I came across a very useful little piece of software last week while I was grappling with a particularly sensitive analytical problem. I couldn’t afford to be wrong and I was worried that my biases might mislead me. With that in mind I decided to use Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH). Unfortunately there were so many little bits of evidence that the pen and paper method soon bogged down. A quick search on Google however led me to PARC ACH.
PARC ACH is a rather utilitarian little piece of software. There is no glitz. The UI is basic. Little glitches are inclined to spring up. I can’t seem to get it to print on my MacBook Pro. But what it does it does well.
The dirty work of ACH is much easier with the PARC software. It handles both inconsistency and weighted inconsistency scores. You can sort evidence by order addedd, diagnosticity, type, credibility, relevence, or even user criterion. Best of all it comes with a built in ACH tutorial that will guide you through the process if you are a newbie or just a little rusty.
If you hooked your laptop to a large screen monitor or multimedia projector PARC ACH would make a good collaborative tool. The whole team could readily see the effects of changes without being slowed by the need for someone with neat handwriting.
Hmmm. This video looks interesting. It purports to be of an Android mobile phone application called MapMaker for creating maps in disaster zones. Here is what the person who posted the video on YouTube says about the application:
Map Maker is an Android application for creating maps in a disaster zone. It is designed to allow aid workers to quickly and easily create a map of the area they are working in. After a disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake the landscape can change so fundamentally that existing maps are rendered out of date. Knowing things like which roads are passable, where field hospitals are and suitable aircraft landing areas makes it far easier to manage an emergency.
Unfortunately the video has no audio and there are very few details. If this turns out to be more than vapourware I'd like to see some additions to support NGO security. Labels and tags for minefields, no-go areas, checkpoints, safety hazards etc. would be very nice.
If the creator of this program is out there listening I'd love to beta test this!
Even their site licence is a breath of fresh air. They have a nice simple Creative Commons licence. Front Line understands that its job is protecting people not content. Try comparing their licence to the pages of unfriendly legalese found on the websites of some large NGOs.
Front Line is also making good use of internet video as these two examples released on YouTube demonstrate.
Video: Front Line - Protection of Human Rights Defenders
I've always thought that something like the SPOT personal GPS tracker would be very useful for NGOs working in conflict zones and complex emergencies. According to the SPOT website it'll be out in November.
To do basic time series analysis all you really need is graph paper and a pen or pencil. The down side is that this method is very labour intensive and as the dataset becomes larger most of us can’t cope.
Middle of the Road
The next step up is to use something like Excel. There are some useful free or low cost tools that can simplify time series analysis. In a previous post we saw how to use Excel to do some simple analysis. The sample templates we used are located here.
I’ve developed a Cumulative Security Incident workbook that I use to track longer-term trends. It is available on the downloads page. It’ll produce charts like this one.
Vertex 42 has a free Excel template that can help you create simple timelines. While it might seem to be better suited to presenting a final analytical product it can also be used in the analytical process. Back in the days of the First Gulf War I used a timeline similar to this in an effort to gain a better understanding of Saddam Hussain.. Above the line I plotted significant events in Saddam Hussain’s personal life. Below the line I plotted significant historical impacting Iraq. The exercise proved very revealing and shed light on the man behind the myth.
Some people use Gantt Chart software to do time series analysis but I find it awkward and time consuming.
If you are going to do a lot of time series analysis or if you need to analyse large quantities of data you should probably consider a product like Analyst’s Notebook by i2. It can handle a time series of several thousand incidents with relative ease. It is also beneficial in many other types of analysis so you’ll probably here me refer to it again. Be warned though, it is expensive.
Smashing Magazine has an excellent summary of current innovative data visualization techniques that’ll leave your PowerPoint presentations crying in the corner. There are plenty of ideas and links to get the analytical juices flowing. I’ve run across several of the resources before and for me two stand out.
The first is Dr Hans Rosling’s now legendary talk at TED wherein he explains a new approach to presenting complex statistical data. His Trendalyzer software turns decades of complex data into colourful animations that make world trends come to life. He takes mountains of publicly funded information, normally squirreled away in UN data silos, and turns it into knowledge that can be acted upon. Watch the whole video and see if it doesn’t change some of what you think you know.
The second is newsmap. This enlightening application displays the dynamic content of Google News as blocks. The more websites and news services that carry a headline the larger the block becomes. As the creator points out newsmap displays the underlying patterns in the news media, reflecting and highlighting it bias. How is this useful? Well consider this. The headlines that make it onto the newsmap display are the ones that are bombarding the senior decision makers, donors, and general public. Where does your particular issue fit in? Has it made the headlines?
NGO in a Box has a Security Edition that includes Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to aid NGOs in securing and protecting their data and online activities. The package seems ideally suited to human rights, anti-corruption, and womens groups, as well as independent media outlets. Any other group that wants to protect their data from abuse, misuse, and vandalism might want to check it out as well.