On Friday, I spoke at a Tech@State conference on data visualization at the Kennedy Center. There were a lot of people with whizz-bang presentations that made Hans Rosling look like a newbie with an all-text PowerPoint. For example, Aleem Walji showed how the World Bank is using maps of where in a country the Bank is doing projects, mashed up with maps of poverty rates to see how well it is targeting poverty with its portfolio.
I'm no expert in the subject --I agreed to speak mainly so I could tell my mum I had performed at the Kennedy Center. But what I said was that I do think there is a big role for better visualization to talk, analyze and learn about development. (This despite the fact my editor told me to take all the graphs and charts out of my last book because they make it look academic and reduced sales). I've found Rosling's Gap Minder an incredibly powerful tool, for example. Just run his graphic of the relationship between income and life expectancy over the past 100 years and watch the bouncing bubbles migrating upwards as people live longer and longer lives at the same income over time.
And I think the point that it isn't all about national institutions when it comes to development outcomes could be beautifully made by a grayscale global map of income per capita at the subnational regional level --I think borders would less important than we usually think using an institutional lens. We don't have that map, yet, by the way, even though we do have the data --yes, this is a blatant plea.
Recent research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler suggests visual representation of data can be a particularly powerful tool when you are trying to change people's minds: "graphical corrections are found to successfully reduce incorrect beliefs among potentially resistant subjects and to perform better than an equivalent textual correction." Meanwhile the belief that aid doesn't work is something pretty widespread. So better data and better visualization might be not only a tool to reduce waste and corruption, but also a way to persuade people their aid dollars are actually doing good.
A real issue in discussing aid effectiveness is the long causal chain from taxpayer handing over dollars to any impact. Take even the comparatively simple case of vaccination programs. Table after table after table of data making the case that tax dollars buy vaccines those drugs get delivered to countries, countries distribute them, kids receive them and vaccinated kids don't die as often would be one way of illustrating the fact that aid really makes a difference. A visual representation (perhaps cribbing from the famous March on Moscow graphic) could surely be considerably more effective.
Another way of presenting the data to make the case that aid dollars really make a difference would be to show the comparative impact of a dollar in the U.S. or Uganda. At its most basic, just a picture that demonstrates what a dollar means in terms of the average daily income of a Ugandan compared to the average daily income of an American. Or the cost of saving a year of life in the U.S. medical system compared to the cost of saving that life in Uganda. Because we should be honest and admit that the marginal dollar won't be as efficiently spent in terms of being delivered exactly where, what and how the bureaucrats want in Africa compared to the U.S. But the impact on quality of life of a few cents that actually reaches beneficiaries in Africa is far larger than the impact of a whole dollar reaching beneficiaries in the U.S. This kind of message may be far more easy to get across visually than in text --a point I may well just have demonstrated!
At same time, some of the whizz bang presentations were in a way a warning --visualization is a tool to understanding, not the only nor always the best. Which is lucky for those of us who can write the odd blog post but have all the visual arts talents of the average naked mole rat.*
*Note: this naked mole rat is not average.