At SocialCops, we’re building a data platform to solve the biggest problems facing humanity.
In the short three years of our existence, our data platform has been used to drive healthcare policy, optimize disaster relief operations, and solve urban planning issues. We were founded to solve developing world problems. This means our designers and engineers routinely interact with the “next billion” — anyone from the users who have never used a smartphone to the government officers who have only seen reports on paper.
Operating at the intersection of big data, development, and technology gives us an unparalleled insight into the lives of the “next billion”, and one of our most important learning has been that design matters — possibly more than it ever has before. Here’s why.
1. Designing for a user’s first time on mobile
The average user of Collect, our mobile-based data collection tool, is someone like Promila. She’s a 7th class pass, Marathi-speaking woman who lives in Raigadh. She never used a mobile phone before our partner nonprofit gave her a tablet to visit households, where she will collect data and disseminate healthcare information.
1 billion people in the world today access the internet, most of them in the developing world. Over the next decade, the next 6 billion will have their first interaction with technology, mostly via a mobile phone. Designing for Promila poses a challenge that will require building new design paradigms for the future.
Like most of the next 6 billion, Promila is semi-literate and fluent only in her local language. She’s excited by technology, though she’s a bit worried about breaking the expensive device she carries! She has never used a touch screen, which means that she’s going to take some time to get used to swiping interactions.
She is delighted by colors and images — green for “right answer” makes her smile with pleasure! She carries her device and uses our app to conduct surveys on field, sometimes in the scorching sun, which means that our app colors should be capable of a high-contrast ratio. All this while working on a low-memory device with a short battery life.
Designing delightful, user-friendly experiences for people like Promila will be the biggest challenge for the technology world in the next decade. Design matters.
2. Designing to turn data into knowledge
Beyond a point, data is not useful in tables and databases. Data becomes useful when it answers people’s questions. More and more data is generated in the world, yet very few companies are working to make these disparate data sets talk to one another. We at SocialCops have mined and built one of the largest databases of where people live and who they are in the developing world. We’ve done this by extracting data from multiple online and offline sources, including PDF files and local language documents.
Our powerful data search engine goes deep into the data and finds the exact data points one is looking for. (Even Google only searches through data set names!). For instance, a search like Joseph returns school headmasters with the name Joseph, voters with the name Joseph, doctors with the name Joseph and stores on St. Josephs road. A search for “doctors in Bangalore who charge INR 300” returns information about all the doctors in Bangalore who charge INR 300.
The average user searches for data in different ways. Some people look for data points, some look for data trends, some look for data visualizations, and some for answers.
For instance, if I searched for the word “maternal mortality”, I could be looking for:
- Maternal mortality rate (a data point)
- How maternal mortality changed over time (a trend)
- Maternal mortality stats across Indian states and districts (a data visualization)
Figuring out what kind of search the user actually wants is difficult, even for powerful search engines like the one we built.
This is why designing to help anyone find the specific knowledge they want from large data sets will be one of the biggest challenges in the big data revolution. Design matters.
3. Designing to drive decisions from data
Decision makers across industries have the same characteristic — they have little time, so they like to receive answers to their questions in simple visual ways. In some cases, complex things confuse them.
Data visualizations have always been hailed as the easiest way to communicate a story. Yet today only a handful of designers are capable of communicating the stories within data in a clear, efficient way.
A few months ago, we had mined through data about 1.4 million schools in India. Our goal was to build a one-stop Right to Education dashboard to help decision makers understand how to improve the quality of education in their districts and constituencies.
A few weeks later, I happened to meet a district collector and an MP. In the passing conversation, I showed them the dashboard. They immediately wanted to see their district’s performance. On seeing the indicators, one of them remarked, “It seems like you know more about our district than we do.”
The ability to visualize data and make sense of it gave us an unusual power — to be able to push the needle and drive large-scale decisions in the world. We believe that there are many good people who can understand data today, but they often don’t understand technology and design. This is why our free visualization tool is designed to make beautiful data visualizations as simple as creating a beautiful photo on Instagram.
Designing a platform that can enable anyone to turn data into a story will complete the loop — ensuring that our most important decisions are made using data that matters. Design matters.