/ 3 keys to getting the most out of analytics in a crisis

Never has the world needed analytics more than it does right now. To get a handle on a crisis as profound as COVID-19, it’s not only imperative that we have rapid access to data, but that we understand that information in a way that helps us move forward and be better prepared for whatever comes next.

With that truth in mind, we invited analytics expert Donald Farmer to lead a virtual discussion on the power of analytics in a crisis for the inaugural episode of CURIOSITY, a new video series that explores why now is the time to “do” data differently, and how to go about it.

Donald was joined by a pair of fellow technology gurus—Neil Gomes, the System Senior Vice President of Digital & Human Experience for CommonSpirit Health, and Gisli Olafsson, the CTO of Africa-based nonprofit One Acre Fund—who have used analytics to tackle all manner of crises, both in healthcare and on a humanitarian service level.

Over the course of its hour-long chat, the trio talked about everything from how easy it is for data to become messy—and therefore difficult to work with—to the type of analytics they’d like to see more of.

But for the most part, their conversation revolved around three key aspects of analytics in a crisis: recognition, presentation, and humanization.

1 – Recognition

Whether it’s a crisis like COVID-19, or an earthquake, or even an event that may cause an organization to rethink its business strategy, the first thing you must do in order to respond to the situation with intelligence is understand where you are and what information you have, said Gisli.

“You’ve got to have some baseline data,” he said, “and it’s got to be easy to get to. It can’t be in all different formats, either. As well, you’ve got to recognize the power that comes with a willingness to share data. It’s one thing if the data is there. But it does no good if there’s an unwillingness to share it with one another.”

Neil agreed, and added that in a crisis it’s also important to ask the right questions—“Like, what are some of the things that we really need to know in order to respond correctly?” he said—and study anomalies and patterns.

“With this pandemic, we’re still trying to figure why kids are less effected than older folks, and why men are more effected than women,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to figure out stuff like that faster, and maybe even have them revealed to us by software, by machine learning, by AI.

“I think the direction we’re going in will enable that to happen, because we’re collecting so much data, all the time—oftentimes unbeknownst to us, even. So, all these different types of things we don’t measure right now could be measured by software in the future.”

2 – Presentation

While analytics is defined as the systematic computational analysis of data or statistics, it means nothing if it’s presented in a way that is difficult to comprehend, the triad offered.

“One of the things I’ve really struggled with as a data person throughout this crisis is the appalling quality of visualizations and communication about data that I’ve seen,” Donald said. “How are we to help people understand the analytics we’re doing when we can’t communicate properly? We need to do a better job of meeting people where they are.”

Gisli’s advice for how to do that? “Understand your user, and understand what they need in order to make decisions,” he said.

“We’re doing it right now (at One Acre Fund). We’re asking, ‘What are the key decisions that staff will have to make as we’re transforming the NGO into a more digital organization?’ That then can be translated into, ‘What data do we need to collect? What dashboards do we need to create? What reports do we need? And how do we best present them?’”

3 – Humanization

When Neil first started working for another healthcare company several years ago, he was part of a team that was trying to build a data display for the emergency room in an effort to help that group move faster.

But the build-out was held up for two weeks because the person who was charged with setting up the database connection had no idea what the completion of his task truly meant.

“One night before I went home, I met with him, and I humanized it for him,” Neil recalled. “As soon as he understood that this display could affect him, or his parents, or whoever, his outlook changed.

“It’s on everyone’s part—but especially us technologists, I think—to be better in this area, because sometimes we pull away from the reality of the situation we are serving.”

For Gisli, who admitted his job can be quite difficult at times, giving an actual face to what One Acre Fund does—which is supply more than a million smallholder farmers with everything they need to grow more food and earn more money—is a must in challenging moments.

“When the winds are blowing against me,” he said, “I picture the farmer I met when I was on the verge of joining the organization, a guy whose life changed dramatically by being in the program, and that keeps me going.

“It gets at the ‘why’ we do things. In healthcare, it would be easy to look at the stats that say 20 people were infected today, or 10 people died today, but when you hear the amazing stories about the frontline workers who are putting themselves in danger every day, that’s when you go, ‘What can I do to help? How can I contribute to that?’

“I’ve always tried to take that into my work, to make sure that connection exists. We can’t just be about creating, say, another database table. We’ve got to think about what that information enables. That’s when you get people excited.”

To learn more about how analytics and insights have factored into Gisli’s experience with humanitarian crises, Neil’s experience with healthcare issues, and Donald’s experience creating strategies that enable successful crisis responses, watch or listen to the first episode in the CURIOSITY series here.

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