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Archive for the ‘technology salon’ Category

We looked at the role of mobiles in youth financial inclusion at our March 11th Technology Salon in New York City. Tim Nourse, Making Cents; Peter Goldstein, Intermedia; and Jamie Zimmerman, Bankable Frontier Associates; joined as lead discussants.

Though mobile financial services are seen by many as inevitable, some Salon participants felt that, like in so many other ‘mobiles for xxxx’ areas, we were long on enthusiasm and short on evidence and successful examples. Are we just too early in the game, as with so much of ICT4D? Emerging research on youth demand for mobile financial services may help answer some of those questions, but many other questions remain.

What do we mean by youth financial inclusion?

The Salon started with a quick overview of the terms “financial inclusion” and ‘youth.’ One lead discussant emphasized that the idea of ‘youth’ is context specific. According to the UN, “youth” are people between 15 and 24 years old, though in many countries this can extend to age 30 or 35. Segmentation within this wide age range is important when designing programs because of varying needs, demands, and concerns within age subsets. Using a gender lens is also critical, because young women and young men have different needs, concerns, barriers, interests and experiences. Cultural norms about girls’ and young women’s access to and use of assets and resources, financial services, and mobiles also come into play and need to be well-understood. When discussing youth financial inclusion, it’s useful to talk about the age ranges of 15-17 and 18-24, because in most countries 18 is the legal age at which youth can enter into a formal financial system, sign contracts, and purchase a SIM card in their own name. Program design, challenges faced, and workable business models may look quite different for these two age groups.

The term ‘youth financial services’ includes a full range of services (credit, savings, insurance, money transfer and payments) that help youth build assets. In other words, financial services go far beyond mobile money transfers. Most youth in developing nations are engaged in some kind of livelihood or education, and access to financial services can help them achieve goals in both arenas. It is important to reach youth with financial education when they are adolescents, as they are more inclined to form good habits if they are engaged early on. Availability of services at specific transition points in youth’s lifecycles when they are making serious decisions is another key to establishing good long-term financial habits. It can be difficult, however, to convince banking institutions to develop a menu of financial services for youth because few successful business models exist for youth-focused financial products and services. Savings, account balances and demand for credit tend to be lower among youth, so serving the youth market profitably can be difficult. Strategic rationales and successful business cases around expanded access to youth financial services are needed.

Emerging guidelines for good practice in design and implementation of youth-inclusive financial services being developed by Making Cents include:

  • Involve youth in market research and product development
  • Develop products and services that represent the diversity of youth
  • Ensure youth have safe and supportive spaces
  • Provide or link youth with complementary non-financial services
  • Focus on core competencies and collaborate with youth organizations to ensure holistic programs
  • Involve communities to reinforce and enhance the effectiveness of programming
  • Establish a strategic rational and ensure institutional readiness for serving youth

Mobiles and youth financial inclusion

Many have high hopes around the role of mobile phones in enhancing and expanding youth financial services. Mobiles may allow financial institutions to lower costs for financial products and thus enable new and profitable business models. In addition to providing direct services, mobiles might be able to improve the reach and impact of financial education aimed at youth, and encourage particular behaviors and habit formation. For example, SMS reminders are being used to ‘nudge’ youth towards particular actions related to savings and smarter purchases.

A report called “Beyond the Buzz” however, highlight some of the major challenges when it comes to the role of mobile and financial inclusion for the under 18 population. As explained by one lead discussant (also one of the report’s authors), most youth surveyed in Sub Saharan Africa believed mobile money would be far more important for financial inclusion in the future than SMS. Non-profit organization practitioners and financial institutions surveyed for the report expressed strong belief in the potential of mobile money and other mobile services for broadening youth financial inclusion.

Enthusiasm is quite high, though there has been little success thus far, and the evidence on the ground is not very encouraging. Even though most people surveyed felt that mobile money was the future and would change everything, mobiles are actually being used far more commonly for financial education (SMS and nudges) than for providing youth access to financial services.

So what are the obstacles?

Some of the challenges that prevent mobile financial services from taking off include:

  • Age restrictions and regulations. In most countries, a young person cannot obtain an identity card until the age of 18, meaning access to a bank account, a SIM and/or mobile money is restricted. Many young people get around this obstacle by borrowing a handset or asking a parent or guardian for support. When phones do not belong to youth, however, SMS ‘nudges’ for financial education may not reach them. In addition, the lack of a private handset may discourage youth from using mobile to manage their money due to the potential loss of privacy and control over their money. Children under the age of 18 are a protected group, and many countries have regulations around collecting information about or marketing to this population. Child protection policies and legal regulations are a positive thing, however, they can also create barriers to financial education and financial services for under 18s.
  • Lack of data. One discussant noted that age-disaggregated data from mPesa’s mobile money service would probably show that older youth (ages 18-30) are the majority of the mobile money users. The lack of data on youth, however, makes it difficult for non-profit organizations to develop targeted and demand-led financial products and services. Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have data, yet their data are not easy to access. One Salon discussant told of a project where it took over two and a half years to obtain legal permission from an MNO to access youth data for an RCT on the impact of SMS on youth savings.
  • Industry barriers. Successful and sustainable business models for youth financial services are few and far between. The likelihood of low financial returns from youth make most banks uninterested in approaching the youth ‘base of the pyramid’ market. Institutions that make money from youth financial services are most likely making it from 24 and 25 year olds, not under 18s. Explaining the potential benefits of a long-term business model (that you may need to take a loss earlier on to gain from this segment later) to financial institutions is difficult. In addition, mobile operators are not fully empowered to launch mobile financial services on their own, even if they wanted to, because of government regulations (in some cases, added one Salon participant, because the banking industry actively lobbies government to avoid losing business to MNOs).

