Making Hunger Data Speak – Bread Blog
Seminary student Becca Rhodes gives a presentation during a Vizathon in San Francisco, Calif. Robin Stephenson/Bread for the World.
By Robin Stephenson
The view of a sun-bathed San Francisco Bay from the 12th floor of the Macys.com office building was stunning, but I hardly noticed it. I was enthralled with what was happening inside – a group of very talented volunteers turning lists of numbers into meaningful information about hidden hunger.
On Saturday, 75 data scientists, enthusiasts, and storytellers volunteered their time at a vizathon in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, Calif. Bread for the World Institute, in partnership with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), HelpMeViz.com, and Living Data, sponsored the bi-coastal event.
Participants came to expose hidden hunger – the nutritional deficiencies that can cause serious health problems in children who don’t show visible signs of hunger. The goal of a vizathon is to translate data – in this case, from Malawi and Ethiopia – into a visual element that makes it easier to understand a complex issue.
Building greater awareness about hidden hunger – elusive, but no less destructive to human potential – is an important part of Bread’s effort to end hunger by 2030. Globally, 24.7 percent of children suffer from stunting. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children.
“A lot of fascinating questions were raised,” said Derek Schwabe after the successful event. Schwabe, a research associate at Bread’s Institute, explained that Saturday was just the first step in building a final visualization tool that will accompany the 2016 Hunger Report, which will focus on hunger as a public health issue. “We will continue to find creative ways to tell that story,” he said. (See last year’s visualization on missing data and gender here).
Nihar Bhatt, an event facilitator and participant, is a data visualization expert at Macys.com and accustomed to teasing information out of numbers – but not like this. Instead of using predictive analysis as a marketing tool, Bhatt asked the data if micronutrient deficiencies and the share of food eaten were correlated. Using the data set on Malawi, he was surprised he didn’t find a direct correlation. “That was my hypothesis, but the data I looked at didn’t show that,” he told participants during a presentation on his project at the end of the day.
Being a data professional was not a prerequisite for participation in the vizathon. Varied backgrounds and approaches lead to richer visualizations.
Becca Rhodes is not a data scientist; she is pursuing a Masters of Divinity at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Like Bhatt, she explored the connections between food sources and micronutrient deficiencies. However, Rhodes started by looking at words instead of numbers. “Since I’m not a data person, I thought this is what I could contribute,” she said.
By reading reports about Ethiopia, she learned that drought and floods most often contributed to crop loss – and ultimately to seed loss. “That led me to my next question,” she said. “What kind of seeds are needed for the future?” Rhodes concluded that agricultural solutions to nutrient deficiencies must be specifically designed within the Ethiopian context.
The diversity of talent and perspective, as groups huddled around computers on a sunny San Francisco day, was inspiring. These very smart people selflessly gave of their knowledge and skills. None are hunger experts by profession, but by the end of the day, all contributed to what we know about hidden hunger.Photo Insets: Nihar Bhatt (center photo). Vizathon participants. San Francisco, Calif. Robin Stephenson/Bread for the World.
Robin Stephenson is the national lead for social media and a senior regional organizer at Bread for the World.