Embracing Data Visualization in Evaluation: A Management Perspective

Friends! I’m so happy to have Rakesh Mohan guest blogging for me. He is one helluva guy. He is the Director of the Office of Performance Evaluations, an independent agency of the Idaho State Legislature. In other words, his eval clients are lawmakers. You ask me for examples of reporting in government – here you go! In addition to those huge tasks, Rakesh is running for president of  the American Evaluation Association (vote!) and his office received the Alva and Gunnar Myrdal Government Evaluation Award from AEA in 2011 because their evaluation work is that incredible. Read on for what Rakesh and I have been working on lately.

Words have meaning, especially those that are well thought out and are written for a particular person or audience in mind. For instance, here is a very special letter my father wrote to me 52 years ago when I was only six years old. He had been away in England for two years. LettertoRakesh Likewise, pictures have meaning, especially those that are personal or touch our hearts. This is my father’s picture, which he sent to me from England when I was six. RakeshsPapa But what becomes amazingly powerful is when you combine words with the right picture. The letter and the picture that I received from my father were not two separate items but one. He wrote the letter to me on the back of the picture. This is so special to me that I now display it in a two-way glass frame on a bookshelf in my office.

I believe we could generate similar powerful effects when we thoughtfully integrate pictures with the words and numbers in our evaluation reports and slide presentations. However, I wasn’t initially convinced about this idea until I attended Stephanie Evergreen’s presentation at the annual conference of the Eastern Evaluation Research Society in 2013.

The “Evergreen Effect”

We had our full-day immersion in data visualization with Stephanie in September 2013. After that, we made significant changes in the way we presented data – changes immediately noticed by legislators, agency officials, and other stakeholders. We received many compliments. We made tremendous growth but we still had much to learn.

So I asked Stephanie to conduct another workshop for our office. She kindly agreed to do this for us again – we had the second workshop just last month.

Click below to see the “Evergreen Effect” in the two reports we wrote after her second workshop and compare those reports to a report we did prior to learning all this cool stuff from her. RakeshWaterQuality RakehsContractReport The Change Didn’t Come Easy

Was it easy for me to make this change? Hell no! First, I thought it was a fad that would go away like lava lamps, bellbottoms, and chia pets. But it didn’t; the fad wasn’t fading away and I had no choice but to face this change head on. My apprehensions were twofold.

First, I was afraid of exposing my lack of knowledge and skills in the use of technology and new software. Second, I was worried that my staff would spend more time playing with color pallets and searching for pictures online than using critical thinking in conducting evaluations. The first concern was valid but had an easy fix. I don’t need to know everything. As the director, I let my staff do what they love to do and are good at. I simply enable them by providing training and resources to them and appreciating their creative efforts.

The second concern was just in my head. Staff take their responsibilities of producing high quality evaluations seriously. Of course, they have the challenge of finding extra time that is required to initially learn data visualization tools and techniques. That’s where experts like Stephanie can come to the rescue.

Finally, I realize that data visualization is not nearly as difficult as making hand-drawn figures like my father did for his dissertation more than 50 years ago. Now we are writing our reports at a time when many free checklists and guides are available online to help us step-by-step with using a broad range of data visualization software varying in their application and complexity.

The Three Benefits

In less than a year since we first received training from Stephanie, I have clearly seen three benefits of embracing data visualization:

  1. Collective Creativity. My staff love to work on data visualization and want to use their creative energy for producing evaluation reports that are used. They are eager to learn and help each other. As a result, the collective creativity of the office has increased tremendously. All staff, including consultants working on our projects, now feel that they have something special to contribute to the project. For example, on our water quality study, our consultant took the initiative to take aerial photographs from his plane – all on his own time and dime. Because of our new emphasis on data visualization, he knew his pictures would have a place in the report and would be appreciated.
  1. Clarity of Message. Increased emphasis on data visualization has forced us to be crystal clear about the main message of our reports and presentations. Because we are replacing the 1,000 words with a picture, we can no longer hide behind jargon and get away with a less clear message. Now we have to make sure that we have selected the “right” picture so as to not give our readers and audiences a chance to find their own 1,000 words for interpreting the picture and derailing our intended message.
  1. Flexibility. My personal favorite is the flexibility I have gained by using more pictures and fewer words for my slide presentations. Now I can make last minute changes to my oral comments without worrying about making my spoken words exactly match with the written words on the slides. This helps me tailor my comments to meet the needs of my audiences.

With this guest blog, I hope to persuade at least a few evaluation directors and managers to incorporate data visualization principles in their evaluation work and empower their talented staff to produce evaluation reports that are bound to increase evaluation use.

Learn something new?

Share this helpful info with a friend who needs an extra perk today or post it to your social where your third cousin can benefit, too.