Long on enthusiasm and short on examples?

Considering all the obstacles, why are hopes so high when it comes to mobiles and youth financial inclusion? Some consider that MNOs have a fundamental advantage over banks in countries where the majority of people have access to a mobile phone yet have never used a bank or formal financial service. In many parts of the world, banking systems are unavailable and/or inefficient, and people do not trust formal systems or large bureaucracies. When it comes to mobile, however, use and availability of handsets, widespread recognition of mobile operator brands and services, and familiarity with the notion of transferring airtime mean that mobile money is a fairly easy idea for people to grasp and thus it may be easier to generate trust in mobile as a means to access financial services.

The impact of mobile money and mobiles on financial inclusion is difficult to evaluate rigorously, however, noted one Salon participant. The volume of money is very small, so we should have very low expectations in that regard. If 20% of a target population uses a financial service or product, we should be excited because we see an individual having more control over and information on their own financial transactions. This enables them to make better decisions over their finances. Mobile financial services are likely doing more good than harm, even if a large, broad-based impact study is not available. Another Salon participant pointed out, however, that market research to inform good product and service offerings is very much lacking, and a concerted effort is needed to document and research this area.

A large study is being conducted with youth ages 15-19 and 20-24 on youth demand for mobile money and financial services in several African and Asian countries as part of the Financial Inclusion Insights program, said one lead discussant, and data will be available to the public. The majority of youth surveyed for the study said that they did not use a bank because they did not have enough money to do so. In five years, according to the discussant, mobile financial products will be accessible in a wide range of countries and the number of youth using them is increasing. Research shows that urban youth tend to adopt these products more often than older people or rural populations, and there is a male-female gap, where more males are accessing and using them. In general, younger populations have been positive about mobile financial products and services.

An inevitable future?

Despite the dearth of successful business models, evidence, and large-scale sustainable examples, some Salon participants felt that we are entering a new era where financial products and services will be widely available through the mobile phone. As one person explained, it’s a question of moving with the times or becoming obsolete. In Southern African countries, she said, the move is towards rolling out products and services that provide holistic financial inclusion — credit, savings and insurance. In addition, municipal and utility bill paying is getting people accustomed to mobile financial services via MNOs. Banks who are running at a low level of innovation will lose out if they are not capable of providing these kinds of time-saving services through mobile phones.

So what should organizations be doing to prepare youth to widely access and use mobile financial services? Should financial education programs include content about mobile financial services, offerings and fees, and potential risks and benefits for youth of using them? Might mobile gaming be a way of getting around some of the barriers for under 18s, as one Salon participant suggested? In this case, children could practice important concepts around savings and loans, types of bank accounts, fee structures for banking, etc., without assuming any real risk.

Some broader questions linger around mobile financial services for youth as well: What impact does (or will) mobile financial services have on people’s lives and wellbeing? Will they impact how youth invest and manage their money? Will they improve redistribution of resources to households? Will they end up pulling a large segment of the population into unsustainable systems and backfire?  So far there’s no clear answer, but watch this space.

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A list of resources, links, projects, organizations and research on the topic is here. Please add anything that’s missing!

Thanks to participants and lead discussants for the great discussions and to Population Council for hosting us at their offices for this Salon. Thanks also to Peter Goldstein for suggesting the topic and to Somto Fab-Ukozor for support with notes and the summary. Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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Earlier this month I attended the African Evaluators’ Conference (AfrEA) in Cameroon as part of the Technology and Evaluation stream organized by Pact with financial support from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Evaluation Office and The MasterCard Foundation.

A first post about ICTs and M&E at the Afrea Conference went into some of the deliberations around using or not using ICTs and how we can learn and share more as institutions and evaluators. I’ve written previously about barriers and challenges with using ICTs in M&E of international development programs (see the list of posts at the bottom of this one). Many of these same conversations came up at AfrEA, so I won’t write about these again here. What I did want to capture and share were a few interesting design and implementation thoughts from the various ICT and M&E sessions. Here goes:

1) Asking questions via ICT may lead to more honest answers. Some populations are still not familiar with smart phones and tablets and this makes some people shy and quiet, yet it makes others more curious and animated to participate. Some people worry that mobiles, laptops and tablet create distance between the enumerator and the person participating in a survey. On the other hand, I’m hearing more and more examples of cases where using ICTs for surveying actually allow for a greater sense of personal privacy and more honest answers. I first heard about this several years ago with relation to children and youth in the US and Canada seeking psychological or reproductive health counseling. They seemed to feel more comfortable asking questions about sensitive issues via online chats (as opposed to asking a counselor or doctor face-to-face) because they felt anonymous. This same is true for telephone inquiries.

