Data for Democracy project supports Myanmar’s emerging data environment

The spread of information and communication technologies (ICTs) alone does not necessarily lead to a well-informed society. As TASCHA’s Data for Democracy (D4D) project substantiated during its first year in Myanmar, implementation of new technologies and technical skills to support the use of data for better decision making is only as effective as the data culture, practices, and policies that surround these tools. In the D4D project, this meant considering the Myanmar’s data environment at multiple levels. In order to appropriately cultivate an evidence-based approach to decision making within the rapidly changing country, the D4D team explored possible contributing factors that would better enable users of Myanmar’s ICTs to generate, curate, consume, and utilize data for more effective decision making. “With Myanmar’s transition from a decades-long military rule to an open, democratic government, the country presents a fascinating and meaningful opportunity to work with non-governmental and public sector organizations as they adjust their practices to better use data for evidence-based decision making,” Chris Rothschild, a researcher working on the D4D project, said. “The country is rife with talented organizations, making for great partnerships.”

To begin addressing these issues, 2016 was spent training Myanmar organizations across multiple sectors in data visualization theory and techniques using Tableau software, which is now widely available for free to qualifying NGOs. TASCHA evaluated the effects of these trainings, and conducted a needs assessment for further work to support the data culture, practices, policies, and skills of the country’s organizations. In partnership with the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation (EMReF) and the Myanmar Book Aid Preservation Foundation (MBAPF), and with generous support from the Tableau Foundation, the D4D team has begun to understand the intricacies in supporting a developing data culture and creating educational resources for organizations in a country that rapidly transitioned away from censorship and fragmented information infrastructures.

The trainings emphasized the role data visualizations can play to support evidence-based decision making and introduced participating organizations to the technical skills required to visualize data in new, meaningful ways using Tableau software. Enabled by new data skills, organizations that took part in the training were able to improve their data practices and decision making ability. The Center for Diversity and National Harmony (CDNH), for example, reported that making their data publicly available in visually compelling ways allowed them to create more collaborations among other organizations, especially those without a strong data background.

Incorporating data visualizations in their reports has helped EMReF provide the public, researchers, NGOs, and decision makers with an easily accessible and understandable source for data on political changes. The organization is currently constructing a public dashboard to illustrate parliamentary processes and procedures concerning new laws and policies. Data dashboards have also been developed by the Myanmar Information Management Unit on humanitarian and development projects in the country. Moreover, MBAPF was able to map library data and identify trends in book circulation within their mobile library project. CDNH has used Tableau to enhance their early warning system, helping prevent ethnic and community violence across the country through monitoring and analyzing social media. According to Rothschild, “What has been particularly exciting is seeing how Tableau has not only been useful in organizations conveying data in meaningful ways to the public, but how the software has also supported their internal decision making.”

Knowledge about current data practices, needs, and barriers is shaping D4D’s approach to 2017. For example, some items that came to the forefront include the lack of formal data management and legal framework systems, gaps in data availability and quality standardization, and methods for communicating data in meaningful ways across different technology platforms. Based on the needs assessment, the next phase of work will focus on engaging government ministries and local NGOs to create a replicable learning model to address organizations’ data cultures, practices, policies, and skills; host data-related talks and events; and increase organizations’ data visualization skills. Further development of tailored programs will continue to advance the capabilities of Myanmar’s research organizations, government agencies, and civil society organizations and ultimately empower a public to participate thoughtfully in its own governance. “We are striving to create outcomes that are meaningful to the people and organizations in Myanmar and make positive impacts on their ability to use data for decision making,” Rothschild said. “Ideally, what is worked on will continue to expand, evolve, and be used, not just in Myanmar, but in other countries.”