A network-centric approach to data literacy

22 September 2022

In the first two blog posts of this series on data literacy, we discussed why data literacy is so important to a humanitarian or development organization and shared some tools and resources to help practioners start their data literacy journey.

In this third blog post, we give the floor to Melissa El Hamouch, Data and Digital Literacy Lead at IFRC, an organization that has pioneered a network-wide approach on the topic. They will tell us more about why data literacy seemed important to them and the participatory road they took to make it a concrete reality in the organization, through the building of the Data playbook v1 available on the IM resource portal. We hope this will be food for thought for other organizations on the same path!

Red Cross Red Crescent motivation for data literacy

Our work at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is really focused on the future and the changes we can do as humanitarians to become more efficient. As a data literacy team, we wanted to ensure that we also have an impact that is able to support the IFRC strategy 2030 across the 5 global challenges and 7 transformations.

A bit about the strategy: it focuses on changing not just what we do but how we do it in a way that makes us more efficient. In order to tackle continuous and new challenges, we need to adopt new approaches. Through its development, strategy 2030 seeks to guide the National Societies of the IFRC on technological methods to become more connected and dynamic in addressing the rising challenges. A way of doing this is by digital transformation.

By Digital Transformation, we mean ‘a more effective integration of digital and emerging technology, skills, and digital culture will enable the organization to harness the collective intelligence of the network and democratize access to information’. This will allow the IFRC and its National Societies to transform into a learning organization and network, and benefit from becoming powered by innovative leaders and partners who are committed to promoting cultures of experimentation and learning.

The Data Playbook journey

Through this transformation, data literacy became the ideal tool to support National Societies in becoming more confident with data and digital. To ensure that those working in the National Societies from staff, managers and volunteers are enthusiastic about data literacy and the opportunities it provides, it became evident that engaging them from the start was the best way to go. This meant developing content through a collaborative and participatory approach process with all those involved in the movement. This is where the IFRC Data Playbook Beta, published in 2018, came about. The playbook was built in such a way that helps teams learn and discuss data skills in an engaging and collaborative way. With the Strategy 2030 citing digital transformation as a priority, we set out to update the resource to ensure it was aligned with the IFRC Digital transformation maturity model, resulting in the Data Playbook v1. This meant developing content with an adaptable design taking into consideration the programmatic work being done by our contributors across the data lifecycle.

One of the many definitions of data literacy is to help individuals or groups of people in enhancing their knowledge and skills in reading and working with data. We intended to shift the conversation to it becoming ‘a team sport’; meaning that it will establish conversation among teams and departments in organizations that will ultimately contribute to the same efforts. We want the data culture within an organization to collectively shift and become more data and digital inclusive. During the 50+ sprint sessions that have been hosted, more than 200 participants across regions, Red Cross Red Crescent organizations and expertise joined our collective efforts. Their contribution and participation build on the 100s of contributors to the Beta version and those 4000 registered people from the IFRC Data and Digital week, which kicked off this upgrade project.

Our learnings

Throughout this innovation journey, one of the main challenges we wanted to address was reducing the fear associated with data. Data seems to be this very complex phenomena where you need specific expertise to decipher, where in fact data is all around us and used in our daily and professional lives. In order to make data more relatable to our users we decided to integrate fun and interactive exercises into our modules to ‘break the ice’ around the concept of what data is and why it matters. A great example of this is ‘Data in a piece of fruit’ exercise. The goal of this exercise is to help participants understand how data can be found everywhere and how when context changes, the data also changes. We would pass out pieces of fruit to participants and break them into pairs. Participants then reflect on 1) the different data they think the fruit contains or represents and 2) what data would be needed by different consumers (e.g. people eating fruit vs people selling fruit). This allows teams take a step back and simplify the concept of data and establish a more comfortable and open relationship of the data they work with on a daily basis.

Our contributors are the real owners of this product. The interaction used throughout the development of the playbook was meant to build shared ownership and understanding of the resource. With that, the team needed to be ready and willing to adapt to different needs, tooling and even time zones.

The team focused on adopting open methodologies by integrating participatory design throughout the entire process. With this we gave our contributors space to contribute during online events but also asynchronously. This worked well for us, since we were continuously communicating with large groups, but it does require some socializing, trust building, and accountability.

Having a core team is a prerequisite to make things work. We had module editors, a ‘core team’ and 3 co-editors in this journey. Working in the humanitarian sectors means that things get busy due to emergency situations and deployment, therefore having a plan and trust to adapt is key. We needed to take our time while working with our network, as they are our targeted users and we wanted to be sure to integrate all the experiences and feedback.

Finally, this was very much a network-centric product. We had continuous discussions between our collaborators, and we reviewed how others delivered data literacy resources and collaborations. We welcomed people from various humanitarian work experiences and sectors to share inputs on what works and what doesn’t from their day-to-day activities. We learned with our community and built with them.

Collaborating on resources to create an asset like the Data Playbook for and by the network has been a real transformation. This journey has been exploratory and innovative to create for and by the network using shared and open leadership methods. We are now sharing our methodologies with others in the wider humanitarian network that need guidance on developing their own data literacy programs following a similar collaborative approach. Alongside that, we are rolling out the Data Playbook v1 through the IFRC regional offices and National Societies by demonstrating how to use the playbook content in a way that meets their need at a local level.


Melissa El Hamouch will be speaking more on data literacy at the upcoming GeOnG forum during the "Becoming more “sober” with IM tools and approaches: the avenues to explore for aid actors" roundtable, scheduled on Monday, October 24th at 4pm. Learn more about the forum here.

Are you an organisation wanting to share your data literacy story as part of this series? Contact us at blog [at] im-portal [dot] org.

You've enjoyed this post? Sign up to the IM Resource Portal's newsletter not to miss the next one!


 This publication is supported by the French Development Agency (AFD). Nevertheless, the ideas and opinions presented on this post do not necessarily represent those of the AFD.