In the case of evaluations, someone suggested that rather than a mobile or tablet creating distance, a device can actually create an opportunity for privacy. For example, if a sensitive question comes up in a survey, an enumerator can hand the person being interviewed the mobile phone and look away when they provide their answer and hit enter, in the same way that waiters in some countries will swipe your ATM card and politely look away while you enter your PIN. Key is building people’s trust in these methods so they can be sure they are secure.

At a Salon on Feb 28, I heard about mobile polling being used to ask men in the Democratic Republic of Congo about sexual assault against men. There was a higher recorded affirmative rate when the question was answered via a mobile survey than when the question had been asked in other settings or though other means. This of course makes sense, considering that often when a reporter or surveyor comes around asking whether men have been victims of rape, no one wants to say publicly. It’s impossible to know in a situation of violence if a perpetrator might be standing around in the crowd watching someone getting interviewed, and clearly shame and stigma also prevent people from answering openly.

Another example at the AfrEA Tech Salon, was a comparison study done by an organization in a slum area in Accra. Five enumerators who spoke local languages conducted Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) surveys by mobile phone using Open Data Kit (an open source survey application) and the responses were compared with the same survey done on paper.  When people were asked in person by enumerators if they defecated outdoors, affirmative answers were very low. When people were asked the same question via a voice-based mobile phone survey, 26% of respondents reported open defecation.

2) Risk of collecting GPS coordinates. We had a short discussion on the plusses and minuses of using GPS and collecting geolocation data in monitoring and evaluation. One issue that came up was safety for enumerators who carry GPS devices. Some people highlighted that GPS devices can put staff/enumerators at risk of abuse from organized crime bands, military groups, or government authorities, especially in areas with high levels of conflict and violence. This makes me think that if geographic information is needed in these cases, it might be good to use a mobile phone application that collects GPS rather than a fancy smart phone or an actual GPS unit (for example, one could try out PoiMapper, which works on feature phones).

In addition, evaluators emphasized that we need to think through whether GPS data is really necessary at household level. It is tempting to always collect all the information that we possibly can, but we can never truly assure anyone that their information will not be de-anonymized somehow in the near or distant future, and in extremely high risk areas, this can be a huge risk. Many organizations do not have high-level security for their data, so it may be better to collect community or district level data than household locations. Some evaluators said they use ‘tricks’ to anonymize the geographical data, like pinpointing location a few miles off, but others felt this was not nearly enough to guarantee anonymity.

3) Devices can create unforeseen operational challenges at the micro-level. When doing a mobile survey by phone and asking people to press a number to select a particular answer to a question, one organization working in rural Ghana to collect feedback about government performance found that some phones were set to lock when a call was answered. People were pressing buttons to respond to phone surveys (press 1 for….), but their answers did not register because phones were locked, or answers registered incorrectly because the person was entering their PIN to unlock the phone. Others noted that when planning for training of enumerators or community members who will use their own devices for data collection, we cannot forget the fact that every model of phone is slightly different. This adds quite a lot of time to the training as each different model of phone needs to be explained to trainees. (There are a huge number of other challenges related to devices, but these were two that I had not thought of before.)

4) Motivation in the case of poor capacity to respond. An organization interested in tracking violence in a highly volatile area wanted to take reports of violence, but did not have a way to ensure that there would be a response from an INGO, humanitarian organization or government authority if/when violence was reported. This is a known issue — the difficulties of encouraging reporting if responsiveness is low. To keep people engaged this organization thanks people immediately for reporting and then sends peace messages and encouragement 2-3 times per week. Participants in the program have appreciated these ongoing messages and participation has continued to be steady, regardless of the fact that immediate help has not been provided as a result of reporting.

5) Mirroring physical processes with tech. One way to help digital tools gain more acceptance and to make them more user-friendly is to design them to mirror paper processes or other physical processes that people are already familiar with. For example, one organization shared their design process for a mobile application for village savings and loan (VSL) groups. Because security is a big concern among VSL members, the groups typically keep cash in a box with 3 padlocks. Three elected members must be present and agree to open and remove money from the box in order to conduct any transaction. To mimic this, the VSL mobile application requires 3 PINs to access mobile money or make transactions, and what’s more, the app sends everyone in the VSL Group an SMS notification if the 3 people with the PINs carry out a transaction, meaning the mobile app is even more secure than the original physical lock-box, because everyone knows what is happening all the time with the money.

