Open Data, Benchmarking, and the Power of Peer Comparison


Jarret Cassaniti

CCP | Program Officer
Global Digital Health Forum panelists: Sam Wambugu, Mark Cardwell, Siobhan Green, Melissa Sabatier.

Global Digital Health Forum panelists: Sam Wambugu, Mark Cardwell, Siobhan Green, Melissa Sabatier. Photo: Jarret Cassaniti, 2016

Data is a powerful tool that can help managers improve health care delivery to the people they serve. During the two days I spent at the Global Digital Health Forum, big data was referenced and audience-first approaches were frequently discussed. Data visualizations were also mentioned as an effective way to deliver meaningful messages. And, they can be as simple as developing a pie chart or table.

“We talk about being user driven, we think about the customer experience, and we want to build good presentations of data. This could include a table; even the poorest people in Africa and Asia can get the idea of a table.” - Mark Cardwell, Senior Advisor at USAID’s Global Development Lab

Mark Cardwell, Senior Advisor at USAID’s Global Development Lab, echoed the distinction between openness and accessibility during a panel on data and trust.

He highlighted instances where open data was used to develop rankings, which then drove decision making and agenda setting. A ranking of donor organizations developed by Publish What You Fund was put together by a small team with minimal resources but gained the attention of major development stakeholders.

Get the most value from your data: start virtuous cycles of peer pressure

In the health and development landscape where few formal mechanisms for facilitating change exist, informal mechanisms can important alternatives. Peer comparison can be the basis for incentives that drive behavior change by showcasing high performers and providing motivation for others.

Cardwell said the clients of another panelist, Melissa Sabatier from Blue Square, who works with district and clinic level staff in low and middle income countries, can also benefit from benchmarking. He suggested that district managers and frontline health workers are in a better position to use data compared to journalists and citizen watchdogs.

The RNMCH Scorecard being launched by EAC Deputy Secretary General, Ministers and Parliamentarians in 2015

The RNMCH Scorecard being launched by EAC Deputy Secretary General, Ministers and Parliamentarians in 2015. Source: EAC’s Open Health Initiative.

As a former journalist himself, he suggested staff delivering services are much more numerous and have a deeper stake in knowing how they are doing compared to their peers. Incentives originating from comparison data can include career opportunities such as promotions and education. Rankings can show where things are working well but they can also identify where improvement is needed. In these instances, poor performance may draw vital attention to imbalances in resource allocation.

The discussion about benchmarking reflected efforts at the 2015 East Africa Community’s (EAC) Health and Scientific Conference to track progress on a variety of country level indicators relating to reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and child health. The scorecard included rankings of the five EAC member states compared to each other as well as against predetermined goals.

Benchmarking as introduction to data literacy

Cardwell suggested that open data proponents often misplace their emphasis on comprehensive data literacy. While comprehensive data literacy is important, understanding a ranking doesn’t require much training, he says.

Starting with rankings and discussing standards is a good way to show the value of data and can lead to additional use. After all, everyone wants to climb a ladder. Even in high-income countries such as Canada, recently ranked the 9th best country to live in, rankings can create headlines, foster a sense of pride, and influence goals.

GHeL data courses

The Global Health eLearning Center has four courses focused on data literacy.

Once people are exposed to the power of data and seek more information, there is no shortage of resources to choose from. USAID and the Global Development Lab continue to help lead the way in contextualizing data approaches and needs for the development community.

Demystifying data and helping people conduct data analysis is the focus of four free Global Health eLearning Center courses:

If you’ve used taken these courses or know of other great resources, let me know in the comment box below.