A Conversation with Viz for Social Good
Over the next few weeks, Bridges to Prosperity will be partnering with Viz for Social Good, a social data project whose mission is to empower mission-driven organizations and increase awareness of social issues through beautiful and informative visualizations. Here’s our exchange with Founder Chloe Tseng and Program Management Lead Vanitha Lucas Viz for Social Good as well as VP of Evaluation at B2P Abbie Noriega.
Chloe and Vanitha, please introduce yourselves and what you do for Viz for Social Good?
Chloe: I’m the founder of Viz for Social Good.
Vanitha: Aside from being a big champion for VFSG and the work we do, my role as a Board member is Program Management and Global Chapter Leadership.
I have spent the majority of my career in data, business intelligence, and analytics and I can’t think of a better way to give back to society and multiple causes by donating my time, skills, and experience. I recently published an article describing skills-based volunteering “Data for Good is Good for the Soul”.
Abbie, how has B2P’s use of data changed over time?
Abbie: In the early days of B2P, we did a ton of field assessment and documentation, but didn’t have the capacity to digitize, aggregate, or analyze the information we were collecting. As we grew, we recognized the need to shift to a more data-driven approach, and to create more seamless exchanges of information among our global staff. Once we had more than a few people at headquarters and a few people in each program country, we really started to feel the burn of paper and knew it wouldn’t work anymore to have really valuable and important data bouncing around in a binder in the back of somebody’s pickup truck, so we built systems to track what we were doing so that we could learn from one another and build on those insights. We now have a centralized, integrated database that is designed to aggregate data from so many different sources, including remote field locations, so that we’re able to track trends in construction and safety processes, spot problems, and make business decisions more quickly.
At the same time, we began to invest more in our internal impact evaluation to augment what we were learning about our work from external research partners and drill down on questions about how end-users rely on trail bridges to reach critical destinations. Having data collection and analytic systems already in place to support our operations was key to being able to ramp up that work quickly.
Chloe, could you take us through your thought process on how Viz for Social Good was created?
Chloe: Roughly four years ago, Helena Price, a Silicon Valley photographer, started a project called “Techies”. She interviewed and took 100 portraits of underrepresented minorities who work in tech. Her project challenged the stereotypes and encouraged tech companies to hire a more diverse workforce. Her message “everyone can leverage her/his own strength to make a difference” inspired me to use my skill set – data visualization – to initiate my personal project #VizforSocialGood. It started as a small personal project, using diversity & inclusion data and the hashtag #VizforSocialgood to educate people about gender equality issues.
In 2016, I gave a talk at a Tableau conference and was approached by several Tableau users who wanted to know how they could get involved. Thus, #VizforSocialGood transformed from a small personal project into a huge community! With a growing army of volunteers, we were able to help mission-driven organizations to use data and data visualization for social change.
Chloe, how were you received?
Chloe: When I first started out, I thought it was going to be easy to help all of these organizations because we were providing non-profits a skillset that they might now be able to afford. But most of the organizations I contacted didn’t know what data visualization was, so they couldn’t see the value of it straight away.
Vanitha, how did you get involved?
Vanitha: I first heard about Viz For Social Good at the Tableau Conference in New Orleans in 2018. I attended the Hackathon that Chloe organized and was inspired to see hundreds of people with their laptops all wanting to support a social cause using their data visualization skills. I was so moved and asked to form the Toronto, Canada chapter, which was the first one in Canada. Since then, I have continued to assist Chloe in scaling the organization.
Chloe, back to something you said earlier, was there some sort of misconception that data visualization wasn’t useful?
Chloe: It is more so that this area and its power was overlooked and underutilized. It was quite a learning curve for me. I decided to compile my visualizations into a case study to demonstrate the power of data visualization by showing how visualization could help them understand data, the impact of what they do, and help them encourage and inspire people to take action. Once I was able to help them see the value and impact of data visualization, it clicked.
Abbie, how does B2P use data?
