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Placing Data Visualization In A Larger Frame

Markets For Good: Alf Gracombe, GivingDataImagine driving behind a paving machine [left], watching the road being laid, then following shortly behind on still-warm asphalt.  At times, the conversation on “data” feels like that, given the pace of tools and practices being developed then put into play at sector scale.  Given this landscape, Alfred (Alf) Gracombe, founder of GivingData, provides insight as he examines data visualization in grants management and places emerging practice in a larger context for the sector.

At this point we’re well aware of the rise in prominence of data within the enterprise. And in the world of philanthropy, this is most apparent in the activities involving grants management. Grant and grantee data are at the heart of the philanthropic enterprise and its use is endemic to a foundation’s strategic giving, relationship management, fiduciary responsibilities, and evaluation, outcome measurement, and learning. Collection, management, and collaboration around data is more sophisticated than it was before, and better tools for extracting knowledge and informing decisions are in greater need.

Because grants management involves a fundamentally collaborative set of activities, the ability for colleagues within a foundation and grantee partners outside of the foundation to interact with and share grant-related data is critical. And the ways in which that data is made available to these audiences should be easy to understand, easy to use, and must accurately reflect an agreed upon “single version of the truth” of that data. In other words, all end-users of the data should hold the same assumptions and belief in its accuracy, whether it’s showing up in a grantee payment projection report, an outcome measurement dashboard, or a program officer’s portfolio. The presentation of data must serve each of these perspectives, be consistently and accurately applied to them all, and provide enough power and flexibility for each individual to get her work done. Interaction and management of data is a collective responsibility. Data is used by all but owned by no one.

So, how does data visualization fit into this picture?

In our work with clients, we are less interested in thinking about data visualization as solely charts, maps, and infographics than we are in presenting data within a broader visual landscape. The focus is on the display of information in ways that both reinforce and align with the manner in which people actually get their work done. The visual display of information is a language with a vocabulary that includes graphics, numbers (the quantitative), text and narrative (the qualitative), layout and placement, and interactivity. And while a good chart can quickly render a large data set intelligible, it is real-time interactivity and collaboration that will ultimately allow for that data to inform decision-making and serve a greater function across stakeholders. When data visualization is thought of as just one piece (albeit a very important one) in the larger picture of how information is visually displayed, manipulated, and shared, that can be transformative.

It’s easy to see how this applies to grants management and grants data, and more broadly speaking, to all foundation data. In fact, the role of grants managers is evolving. It has traditionally been a role with more tactical and transactional considerations, but it is now becoming something of far greater strategic significance to how a foundation uses its data. We see grants management departments innovating in ways that better deliver data to the various constituencies inside and outside of the foundation’s walls. Grants data is no longer siloed — it’s a shared resource. And it’s the grants managers, working in concert with program, finance, evaluation, and IT teams, who are helping to implement visually rich data applications in their organizations.

The grants management product and services market is currently undergoing a transformation. New companies are finding their niche and offering better and more tailored and visually rich data solutions. More established companies are working to update their products and improve their fluency in this relatively nascent visual language. All of this is good for the social sector. And all of this ultimately means better tools — better infrastructure — for grantmakers and their increasing use of and reliance on data.

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