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As I mentioned in part 1 of this post, some new resources and forthcoming documentation may help to further set the stage for better learning and application of ICTs in the M&E process. Pact has just released their Mobile Technology Toolkit, and Michael Bamberger and I are finishing up a paper on ICT-enabled M&E that might help provide a starting point and possible framework to move things forward.

Here is the list of toolkits, blog posts and other links that we compiled for AfrEA – please add any that are missing!

Previous posts on ICTs and M&E on this blog:

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I attended the African Evaluators’ Conference (AfrEA) in Cameroon last week as part of the Technology and Evaluation strand organized by Pact with financial support from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Evaluation Office and The MasterCard Foundation. The strand was a fantastic opportunity for learning, sharing and understanding more about the context, possibilities and realities of using ICTs in monitoring and evaluation (M&E). We heard from a variety of evaluators, development practitioners, researchers, tool-developers, donors, and private sector and government folks. Judging by the well-attended sessions, there is a huge amount of interest in ICTs and M&E.

Rather than repeat what’s I’ve written in other posts (see links at the bottom), I’ll focus here on some of the more relevant, interesting, and/or new information from the AfrEA discussions. This first post will go into institutional issues and the ‘field’ of ICTs and M&E. A second post will talk about design and operational tips I learned /was reminded of at AfrEA.

1) We tend to get stuck on data collection –Like other areas (I’m looking at you, Open Data) conversations tend to revolve around collecting data. We need to get beyond that and think more about why we are collecting data and what we are going to do with it (and do we really need all this data?). The evaluation field also needs to explore all the other ways it could be using ICTs for M&E, going beyond mobile phones and surveys. Collecting data is clearly a necessary part of M&E, but those data still need to be analyzed. As a participant from a data visualization firm said, there are so many ways you can use ICTs – they help you make sense of things, you can tag sentiment, you can visualize data and make data-based decisions. Others mentioned that ICTs can help us to share data with various stakeholders, improve sampling in RCTs (Randomized Control Trials), conduct quality checks on massive data sets, and manage staff who are working on data collection. Using big data, we can do analyses we never could have imagined before. We can open and share our data, and stop collecting the same data from the same people multiple times. We can use ICTs to share back what we’ve learned with evaluation stakeholders, governments, the public, and donors. The range of uses of ICTs is huge, yet the discussion tends to get stuck on mobile surveys and data collection, and we need to start thinking beyond that.

2) ICTs are changing how programs are implemented and how M&E is done — When a program already uses ICTs, data collection can be built in through the digital device itself (e.g., tracking user behavior, cookies, and via tests and quizzes), as one evaluator working on tech and education programs noted. As more programs integrate digital tools, it may become easier to collect monitoring and evaluation data with less effort. Along those lines, an evaluator looking at a large-scale mobile-based agricultural information system asked about approaches to conducting M&E that do not rely on enumerators and traditional M&E approaches. In his program, because the farmers who signed up for the mobile information service do not live in the same geographical community, traditional M&E approaches do not seem plausible and ICT-based approaches look like a logical answer. There is little documentation within the international development evaluation community, however, on how an evaluator might design an evaluation in this type of a situation. (I am guessing there may be some insights from market research and possibly from the transparency and accountability sectors, and among people working on “feedback loops”).

3) Moving beyond one-off efforts — Some people noted that mobile data gathering is still done mostly at the project level. Efforts tend to be short-term and one-off. The data collected is not well-integrated into management information systems or national level processes. (Here we may reference the infamous map of mHealth pilots in Uganda, and note the possibility of ICT-enabled M&E in other sectors going this same route). Numerous small pilots may be problematic if the goal is to institutionalize mobile data gathering into M&E at the wider level and do a better job of supporting and strengthening large-scale systems.

4) Sometimes ICTs are not the answer, even if you want them to be – One presenter (who considered himself a tech enthusiast) went into careful detail about his organization’s process of deciding not to use tablets for a complex evaluation across 4 countries with multiple indicators. In the end, the evaluation itself was too complex, and the team was not able to find the right tool for the job. The organization looked at simple, mid-range and highly complex applications and tools and after testing them all, opted out. Each possible tool presented a set of challenges that meant the tool was not a vast improvement over paper-based data collection, and the up-front costs and training were too expensive and lengthy to make the switch to digital tools worthwhile. In addition, the team felt that face-to-face dynamics in the community and having access to notes and written observations in the margins of a paper survey would enable them to conduct a better evaluation. Some tablets are beginning to enable more interactivity and better design for surveys, but not yet in a way that made them a viable option for this evaluation. I liked how the organization went through a very thorough and in-depth process to make this decision.

