“I see and I remember” - optimising data visualisation to improve humanitarian decision-making

Humanitarians are being bombarded with an ever increasing volume of data.  Trying to make sense of needs, response actions, contextual issues, and so on is hard, especially when time is tight and evidence is scant.  The increasing demand for Information Management skills in IFRC responses (Information Management, or IM, was the third highest requested surge profile in 2018) reflects this challenge.  IM as a function aims to improve not only the way we collect, store and analyse data, but also how we visualise it to share insights.  

Data visualisation has been called the representation and presentation of data to facilitate understanding (Andy Kirk, Data Visualisation: A Handbook for Data Driven Design).  The ultimate aim therefore for any good data visualisation is to please the eyes and engage the mind.  Knowing your audience is therefore key to a successful data visualisation. In the case of IFRC IM, the audience is usually called ‘humanitarian decision-makers’.  Leaving the definition of this group aside, we know that this means that we are dealing with an audience who is likely to be time-poor, information-needy, and to hold weirdly strong opinions on colour schemes.   

When considering the approach to visualising data we have to take a range of factors into consideration.  First, we need to understand the data - weigh it up, check for holes, feel its shape and test its limits. Second, we have to think about the impact we intend to have - do we want to tell a story, allow the user to explore a situation, summarise or delve deep?  Third, we have to consider the audience - who are they, what formats are they comfortable with, what are their biases and are there any cultural or personal considerations? Only then should we start thinking about tools, technologies and tactics to represent the data.  

Tools and technologies for visualising data are improving all the time.  They are also numerous. In fact, there are so many out there that there are websites dedicated just to keeping track.  In the IFRC we have improved the canvas for data visualisation (go.ifrc.org) and are increasingly flexible with different technologies.  However, it is still difficult in many of the dashboards, maps and graphics we produce to identify the signal amidst the noise.  

To address this, the IFRC are holding a data visualisation challenge.  Through this, we aim to seek out the greatest data viz talents in the IFRC network and set new standards for three visual products for core emergency operational datasets, namely who-what-where (3w), surge deployments and situational overview (needs and response actions) data.  

We are simply asking for participants to submit two different visual products based on the three datasets shared below. 


Anyone from the IFRC and its 191 member societies can apply, staff or volunteer.  Ten winners of the challenge will be selected to travel to Geneva to participate in a three day training with a data visualisation expert, aiming at refining their submissions and improving their overall understanding of data-driven design principles.

Download the concept note for the challenge and data to be visualised.

For more information, email the IM team.

To submit your entries, please fill out this form.

Either if this is something you’ve always wanted to learn about, or if you want to demonstrate your skills, please submit your ideas in whatever format you like.  

As Confucius, a total beginner with Excel, said,
“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

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