Visualizing and Sharing Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Data: Creating a Dashboard for SERVIR- Amazonia
Author: Sophie Alvarez.
(Leer en español)
During our PRiME Fundamentals of M&E 2 course, trainees practice basic methods and tools to collect, analyze, interpret, organize and present monitoring and evaluation (M&E) data. Data Dashboards are an option to track and present project or program M&E and learning (MEL) data.
Along Data Dashboards’ main advantages are the possibility to fit many visualizations in just one screen for an “at-a-glance” effect, facilitating project staff to monitor and compare indicators, and for sharing progress with all program partners. PRiME trainees are encouraged to look at their MEL data through a “dashboard fitness”: “Are there clearly identified outcomes, indicators and targets?” “Does it add value to regularly visualize and compare them (to the baseline data, to each other, to targets)?” Other issues to consider are whether the project, program or organization have sufficient resources to develop and, very importantly, maintain a dashboard. We encourage trainees to carry out a quick analysis of the overall cost vis-a-vis the possible benefits, and discuss alternatives, such hosting a few key indicators in a partners’ website, or other periodical monitoring data sharing methods, such as newsletters, poster or infographic series.
Since January 2020, I have had the pleasure of supporting the development of one such MEL Data Dashboard for the SERVIR- Amazonia Program. SERVIR- Amazonia is a joint development initiative of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), led by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. The Program’s ultimate goal is to improve the capacity of regional partners to harness satellite data and geospatial information by translating local needs into geospatial information tools, products and services, thereby improving environmental decision-making throughout the Basin.
Figure 1: MEL Dashboard screenshot. Source: SERVIR – Amazonia (2020), SERVIR-Amazonia launches online monitoring dashboard. Available at: https://servir.ciat.cgiar.org/servir-amazonia-launches-online-monitoring-dashboard/
At Program start, a MEL plan with eight indicators of progress for eight intermediate results and their targets by fiscal year (FY) was produced, and as the program passed its first year and a half of implementation, the MEL team started looking for ways to analyze, visualize and share progress on some of these programmatic indicators. Since the Program works in six Amazonian countries (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Suriname, and Guyana) and prioritizes incorporating the voice of women, indigenous peoples and the communities of the Amazon, the geographic and poblational distribution of its short, medium and long- term effects on beneficiary groups must be consistently monitored.
The first step was choosing the indicator data we would want to visualize and share. Three of the eight SERVIR- Amazonia MEL plan indicators (number of stakeholders requesting technical assistance, number of people trained, and number of decision-makers exposed to services) have a strong quantitative component, numerically important targets and data that “move” FY quarter by FY quarter. These three indicators made a good case for a dashboard pilot: they speak about our progress in increasing presence with stakeholders, building capacity in the region and of decision-makers' increased understanding and use of spatial data and services.
The next step was to choose the best way to contribute to monitoring, learning and knowledge sharing practices and provide the public and all of our partners with transparent communication on how the Program is doing. The MEL team worked closely with the data management unit of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT and choose to use the Tableau data visualization tool: it is powerful yet easy to use, enabling the creation of graphics that are easy to understand for any reader, allows us to see these crucial diagnostic numbers in real-time and at a glance, and facilitates sharing and embedding of content on the program´s website. Tableau offers near-real-time updating of data visualizations, and filtering and drill-down functions.
Figure 2: MEL Dashboard screenshot. Source: SERVIR – Amazonia (2020), SERVIR-Amazonia launches online monitoring dashboard. Available at: https://servir.ciat.cgiar.org/servir-amazonia-launches-online-monitoring-dashboard/
During the design stage, one of our challenges was deciding what type of chart is the best for showing each indicator disaggregate. After many trial-and-error learning loops visualizing the specific needs of each indicator and its disaggregates, the result is a combination of bar graphs, pie charts, and maps. In the final MEL Dashboard, the three indicators are grouped for a better “at a glance” effect, or they can be seen individually with their disaggregates, such as gender, program service area, type of organization and country, as well as a running total number as a function of the total program targets, visualized by time period (FY Quarter). When a reader hovers over any of the data, pop-ups will show further information on that data. Responding to initial feedback from testers, the dashboard includes a section with a definition of the indicator and links to related qualitative M&E efforts of the program to better describe the quantitative data displayed. For branding, we used combinations of the SERVIR- Amazonia´s color palette.
With the dashboard up and running, we are now looking forward to including a new indicator (number of services provided), exploring design features that allow us to share, also, the qualitative data related to this indicator. With time, we plan to use the dashboard as a tool for report writing and other program results sharing efforts.
Quick lessons on creating a dashboard
- Ensure you really can publish, use and maintain a dashboard. All stages of dashboard planning and making are resource (mostly time)- intensive, and there are other valid options to share monitoring results!
- Start small and choosing your most “active” indicators´ data: it is no fun to see unchanging numbers! As you learn, you can add more data and new visualizations. Use indicators that point to the core of your project´s business.
- Form a solid team with a data analyst who can help you with the many iterations needed to achieve a satisfying result.
- Play around in learning loops, have a tester audience help you with feedback during development, choose a light enough program, like Tableau, that will allow for ample experimenting!
- Finally, keep looking for opportunities to use the visualizations to generate MEL conversations in your project, organization and with partners and stakeholders.
Other places to find cool info on dashboards: the Better Evaluation website, and EvergreenData´s blog post, including “How a dashboard changes the conversation.” Likewise, we recommend this article from DAI: "6 Tips for Making Great Monitoring and Evaluation Dashboards." And in the Coursera "Introduction to Data Analysis using Excel" course, in addition to learning the basics of Excel, you will find tools to help visualize and gain insights from your data.
To learn more about communication and visualization of M&E results, you can consult our course materials and the online library.