Other colleagues also commented that the tech tools are still not quite ‘there’ yet for M&E. Even top of the line business solutions are generally found to be somewhat clunky. Million dollar models are not relevant for environments that development evaluators are working in; in addition to their high cost, they often have too many features or require too much training. There are some excellent mid-range tools that are designed for the environment, but many lack vital features such as availability in multiple languages. Simple tools that are more easily accessible and understandable without a lot of training are not sophisticated enough to conduct a large-scale data collection exercise. One person I talked with suggested that the private sector will eventually develop appropriate tools, and the not-for-profit sector will then adopt them. She felt that those of us who are interested in ICTs in M&E are slightly ahead of the curve and need to wait a few years until the tools are more widespread and common. Many people attending the Tech and M&E sessions at AfrEA made the point that use of ICTs in M&E would get easier and cheaper as the field develops, tools get more advanced/appropriate/user-friendly and widely tested, and networks/ platforms/ infrastructure improves in less-connected rural areas.

5) Need for documentation, evaluation and training on use of ICTs in M&E – Some evaluators felt that ICTs are only suitable for routine data collection as part of an ongoing program, but not good for large-scale evaluations. Others pointed out that the notions of ‘ICT for M&E’ and ‘mobile data collection/mobile surveys’ are often used interchangeably, and evaluation practitioners need to look at the multiple ways that ICTs can be used in the wider field of M&E. ICTs are not just useful for moving from paper surveys to mobile data gathering. An evaluator working on a number of RCTs mentioned that his group relies on ICTs for improving samples, reducing bias, and automatically checking data quality.

There was general agreement that M&E practitioners need resources, opportunities for more discussion, and capacity strengthening on the multiple ways that ICTs may be able to support M&E. One evaluator noted that civil society organizations have a tendency to rush into things, hit a brick wall, and then cross their arms and say, “well, this doesn’t work” (in this case, ICTs for M&E). With training and capacity, and as more experience and documentation is gained, he considered that ICTs could have a huge role in making M&E more efficient and effective.

One evaluator, however, questioned whether having better, cheaper, higher quality data is actually leading to better decisions and outcomes. Another evaluator asked for more evidence of what works, when, with whom and under what circumstances so that evaluators could make better decisions around use of ICTs in M&E. Some felt that a decision tree or list of considerations or key questions to think through when integrating ICTs into M&E would be helpful for practitioners. In general, it was agreed that ICTs can help overcome some of our old challenges, but that they inevitably bring new challenges. Rather than shy away from using ICTs, we should try to understand these new challenges and find ways to overcome/work around them. Though the mHealth field has done quite a bit of useful research, and documentation on digital data collection is growing, use of ICTs is still relatively unexplored in the wider evaluation space.

6) There is no simple answer. One of my takeaways from all the sessions was that many M&E specialists are carefully considering options, and thinking quite a lot about which ICTs for what, whom, when and where rather than deciding from the start that ICTs are ‘good and beneficial’ or ‘bad and not worth considering.’ This is really encouraging, and to be expected of a thoughtful group like this. I hope to participate in more discussions of this nature that dig into the nuances of introducing ICTs into M&E.

Some new resources and forthcoming documentation may help to further set the stage for better learning and application of ICTs in the M&E process. Pact has just released their Mobile Technology Toolkit, and Michael Bamberger and I are finishing up a paper on ICT-enabled M&E that might help provide a starting point and possible framework to move things forward. The “field” of ICTs in M&E is quite broad, however, and there are many ways to slice the cake. Here is the list of toolkits, blog posts and other links that we compiled for AfrEA – please add any that you think are missing!

Part 2 of this post coming soon!

Previous posts on ICTs and M&E:

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The NYC Technology Salon on February 28th examined the connection between bigger, better data and resilience. We held morning and afternoon Salons due to the high response rate for the topic. Jake Porway, DataKind; Emmanuel Letouzé, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; and Elizabeth Eagen, Open Society Foundations; were our lead discussants for the morning. Max Shron, Data Strategy; joined Emmanuel and Elizabeth for the afternoon session.

This post summarizes key discussions from both Salons.

What the heck do we mean by ‘big data’?

The first question at the morning salon was: What precisely do we mean by the term ‘big data’? Participants and lead discussants had varying definitions. One way of thinking about big data is that it is comprised of small bits of unintentionally produced ‘data exhaust’ (website cookies, cellphone data records, etc.) that add up to a dataset. In this case, the term big data refers to the quality and nature of the data, and we think of non-sampled data that are messy, noisy and unstructured. The mindset that goes with big data is one of ‘turning mess into meaning.’

Some Salon participants understood big data as datasets that are too large to be stored, managed and analyzed via conventional database technologies or managed on normal computers. One person suggested dropping the adjective ‘big,’ forgetting about the size, and instead considering the impact of the contribution of the data to understanding. For example, if there were absolutely no data on something and 1000 data points were contributed, this might have a greater impact than adding another 10,000 data points to an existing set of 10 million.

The point here was that when the emphasis is on big (understood as size and/or volume), someone with a small data set (for example, one that fits into an excel sheet) might feel inadequate, yet their data contribution may be actually ‘bigger’ than a physically larger data set (aha! it’s not the size of the paintbrush…). There was a suggestion that instead of talking about big data we should talk about smart data.

