Data Culture Project + World Food Programme — a Case Study

The Data Culture Project is a hands-on learning program to kickstart a data culture within your organization. This case study features one nonprofit organization’s experience using this program to build a data culture. Read more real stories on our website, or join our webinar on April 12th to learn more.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is the branch of the United Nations dedicated to hunger and food security — based in Rome but with approximately 80 offices around the world all helping people and communities in need produce or secure food. As one might expect of such a massive nonprofit, WFP produces a ton of data: operational data, supply chain data, financial data, administrative data, donor data and more.

Maryna Taran, WFP’s Data and Digital Collaboration Product Manager, said everyone at the organization — especially leadership — sees the value of data literacy and is excited about the opportunities data provides them to better serve beneficiaries and persuade stakeholders of the organization’s impact. But challenges remain. Maryna said there are data silos throughout WFP where people don’t communicate or share data, and she said many staff members haven’t yet made the next step past basic data skills — into using data for storytelling or decisionmaking.

She said she was drawn to the Data Culture Project’s slate of activities to confront these remaining challenges around data literacy. She wanted to cultivate problem-solving, storytelling and strategic thinking capabilities around data and pull together participants from diverse sectors of the organization who don’t often interact.

“We tried to get all of the different data owners and people who might not even be producers of data but more typical data consumers to attend,” Maryna said. “We had some folks from supply chain — these are the logistics and procurement people. Some of the data guys from monitoring and evaluation, and vulnerability assessment mapping. So it was nice diverse group.”

Maryna said the DCP activities were a big success at her WFP office in Nairobi. She specifically praised the simple, user-friendly activity guides and the videos that allowed the virtual facilitation from DCP co-creators Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D’Ignazio.

She singled out Sketch-a-Story and Convince Me as activities that have driven participants to think and talk differently about data they work with. She said Convince Me was crucial in pressing participants to see past stale and inherited ways for conveying evidence to stakeholders, and the activity encouraged them to think more clearly and creatively about their audiences.

“Participants started looking at the different sides of an argument and how you build that based on your audience and what’s more relevant, like which piece of data is more relevant for which type of stakeholder,” she said. “So that was a very good exercise because I feel like that’s another area we can do more in.”

Those new perspectives have extended past the DCP program into day-to-day work, as Maryna said people at her office have since been critically rethinking the reports they’ve been publishing the same way for more than 20 years and brainstorming data-driven arguments to use that are better suited to the audience.

Maryna was also delighted when participants strayed from the prescribed activity guide and adapted the Sketch a Story workshop by uploading and analyzing their own choice of song lyrics.

“Somehow one of the groups went a bit rogue and said, ‘No, no, we actually want to do another a song,’” Maryna said. “So they looked at an African song instead because they felt it was more relevant for their context. It worked out nicely because they had a nicer story to tell.”

Overall, Maryna has found that participants were extremely receptive to the activities, they’ve enjoyed working with data in new ways and have started to adapt their work behaviors based on new skills and competencies. In the future, she hopes to run the DCP slate of activities again with a different group of participants, and she’s eager to try out new activities that get published in the coming months.

We are grateful to the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society for supporting the development of the Data Culture Project. The Data Culture Project is headed by Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D’Ignazio, undertaken as a collaboration between the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Engagement Lab@Emerson College, and with the assistance of Becky Michelson (project manager), Jon Elbaz & Constance Yee (research assistants).