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Dashboards aren’t dead! How charities and health organizations use data visualization to make key decisions

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett June 9, 2023
Smart use of dashboard technology has enabled Zambian charity Funsani and the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust to optimize decision-making and enhance their operations.

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(© StockStyle - Shutterstock)

After being around for at least 20 years, dashboards are far from the latest in shiny new technology. But they still have a valuable role to play in helping organizations to analyze and understand their data so they can act on it more effectively.

One charity that has done just that is Zambia’s Funsani. Set up in 2002 by Dr Apakombwele van der Boom-Chisuse, its goal was to provide children orphaned due to HIV/AIDS, which was rampant at the time, with a stable home and education. Over the years, the non-governmental organization (NGO) has supported 18 orphans placed with it by the Department of Social Welfare. 

But unusually for a small NGO, it has also implemented a series of dashboards to support its operations because of Jos van der Boom’s expertise in the area. He is Dr van der Boom-Chisuse’s son, Funsani’s Deputy Chairperson and Head of Commercial Analytics at UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. 

The first dashboard he created with the help of Charity Digital, which provided access to discounted licenses for Tableau’s data visualization software, was a country-diagnostic one. Based on data from the World Bank, its aim is to provide grant-making trusts and foundations as well as third party charity partners with enough context to understand Zambia’s problems more effectively. As Van der Boom says:

The dashboard gives us a rich picture to describe Zambia’s context but also provides specifics on things like how we operate to ensure it’s clear and people are well informed. We see this as quite foundational as it’s almost table stakes now when applying for larger donation programmes, which we’ll start on this year.

Data dashboards making a difference

The data is organized and structured using the R programming language in line with Funsani’s “key pillars”: children’s health; education, and economic opportunities. But it has also helped the NGO’s board decide on its future direction. Van der Boom explains: 

Seeing the data motivated us as a board to double down and continue our mission as, although it was clear that the rate of HIV/AIDS had decreased, poverty is still a huge issue in Zambia. So for us, the takeaway was ‘the job’s not done’ and it’s imperative to keep on going.

As a result, the charity has now recruited a new manager with previous third sector experience to help develop it further. However, another question also needed to be addressed: should the charity continue to focus on HIV/AIDS orphans as existing residents approached adulthood or broaden out its current remit? Van der Boom says:

There’d been a trickle of kids without HIV so we started wondering if that was aligned with our founding mission. But the dashboard revealed it was to be expected as HIV rates were decreasing but there was continued poverty, so we should expect to see children with different circumstances. So we’re now willing to support any children who would benefit from a better home environment.

Making everything more concrete

Funsani’s second dashboard, which went live about a year ago, is focused on donations. It summarizes and visualizes donation data from a third-party payment platform provider. This has proved useful in highlighting the times of year, such as Easter and Christmas, when contributions peak in order to make the most of them. As van der Boom points out:

We can see who the new, regular donors are to reach out and say ‘thank you’, plus those who have cancelled. This normally happens when people change their debit card details but it’s quite a big risk for us. So the dashboard helps us do practical things like send an email to say ‘it may have been intentional but if not, please amend your payment details’.

Last year was the NGO’s 20th anniversary, which meant it was very proactive in fundraising terms, doubling donation levels to £25,000 in the process. But van der Boom also believes that data and the “power of analytics and dashboards” played a role here too. He explains:

Data can catalyze enthusiasm and belief in the mission and encourages the board to take action as it makes everything more concrete.

A third dashboard, which is currently in the works, will focus on monitoring operational costs for long-term planning purposes.

A second organization that has also reaped the benefits of using dashboards, meanwhile, is the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust (WAST). Its call handlers and clinical contact centre employees deal with half a million calls per year, with ambulance staff attending more than 300,000 urgent and emergency incidents.

After having rolled out Microsoft Office 365 in April 2020 as part of a wider NHS Wales implementation, the decision was taken to use the system’s Power BI data visualization tools to create a dashboard able to provide emergency vehicle status reports. The implementation was supported by digital transformation specialist TPXimpact’s Red Cortex business, which provided the Trust with data analytics expertise.

By going down this route, WAST’s goal was to manage its fleet more effectively by showing where ambulances were in real-time, whether they had patients on board and whether they were heading towards or away from hospital. Jonathan Sweet, the organization’s Head of Service Operational Delivery, explains:

At that time, as elsewhere, the pressures on the system were high, so a different response was required. We wanted to offer situational awareness across our systems so we could respond effectively, which meant we needed access to real-time data. It was about providing sufficient capabilities to serve demand across the system today but also to prepare for tomorrow too.

Bringing relevant information spread across disparate internal systems together in a single dashboard not only enabled a more “streamlined approach to performance management” but also helped to boost service efficiency and cut waste by optimizing resource use.

Ensuring decision-making is more robust

All operational staff have now been equipped with Apple iPads so they can benefit from a system-wide view of activities. But leaders, including those at local Health Boards, have been provided with access to more detailed information so they can better understand the pressures being experienced across the system. This makes it easier to evaluate any problematic situations and ensures decision-making is more “robust”. As Sweet says:

Previously it was all historical data and we responded based on what had happened in the past. But now we can respond to what’s happening immediately, which enables better planning, escalation and safety in terms of how we define and address risk. A picture paints 1,000 words and allows us to do things differently, while quality assuring what we’re doing and its impact. 

Examples of doing things differently include strategically mapping patient demand to supply in order to undertake intelligent conveyancing. Sweet explains:

So if one hospital is pressured, we’ll move patients to a less pressured one. In the past, this was done by ringing round, but now we can physically see the ambulance situation, which speeds up the process considerably.

My take

Funsani and WAST are both clear examples of the useful role dashboards can play in helping organizations visualize their data more easily, thereby enabling them to take effective action more promptly for the benefit of their stakeholders.

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