Visualizing Response, Relief, and Recovery: It’s about the Data

October 24, 2017

Co-written by Sabine Topolansky and Jaime Jarvis

This year has been filled with stories of disasters—evacuations due to flooding and volcanic activity in Indonesia, historic drought and severe food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, hurricanes devastating the islands of the Caribbean, and fires swallowing whole communities across the northwestern United States.

Events like these encourage people and communities to come together to help one another. For EnCompass and our clients, they also encourage us to consider the diversity of events and country contexts, human capacity, and the boundaries of resources for response and recovery. Often, the question is not who needs assistance, but rather who needs it the most. As international development practitioners, we look to the evidence to guide us to an answer; in other words, it starts with the data.

But what happens when the data is inconsistent, telling a complex or ambiguous story?

In 2016, EnCompass was contracted to synthesize natural hazard data from a set of 13 countries from every region of the world in order to help the client prioritize and concentrate its grants to improve preparation and the coping capacity of communities and vulnerable groups exposed to recurring, low-attention disaster events. We needed to create something relevant, timely, and usable so the client could send funds and other support to where it is most needed.

Despite starting with internationally reputed data sets—such as INFORM, DesInventar, and ReliefWeb—and interviews with people and decision makers in each country, our team faced inconsistent levels of detail about which hazards each country faced and how much capacity it had for preparedness and response. From wildly different country contexts, to discrepancies in the amounts of primary and secondary sources, how could we overcome these challenges to tell the client a coherent, accessible narrative?

Our team was responsive and adaptive to the client’s needs, adjusting the frame after the pilot country case study.  We found that visualizations of the data can help tell a complex story of response and recovery preparedness across all 13 countries. The country reports featured text alongside key graphics, such as color-coded barometers gauging risk levels, and maps with symbols and shading to demarcate hazards, vulnerabilities, supply, and synthesis. At a glance, the client could quickly assess degrees of need among all 13 countries. These graphics allowed us to honor each country’s context and level of data disaggregation, while presenting an effective tool for the client.  

Ultimately, decisions of where to send aid are difficult no matter the circumstance. Because of our team’s adaptability, we were able to synthesize the data while taking into account multiple aspects and possible scenarios. With our country reports and visualizations, the client will be equipped to make the best judgments possible about where to send support to increase natural hazard preparedness. EnCompass was proud to support this clients’ work, and reaffirm our commitment to solving problems by remaining innovative and flexible.

Image source: Kate Lamb, freelance journalist (katelamb.com) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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