Abbie: We use data in two ways: to learn and to build support for our work. In operations, for example, we use field safety reports to understand the biggest risks that our staff face and mitigate those risks through policy and process changes as well as training. In our internal monitoring and evaluation work, we use data to determine where trailbridges are needed, and survey data from end-users to understand who is crossing bridges and why.
Data also helps us make a case for the importance of the work that we do with donors as well as with our government, corporate, and institutional partners. Bridges are a compelling investment on their own—it’s easy to understand how safe access to school can change a child’s life or safe access to a market might change how a farmer invests in their business. But there are so many demands on a government’s resources, or on a donor’s philanthropic dollars, that it’s important to be able to provide evidence that our intervention is not only a good investment but one of the best investments you can make. Data helps us do that.
As an example, a study conducted on our bridges in Nicaragua demonstrated that households with new safe access via a trailbridge saw a 36% increase in labor market income and a 75% increase in farm profits. Overall, there was a 20% annual return on investment for a piece of infrastructure that will last 30 to 40 years. The same study indicated that there was a 60% increase in women entering the labor force. Data makes a powerful case for investment in trailbridges – whether you’re interested in poverty alleviation generally or more specifically in creating opportunities for women.
That work was so interesting that the same economists, in partnership with researchers at the University of Colorado, just launched a much larger study that’s investigating the impact of B2P trail bridges on a number of outcomes in rural Rwanda. Early results from a pilot study that wrapped up in the spring are showing similar results with a 25% increase in labor market income. Given that a single bridge in Rwanda serves an order of magnitude more people than a bridge in Nicaragua and that Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, a 25% increase in labor market income for a single household is stunning.
Evidence like this has the power to garner resources for trailbridge projects and, more broadly, support investments in last-mile infrastructure to create connection and opportunity for rural communities, which tend to be the poorest communities and the ones most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Good data helps us make a strong case for scaling our work and good visualization helps communicate the importance of this work to broader audiences.
We are so excited to have Viz for Social Good help us tell the story of our data in a compelling way.
Can you tell us about what Viz for Social Good will be working on?
A key metric for B2P is the number of communities and, by extension, the number of people served by each of our bridges. We launched a population catchment survey program in 2019 to understand the geographic reach of our trailbridges in Rwanda and the specific ways in which trail bridges serve as connections to key destinations for rural communities.
Viz for Social Good will be visualizing the first set of data from our catchment surveys to make it possible for us to communicate a complex impact concept to key stakeholders, including communities, government partners, and funders as well as the general public. We believe that visualizing this data will also help elevate the conversation about rural transportation infrastructure and the importance of prioritizing last-mile infrastructure in development plans.
How does Viz for Social Good work?
Chloe: Basically, we have three steps:
A nonprofit launches a data visualization project and provides details (e.g., datasets, needs, goals). Viz for Social Good volunteers receive an email notification about the new project.
Volunteers join a virtual or in-person hackathon to design visualizations for the nonprofit and use the hashtag #VizforSocialGood on Twitter to submit their visualizations.
The organization receives 10 to 80 visualizations from the volunteers and can pick one or more visualizations to feature on its communication channels (e.g., website, social media, publication, newsletter).
Vanitha: As of now we have 4000+ volunteers around the world and our presence is growing rapidly! A new project is announced via email and social media platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn. During a project we actively support our volunteers and their submissions on social media. We have chapters in 18 cities and work with our Chapter leaders to organize events. Volunteers are free to choose any data visualization or graphic tool of their choice. We have seen great “Vizzes” using Tableau, Power BI, Qlik, R, Python to name a few.
Chloe, what is your long term vision for Viz for Social Good?
For non-profits, we want to scale our impact by not only designing visualizations for them but also strengthening their skills through presentations and training.
For volunteers, we hope to provide them more growth opportunities through in-person and virtual events.
Learn more about our partnership and how to get involved: https://www.vizforsocialgood.com/join-a-project/bridges-to-prosperity