unconscious incompetence in the development sector

I’ll try to keep this post upbeat, but I must be honest – it will be very much against how I feel right now. And it is for a good reason. 

Recently, my boss sent me an article by Jenny Mackness entitled “Living in a state of conscious incompetence.” Conscious incompetence is the second stage in the conscious competence learning theory. And today I realized (or rather “was reminded”) that many of us in the charity/development sector are still at  stage 1 when it comes to explaining with the use of data what we do, why we do it and what are the results of our work.

This stage is called “unconscious incompetence.”

I am currently at the Data Journalism Bootcamp organized by our anti-corruption team. As the name indicates, we are talking here about how journalists can use (public) data in their reporting, what tools can come in handy for visualizing the data, and so on. As in many workshops, we look at numerous examples of how things can be done well or how things should never be done. Guess, where most of the latter examples come from…

The further in the process, the more I think this workshop should also be done for us – development workers (for lack of a better term). Why? Because we don’t realize how bad we are at explaining our work and how crucial it is that we get better.

Way too often, we produce inaccessible, unreadable, unfriendly documents/ppts/infographics that no one will ever use. Even if we make an attempt to visualize the data behind our work (be it the starting point, the results, etc.), we  often fail miserably, producing ridiculously looking graphs (3d charts, for starters) or illegible infographics, making presentations that look like a mockery of the ’90s.

illegible pie-chart


Is this how we want to inform, advocate, educate, engage, fundraise? Really? 

And the problem is not that we don’t know how to do it well. That’d already by conscious incompetence. The problem is that we don’t know that we don’t know (or we don’t care…?). And we don’t know why we should know… That is the challenge.

I do hope to see more and more of us (me included) learning more about how to present the data related to our projects in a professional and compelling way. There are organizations and tools that can help us with that! Take the School of Data for starters. Look at the links we’ve been sharing throughout #datajcamp13. Keep learning!



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