How can big data support development?

Two frameworks were shared for thinking about big data in development. One from UN Global Pulse considers that big data can improve a) real-time awareness, b) early warning and c) real-time monitoring. Another looks at big data being used for three kinds of analysis: a) descriptive (providing a summary of something that has already happened), b) predictive (likelihood and probability of something occurring in the future), and c) diagnostic (causal inference and understanding of the world).

What’s the link between big data and resilience?

‘Resilience’ as a concept is contested, difficult to measure and complex. In its most simple definition, resilience can be thought of as the ability to bounce back or bounce forward. (For an interesting discussion on whether we should be talking about sustainability or resilience, see this piece). One discussant noted that global processes and structures are not working well for the poor, as evidenced from continuing cycles of poverty and glaring wealth inequalities. In this view, people are poor as a result of being more exposed and vulnerable to shocks, at the same time, their poverty increases their vulnerability, and it’s difficult to escape from the cycle where over time, small and large shocks deplete assets. An assets-based model of resilience would help individuals, families and communities who are hit by a shock in one sphere — financial, human, capital, social, legal and/or political — to draw on the assets within another sphere to bounce back or forward.

Big data could help this type of an assets-based model of resilience by predicting /helping poor and vulnerable people predict when a shock might happen and preparing for it. Big data analytics, if accessible to the poor, could help them to increase their chances of making better decisions now and for the future. Big data then, should be made accessible and available to communities so that they can self-organize and decrease their own exposure to shocks and hazards and increase their ability to bounce back and bounce forward. Big data could also help various actors to develop a better understanding of the human ecosystem and contribute to increasing resilience.

Can ivory tower big data approaches contribute to resilience?

The application of big data approaches to efforts that aim to increase resilience and better understand human ecosystems often comes at things from the wrong angle, according to one discussant. We are increasingly seeing situations where a decision is made at the top by people who know how to crunch data yet have no way of really understanding the meaning of the data in the local context. In these cases, the impact of data on resilience will be low, because resilience can only truly be created and supported at the local level. Instead of large organizations thinking about how they can use data from afar to ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ the poor, organizations should be working together with communities in crisis (or supporting local or nationally based intermediaries to facilitate this process) so that communities can discuss and pull meaning from the data, contextualize it and use it to help themselves. They can also be more informed what data exist about them and more aware of how these data might be used.

For the Human Rights community, for example, the story is about how people successfully use data to advocate for their own rights, and there is less emphasis on large data sets. Rather, the goal is to get data to citizens and communities. It’s to support groups to define and use data locally and to think about what the data can tell them about the advocacy path they could take to achieve a particular goal.

Can data really empower people?

To better understand the opportunities and challenges of big data, we need to unpack questions related to empowerment. Who has the knowledge? The access? Who can use the data? Salon participants emphasized that change doesn’t come by merely having data. Rather it’s about using big data as an advocacy tool to tell the world to change processes and to put things normally left unsaid on the table for discussion and action. It is also about decisions and getting ‘big data’ to the ‘small world,’ e.g., the local level. According to some, this should be the priority of ‘big data for development’ actors over the next 5 years.

Though some participants at the Salon felt that data on their own do not empower individuals; others noted that knowing your credit score or tracking how much you are eating or exercising can indeed be empowering to individuals. In addition, the process of gathering data can help communities understand their own realities better, build their self-esteem and analytical capacities, and contribute to achieving a more level playing field when they are advocating for their rights or for a budget or service. As one Salon participant said, most communities have information but are not perceived to have data unless they collect it using ‘Western’ methods. Having data to support and back information, opinions and demands can serve communities in negotiations with entities that wield more power. (See the book “Who Counts, the power of participatory statistics” on how to work with communities to create ‘data’ from participatory approaches).

On the other hand, data are not enough if there is no political will to make change to respond to the data and to the requests or demands being made based on the data. As one Salon participant said: “giving someone a data set doesn’t change politics.”

Should we all jump on the data bandwagon?

Both discussants and participants made a plea to ‘practice safe statistics!’ Human rights organizations wander in and out of statistics and don’t really understand how it works, said one person. ‘You wouldn’t go to court without a lawyer, so don’t try to use big data unless you can ensure it’s valid and you know how to manage it.’ If organizations plan to work with data, they should have statisticians and/or data scientists on staff or on call as partners and collaborators. Lack of basic statistical literacy is a huge issue amongst the general population and within many organizations, thought leaders, and journalists, and this can be dangerous.

As big data becomes more trendy, the risk of misinterpretation is growing, and we need to place more attention on the responsible use of statistics and data or we may end up harming people by bad decisions. ‘Everyone thinks they are experts who can handle statistics – bias, collection, correlation’ these days. And ‘as a general rule, no matter how many times you say the data show possible correlation not causality, the public will understand that there is causality,’ commented one discussant. And generally, he noted, ‘when people look at data, they believe them as truth because they include numbers, statistics, science.’ Greater statistical literacy could help people to not just read or access data and information but to use them wisely, to understand and question how data are interpreted, and to detect political or other biases. What’s more, organizations today are asking questions about big data that have been on statisticians’ minds for a very long time, so reaching out to those who understand these issues can be useful to avoid repeating mistakes and re-learning lessons that have already been well-documented.

