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Using Dashboards for Decision-Making in Liberia
Published 10/28/2015 by Global Communities
Using Dashboards for Decision-Making in Liberia
By Chris Thompson, M&E Manager, ALERT Project
Imagine you are flying a plane. What is the first thing you want to know? You probably want to know when you will run out of fuel. To find out you look at your navigation panel, your dashboard. Managing a development project can feel like flying a plane, and just like pilots, managers need a dashboard of data that empowers them to manage. Otherwise, they risk flying blind.
Most development practitioners recognize that basing decision on data analysis is preferential to speculation and intuition. However, challenges arise when trying to quickly acquire data with enough accuracy to be useful for decision-making.
Take Global Communities’ Assisting Liberians with Education to Reduce Transmission (ALERT) program to strengthen community preparedness for Ebola. ALERT works in an emergency response setting where unpredictable issues can quickly arise, affording little time to gather and analyze data before a decision is required.
The program’s M&E office collected data on a quarterly basis, in line with donor reporting requirements, but too infrequently to be useful for the almost daily challenges presented by Ebola. All too often managers flew blind; however, this changed when the project adopted a dashboard approach to M&E.
Recognizing its managers lacked data to drive their decision-making, ALERT hastened its data collection and analysis from quarterly to weekly. To meet this tightened timeframe, managers selected a handful of key metrics with disaggregates. Examples include number of trainees disaggregated by sex and region and the number of triggers and referrals in communities participating in disease surveillance.
The program hired additional personnel to ensure the ambitious data collection schedule did not lower data quality. New staff received training on verifying data sources, such as attendance sheets for training and monitoring forms for disease surveillance. One innovation was deciding to use photos of data sources (attendance sheets, border monitoring forms) to quickly confirm data. Previously, hard copies of attendance sheets were sent from the field to Monrovia on a monthly basis. Now photos of attendance sheets are emailed weekly.
ALERT chose a dashboard, an array of a few measurements and visualizations, as an appealing medium for managers with little time to spare on analytics. The dashboard conveys trends and key points by presenting data concisely through infographics, maps, and graphs. As contributor to the dashboard, I use Excel for most graphs and color code them to Global Communities’ marking palate. For infographics, I use a free account at Piktochart; ESRI’s ArcGIS is my resource for making maps.
The key achievement of ALERT’s dashboard has been to strengthen its program management by better integrating M&E into decision-making. For example, a key component of the ALERT program is promoting community health education and behavior changes around Ebola-prevention practices, including hygiene. Some ALERT communities have already adopted certain hygiene practices because they have reached Open Defecation Free (ODF) status through community-led total sanitation activities. By mapping ODF communities and analyzing their density (see chart below), program managers decided to focus efforts on certain communities in areas with a low density of ODF communities. The reasoning behind this decision was that communities in low-ODF density areas lacked role model communities nearby and therefore required extra support to change hygiene behaviors.
ALERT Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities
Also, the dashboard encouraged regional managers to focus on their results and motivate their staff. For example, the dashboard enables easy comparison by region according to the percentage of communities that receive weekly monitoring visits by community health volunteers as part of community events-based surveillance. Managers in regions with low monitoring visit rates began to motivate volunteers to increase visits and strengthen surveillance by pointing out the higher rates achieved by volunteers in neighboring regions.
Comparison of number of individuals reached by county
This approach can be used by M&E Managers in other countries as well. As a first step, M&E Managers could meet with their County Directors to set 3-5 indicators that will 1) help the Country Director make decisions, and 2) require data that can be collected and verified quickly. Next, M&E Managers would need to train their teams or others who collect data to speed up their processes to a weekly frequency. For example, I held a three-day training for data collectors.
Next, M&E managers should develop the best visualizations of their data (graphs, infographics) to capture their audience’s attention. Lastly, they need to integrate their dashboards into the management structure. One way to do this is by presenting the dashboard in weekly staff meetings. This will improve the project’s accountability by providing the management team with tools to identify managers who are lagging behind and potentially reward those who are performing well.