When Empathy Amplifies Data

Graham Holliday
20 June 2024
When Empathy Amplifies Data - a blog by GEI Communications Consultant Graham Holliday
How do you humanize data? In this blog post, GEI Communications Consultant Graham Holliday invites us to look beyond the numbers and recognize the human beings, lives, and experiences behind them.

Graham Holliday is a communications consultant at GEI.


I remember the shoes before the numbers. 

The white trainers were falling apart, dirtied and lace-less and sat on parched earth. The text below the photograph read: 

“Ajuk Ido, a man in his 70s from Jam, walked more than 20 days to reach South Sudan’s northern border. Maban County, Upper Nile State, South Sudan, June 2012.” 

After failing to interest editors in more traditional reports of refugees fleeing war, journalist Shannon Jensen needed another way to give a voice to the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Sudan. 

So, she started photographing the shoes they wore, recorded names, ages, and how far they had walked. The results are simple and startling and invite empathy by connecting us to the refugees on a human level: we all wear shoes. 

The reports had an impact, appearing in the New York Times, CBC, TIME magazine and at an exhibition at The Open Society, but they also had an emotional impact that went beyond reporting numbers of refugees. 

"Rather than dismiss the story as a crisis happening in a faraway place that has nothing to do with them, visitors are moved by the images. They want to go deeper," wrote Amy Yenkin, a former director at the Open Society. 

I remembered the shoes in South Sudan as I listened to Sourav Das, from the Center for Learning in Evaluation and Results for South Asia, talk about The Art of Data Storytelling in Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) during gLOCAL Evaluation Week 2024

“Behind each data point is a person. As practitioners and evaluators, if we forget that, we run the risk of leaning too much on the numbers and forgetting the impact our work actually has. When we look at data sets, we want to know the people behind the data." 

Sourav closed his presentation by calling for evaluators to go beyond data storytelling to focus on impact storytelling. This is something Cristian Crespo, Executive Director of the Center for Learning in Evaluation and Results for Latin America and the Caribbean (CLEAR-LAC), touched on during gLOCAL week in the Communications Strategies for making Evaluation more engaging and more inclusive session. 

In 2023, Cristian presented the results of a study about street vendors in Chile. Street vendors are hugely popular in Latin America and Cristian found that by emphasizing the human-interest angle in the study and utilizing strategic communications the story was amplified beyond his expectations. 

“I did more than ten interviews on national TV channels related to the study findings,” said Cristian, during the gLOCAL session. “But why was it more successful? First, we worked on a topic that people really care about, we [highlighted] the topic in our communication, and we structured the conclusions in simple phrases that really grabbed the attention of our partners and the media. And we also worked with partners to help us to amplify the message.” 

At a communications level, results like this are impressive and show how impact storytelling, with a human angle, can help highlight GEI's work to strengthen M&E capacities at government level around the world. 

However, not all M&E programs suggest a human-interest angle. Much of GEI's M&E work is focused on long-term goals, scattered with small rewards on the way. During the same gLOCAL session as Cristian, Patrizia Cocca, GEI’s Knowledge & Communication Lead, talked about how and when to include the human angle in M&E storytelling. 

“To make M&E relatable to everybody, it's really important to have a human story because people can relate to that,” said Patrizia. “However, it really depends on the target audience and sometimes, although the human element is ultimately why we do what we do, [the human angle] doesn't always have to be front and center.” 

In any M&E story, it is the data that forms the backbone. If, as storytellers, we can introduce a human angle that helps us turn an M&E study or report into an impact story, then all the better, because empathy amplifies data. 

But don’t take my word for it, see how UNHCR turned raw data—in the form of first-hand testimonies from refugees—to tell their stories in photojournalism, poetry, video, and performance.