This poor statistical literacy becomes a serious ethical issue when data are used to determine funding or actions that impact on people’s lives, or when they are shared openly, accidentally or in ways that are unethical. In addition, privacy and protection are critical elements in using and working with data about people, especially when the data involve vulnerable populations. Organizations can face legal action and liability suits if their data put people at harm, as one Salon participant noted. ‘An organization could even be accused of manslaughter… and I’m speaking from experience,’ she added.

What can we do to move forward?

Some potential actions for moving forward included:

  • Emphasis with donors that having big data does not mean that in order to cut costs, you should eliminate community level processes related to data collection, interpretation, analysis, and ownership;
  • Evaluations and literature/documentation on the effectiveness of different tools and methods, and when and in which contexts they might be applicable, including things like cost-benefit analyses of using big data and evaluation of its impact on development/on communities when combined with community level processes vs used alone/without community involvement – practitioner gut feelings are that big data without community involvement is irresponsible and ineffective in terms of resilience, and it would be good to have evidence to help validate or disprove this;
  • More and better tools and resources to support data collection, visualization and use and to help organizations with risk analysis, privacy impact assessments, strategies and planning around use of big data; case studies and a place to share and engage with peers, creation of a ‘cook book’ to help organizations understand the ingredients, tools, processes of using data/big data in their work;
  • ‘Normative conventions’ on how big data should be used to avoid falling into tech-driven dystopia;
  • Greater capacity for ‘safe statistics’ among organizations;
  • A community space where frank and open conversations around data/big data can occur in an ongoing way with the right range of people and cross-section of experiences and expertise from business, data, organizations, etc.

In conclusion?

We touched upon all types of data and various levels of data usage for a huge range of purposes at the two Salons. One closing thought was around the importance of having a solid idea of what questions we trying to answer before moving on to collecting data, and then understanding what data collection methods are adequate for our purpose, what ICT tools are right for which data collection and interpretation methods, what will done with the data/what is the purpose of collecting data, how we’ll interpret them, and how data will be shared, with whom, and in what format.

See this growing list of resources related to Data and Resilience here and add yours!

Thanks to participants and lead discussants for the fantastic exchange, and a big thank you to ThoughtWorks for hosting us at their offices for this Salon. Thanks also to Hunter Goldman, Elizabeth Eagen and Emmanuel Letouzé for their support developing this Salon topic, and to Somto Fab-Ukozor for support with notes and the summary. Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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This is a guest post from Jamie Narkunski, who works as a UX consultant at ThoughtWorks NYC.

by Jamie Narkunski

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Photo from ThoughtWorks.

I recently attended a Tech Salon where the subject of grant applications came up.  Part of the conversation revolved around the issue that the complexity, format, and investment required in the traditional grant application process acts as a barrier for organizations that lack the resources or experience needed to complete the process in a competitive manner, leading to the exclusion or weeding out of potential target applicants in some cases.

The conversation made me think of a recent grant I was a part of:  The Digital Prototype Opportunity.  ThoughtWorks partnered with Parsons New School and Blue Ridge Foundation to host a grant for $100k in funds + $350k worth of development work. The grant was split across two winners. The grant application was open to organizations who had an existing social impact innovation but wanted to use technology to extend and/or deepen their impact in their social space.

Because there were organizations of varying sizes and capabilities involved, we wanted to try to level the playing field as best we could without negatively impacting the applicants.  We started the process with an announcement and invitation to come to our offices for a two-hour workshop where we helped the organizations explore their current process flows and the users they serve, and to identify where they could make the most impact with the addition of technology.

The interest came to around 120 individual organizations. After the first workshop we had the organizations submit a short proposal based around the work done in the workshop or work they’d done based on the format of the workshop we had introduced to them.  The proposals we received were, for the most part, to the point and included a direct ask and perceived impact.  The workshop had enabled organizations to understand our interest in the “What” and the “Why” over the “How”.  This allowed applicants to focus their efforts around what they know best:  their users and the needs of those users.  It would be misleading to say that every single proposal we received stuck to this format — there were of course the occasional 20+ page proposal from the organizations with the professional grant writer — but that was the exception.

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

Next, we narrowed the group down to ten finalists.  Our promise to the finalists was that even if they were not one of the two winners, they would walk away with a fleshed-out proposal with a clear ask, reasoning to back it up, and an understanding of resources, funds and time needed to complete it.  In order to make good on this promise, we held a second workshop for the finalist groups.  They each got 1:1 assistance, and this time the focus was on framing an MVP and rough scoping the tech, resources and time needed to complete.  From there they had the option to refine their proposal, images and diagrams from the workshop.

