Data Advocacy Essentials, Pt I: Action Cycles and Stakeholders

What is data? How can we use it for advocacy?

Advocacy is a process by which people, groups, networks and coalitions seek to bring about positive change by influencing policies, as well as the actions and opinions of others. In evidence based advocacy, facts in the form of data are used to build a base of evidence in support of advocacy efforts, thereby increasing the probability of positive change.

Data can be defined as discrete pieces of information, such as prices, measurements, dates, names of places and people, and addresses. The key to achieving real change is understanding when data can be used as evidence, which is what you need to establish facts or expose truth.

What is data visualization?

Data visualization is a visual representation of data that has been abstracted in some schematic form, meaning it has been put into a table, picture or diagram. A primary goal of data visualization is to communicate information clearly and efficiently to users. Effective visualization helps users in analyzing and reasoning about data and evidence. It makes complex data more accessible, understandable and usable.

The data action cycle

When working with data to influence change it is important to think in terms of an action cycle that will help you build an effective data project.  Probably the most important aspect of understanding the data action cycle is the word ‘cycle’ as you will likely start back at the beginning after you have gone through it the first time and apply what you have learned about your data and your users.

Having a goal or a set of goals, having a project you want to work with and having a question you want to address are crucial to your efforts in working through the data action cycle. The type of data you need depends on your goals and what you are trying to achieve with the information. When you are thinking about goals, you want to make sure that your goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time Bound. For example, ending hunger is an aspiration, but realistically pretty unachievable; it is not a change goal you can actually reach. However, getting a free school lunch program established in your school district is a goal that is achievable. It is very specific and measurable. You can tell whether or not it gets implemented and it is very much time-bound.

The data action cycle itself can be broken down into the following three steps:








Step 1- Identify the primary users of the data: Who are the people that are actually going to use the data?  Are they citizens, journalists, government officials or civil society organizations? You will need to establish your audience.

Step 2– Understand how users are going to interact with the data: How will the data be transformed into useful information for users? How will the data project allow users to do something that they could not do before?

Step 3- Identify the outcome of your action: How will your targets react? How will this support your goals?

Within the data action cycle, the steps to reach your goal(s) will evolve and change based on how your audience perceives and interacts with your data. It is important to re-evaluate and adapt strategies as your target audience changes.  This means you will constantly need to evaluate your data and the tools you use to connect with citizens. Identifying individuals or organizations who are able to exert influence on your efforts or who are affected by your efforts, will help you in this process.

Remember throughout the data action cycle:

  • Steps to reach your goals will change and evolve
  • Your understanding of users and their needs will change
  • You will constantly need to evaluate data and the tools you use to connect with citizens


Stakeholders and Targets

As you work through the data action cycle steps, you will need to identify your audience and stakeholders, as well as how they will interact with and react to your data.  Stakeholders are the people involved and/or impacted by the change you are seeking. These are the people who will be primarily using your data.  Stakeholders can be allies, neutral parties or opponents. You will need to be actively thinking about what you want your stakeholders to do with your data.

Allies are people who are already engaged and who support your goals. They are the people you want to mobilize and call upon to do things like attend meetings, put information out to target audiences through their own networks and contribute resources. You will need allies to engage neutral parties and opponents and to share the data that you are collecting.

Neutral parties are the people who neither support nor oppose your goals. They are the people whom you need to educate and influence to become allies. You can do that by giving them information that they want or need, or by engaging them in getting information that is needed for advocacy efforts. Actively engaging neutral parties in data gathering is a great way to educate and turn them into active allies.

Opponents are the people who actively oppose your goals; they are the people you need to counter. You are unlikely to be able to engage them for support as you would with allies and neutral parties, but you should be able to engage them in face-to-face meetings and forums. This will give you an opportunity to use evidence to counter arguments that they present in debates. You can also activate allies and neutral parties to educate and engage opponents.

Those people who actually have the the power to make the change you seek are your targets.  This may be one individual who will make a final decision by signing a law or changing an existing policy, or it could be the head of a corporation or the chairperson of a governing board. In some cases you may not know or have direct contact with your target. Activating stakeholders to reach and influence targets by using your data to influence them becomes particularly important in such cases.

You can use the same data and display it in different ways depending on who it is you are trying to reach and what you are trying to get them to do. The examples below developed by Tactical Technology Collective and DMSC to provide information about the situation of sex worker communities in Calcutta, India and highlight how the same data can be presented for different stakeholders.

This image, created by Tactical Tech and DMSC, shows data about violence in the sex worker community and is for allies.

This image, created by Tactical Tech and DMSC, shows data about violence in the sex worker community and is for allies.

This image is targeting allies and shows data collected by sex workers in West Bengal. It is about violence in their community and is presented in a way that would be understood by sex workers, which is crucial as they often experience violence on an individual basis. The aim is to get them to have a better understanding of what was happening in their communities and the whole purpose is to mobilize them.

This image shows the same data as above but is geared for opponents

This image shows the same data as above but is geared for opponents

This uses data to address opponents, specifically police in this case; the tone is more confrontational. It asks the questions, “Are you our protectors or exploiters?” It compares the level of violence at the hands of the police to those of local hooligans. The visualization in the lower right-hand corner shows that the number of police violence incidences are nearly twice as many as those of the local hooligans. So clearly this is saying to the police, “You are worse than the criminals.”


Again, the same data as above, but this time for neutral parties.


This image presents the same data, but it is used for neutral parties. This is specifically for government officials and the purpose is to highlight that the violence is happening while comparing regions to one another.

Remember, allies are the people you want to mobilize; neutral parties are the people you want to educate; and opponents are the people you want to counter.  Overall, remember that everything is a data project. You need to establish achievable goals and aims, and to understand what evidence you need.

To better understand who your stakeholders are, use this exercise: Using the Spectrogram for Stakeholder Mapping and Power Analysis.

More resources on using data:

On Data Use in Social Change:

About Data Advocacy Basics

FabRiders provides workshops, webinars and advice on how to use data effectively for advocacy, social change and social justice. This series of blog posts on Data Advocacy Basics pulls together a lot of the information we use. Much of this knowledge has been openly shared by many others, such as School of Data, Tactical Technology Collective and the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. A big thanks to Sarvenaz Fassihi for compiling and editing Data Advocacy Basics and Beatrice Martini who gave great comments, feedback and support.

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