were volunteering for a refugee resettlement non-profit in Phoenix and helping Liberian refugee families navigate their new city. Working with this group made us realize that tools like GIS and new technology efforts like crowdsourcing could be useful in mapping out and keeping up with community resources. In a sprawling city of millions like Phoenix it’s hard enough for the refugees and case workers to keep up with the locations and schedules of required visits to sign up for social and medical services, and even harder to keep up with community-driven resources – like youth gardens or ESL classes at the library. We thought non-profits could make their own maps and crowdsource community resource directories with these new, free tools.

We took our ideas through an incubator at ASU called Launch Pad which helped us structure our plans into an organization. We were joined in 2010 by Lyzette Bullock,  an attorney in Phoenix who became interested in NiJeL after our Immigrant Harassment project launched to track harassment after the “Show Your Papers” Arizona  state law passed.

Describe the value and benefit of Data Visualization to the social sector. Why and how is it useful?

Data analysis/ visualization and GIS mapping are tools that can be used to answer questions. These questions can be large-scope organizational questions, such as – Are  the locations of our community centers best-placed to serve the people we want to help? – or – How much has water quality improved over time in the river since we  advocated for protective policies? Often, before these major questions can be asked and then addressed, groups need to organize the data they currently have and  develop plans to bring in other data to effectively answer these questions. I’ve found that when our partners begin to pose these large-scope questions, they often begin  to develop new relationships to the current data they gather in their day-to-day workflow and start to identify other data they need to collect.

Most organizations are, of course, focused on the daily needs of their communities and stakeholders. These are the smaller, more mundane stories that need to be told

NiJel Team

NiJel Team

on a daily basis. Bringing easier ways to visualize basic data, through dashboards and maps for example, can make daily work much more efficient. DV/GIS tools should  fit within the culture of the organization and not disrupt the way work gets done. New technological solutions that are the wrong fit can bring in new problems and slow down work.

Briefly outline your process for working with clients?

We think it’s important to understand how our partners currently tell their stories and how people accomplish their work. What we build for our partners is custom for  them, and addressing their particular mission, data, and community engagement needs. We work closely with our partners in an iterative process, starting with cartoon diagrams of what we will build, which serve as a roadmap for our work. We then proceed to building out the system in phases, testing the system with our partners and their communities as we go.

What advice would you give to nonprofits thinking about using Data Visualization to advance their mission?

First, I would advise anyone telling a data story to think about who their audience is and how to best reach them. Non-profits likely already know the best way to reach the people they serve, their funders, and the public. I would suggest building on this knowledge to determine the right technology – from paper to sms to the web.  Starting with a small project that has a specific goal – like documenting progress over the year to a funder – can be a good way to get started thinking about how data and information are used and gathered in one’s organization.

When scoping out a larger project, try not to let a particular technology solution drive the initial focus. First, ask the fundamental questions. What aspects of storytelling and communication are currently working and what should be replaced? What are the best technologies for delivering data and information? How dynamic is the data  and when will will you need to acquire new data in the future? How may those outside your organization, or those not at the table, like to interact with your system,  partners with similar missions for example?

These kinds of strategic questions can lead you to a concrete outline of the project, including specifics about webpages, data visualizations, and analysis that will be needed.

What advice would you give to Data Visualizers wanting to use their expertise and talent for good causes?

I would advise anyone wanting to help a non-profit or community group with their data to really take the time to get to know the mission and needs of the people with  whom you want to work. I would suggest fitting your solutions into your partners’ current workflows as much as possible and use free and open source components  whenever possible. Your work should be picked up easily by another developer in the future and be transparent in how it functions. Free and open source software  choices can make this possible since they can be modified by any good developer in the future and there are no licence fees that must be paid.

Also, if the non-profit has spent time and energy on a solution you think is not the most elegant, wait to see if it needs replacing before proposing an entirely new one. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!

Highlight an example of your own work about which you are most proud and why? Shortly after starting NiJeL, we were connected with a team of people interested in visualizing  and documenting the prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt. This was in 2008, pre-revolution in Egypt. We had learned of the open source crisismapping software Ushahidi in 2007 – which was initially built to document attacks and violence during the Kenyan post-election crisis of 2007.

Ushahidi allows people to send reports via SMS or on the web and then maps the incidences on a webpage. Users can verify reports and vote reports up or down so reports can curated by the community, as well as site administrators. Ushahidi has been used in many crisis mapping applications since – notably after the Haiti earthquake – and HarassMap is one of the longest-running active crisismapping platforms. We built an Ushahidi instance for the team in Egypt and people immediately started submitting reports. As those experiencing catcalls, groping, and more violent attacks started to tell their stories, the map started to show patterns and trends in sexual harassment incidents, particularly in Cairo. The technology of the map and the system were the most visible aspects of the project in the early years, but the team in Egypt worked hard to make sure the success of the map led to support for women and community programs.

We handed off the administration of the mapping system to the team in Egypt two years ago. We are very proud of the significant accomplishments of our Egyptian partners, especially in the face of a revolution and rising violence.

Which work do you most admire in this field?

I greatly admire the Crisismappers group that was initially coalesced around the potential of Ushahidi. The young group was able to apply its theories on crowdsourcing technology and the power of data visualization during a crisis following the devastation of the Haiti earthquake. TechSoup is an excellent organization with a long history of providing technology assistance to NGOs that I got to know through my involvement in our Phoenix chapter of TechSoup’s NetSquared program. I am impressed by DataKind – a group which links volunteer data scientists to non-profits. They are doing great work.

What are some of your favorite data visualization tools?

There are so many it’s hard to begin!  One thing everyone does is write documents and use spreadsheets – for this I like LibreOffice: an open source desktop office suite. For GIS desktop analysis I use QGIS, although I switched to a combination of FWTools and PostGIS/ PostgreSQL for my main GIS toolset several years ago. They are all command line which can be daunting, however, it’s so satisfying to run a buffer analysis across multiple shapefiles in one line of text!

What future developments and trends do you predict in the field of data visualization for good?

Tools like the javascript libraries D3.js and leaflet.js have made it much easier to make compelling web-based data visualizations and maps than in the past. Static and  printed data visualizations also have been made simpler with open source software like Inkscape and the powerful language Processing. Similarly, simpler databases like  MongoDB are great for quick setup of applications that really don’t need a relational database. Even complex statistical analysis is easier to approach now with R and the active community behind it.

These kinds of tools have make visual data storytelling much simpler and more accessible. At the same time, I think there has been less focus on the long-term archiving of data and ensuring that new data are gathered with information that explains where that data came from and what modifications occurred, or metadata. As more and more people create and analyze data and develop compelling interactive visuals there will be greater need to find simple ways to archive original data and keep pedigrees with the data as they are shared.

We have a wealth of data freely accessible to us now in much more usable forms. For example, the U.S. Census data have always been available but are now much easier to work with than even a couple years ago. In the future, I think groups working for social good will be able to link daily work to impacts and progress towards their  missions much more easily through data, especially if the open data and software movements continue to be strong.