We ended up with a clear understanding of what was being asked for, why, and what it would take to pull off.  It made for a difficult evaluation on our end, because there were few applicants we could disqualify for technicalities. For me, that proved the success of the application process.  In the end we ended up with two diverse winners and 8 finalists with very strong proposals.

I would love to see and to personally attempt to repurpose the format we did at a local level on a larger scale.  It will be interesting to see the creative use of partnerships and program management most likely required to grow this model.

If there are any questions or interest in the methodologies and tools used in the workshop I am happy to help.  You can reach me at jnarkuns [at] thoughtworks.com.

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Our February 6th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the organizational challenges that development organizations face when trying to innovate or integrate ICTs into their programs and operations. We looked at the idea of “innovation” and different ways to approach it. We asked what “innovation” really means and why “technology” and “innovation” seem to always be used interchangeably. We shared ideas, challenges and good practice around supporting and encouraging staff, managers, and donors to experiment with new and better ways of doing things.

A huge thank you to Somto Fab-Ukozor and Rachana Kumar for their collaboration on writing the summary below!

Mika

Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland. (Photo by Somto Fab-Ukozor)

Our lead discussants were Jessica Heinzelman, DAI’s senior ICT specialist; Chris Fabian, UNICEF’s advisor to the Executive Director on innovation and co-lead of UNICEF’s innovation lab; and Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland’s program manager for ICT4D.

What is innovation?

Different organizations bring in different ideas and definitions of innovation. Is innovation always synonymous with technology? Does it always require technology? For some organizations, “innovation” means doing things faster, better and differently in a way that adds value and has a concrete impact.

One discussant noted that innovation is not necessarily disruptive in nature; it can be categorized into 3 main forms:

  • a totally new context, new problem, new solution
  •  an existing solution that is improved
  •  an existing solution that is adapted to a new context, country or sector

Another lead discussant pointed out that innovation is not necessarily something brand new; it can be something that existed but that is used in a different way or simply different processes or ways of thinking, and innovation does not have to be technology. The concept of innovation is often misunderstood, he said, because “someone can come up with 10 crappy ideas that are new but that does not make them innovative or useful.” He also cautioned that innovation should not only be about replication and scale, yet donors sometimes decide that an idea is innovative and encourage organizations to replicate the idea, without ensuring that it is having a real or relevant impact across different local contexts.

One discussant disagreed and said that there’s no innovation without technology; for example, 60% of kids are stunting in one of the greenest areas in the world because of lack to electrical grid; the provision of electricity is technology. Without the electrical grid, the country will never reach any of its developmental goals. Technology enables the work to happen. A different viewpoint, as another discussant explained, was that the application of the technology is the innovative part, not the technology itself.

What fuels innovation?

A key part of the Salon discussion focused on whether having dedicated resources fueled innovation, or whether the presence of challenges and constraints forces innovation. Some Salon participants felt that when people are faced with challenges such as less time, fewer resources, no office space, etc., they may find themselves being more innovative in order to overcome constraints. Others found that staff often use the excuse of not having time and resources as a reason for not innovating or thinking outside the box. Some felt that innovation is difficult to achieve within large bureaucratic institutions due to their risk averse cultures, whereas others felt that one of the benefits of large-scale organizations is having resources to innovate and then test and scale innovations. Participants did agree that regardless of the outside setting, some people are more inclined to be innovative – these people are easy to identify almost everywhere, as they are always coming up with new ideas and trying/testing things out. The key is to find a way for organizational structures to support and reward innovators.

Encouraging innovation within large development organizations

Different organizations approach the innovation question in different ways. One discussant said that at his organization, the innovation team spends 60% of its time working on problems the organization is facing at the moment; 20% of its time looking towards the future (a 3-5 year horizon) for ideas that have an immediate direct impact on its work; and 20% of its time on organizational redesign, in other words, how to work with users to create solutions that are not top down and that take advantage of the existing ecosystem. His innovations team is only interested in finding/creating innovations that could reach very large scale, such as 10,000,000 people or more.

The innovation team created some guidelines for staff and allies with tips on how to defend one’s existence as someone working on innovation.  The guide addresses questions like: Why innovation?  Is it valuable to have an innovation unit? If so, why? If so and why, then prove it. Working on these questions led the innovation unit to develop metrics for innovation to justify staff positions focused on innovation. These guidelines can help people at other organizations who are trying something new to have a reference point; they allow innovation teams to say “such-and-such organization is doing this, so we can do it too.”

Metrics for innovation

Having a set of metrics can help innovation labs, teams or persons charged with organizational innovation to measure whether they are actually achieving their goals, too. One organization defined the following metrics:

  • permission to fail or fail cheaply without fear
  • working with heterogeneous groups
  •  sharing knowledge across countries and contexts

Working across organizational boundaries without “soul crushing bureaucracy” and having the real ability to work horizontally is one key to achieving these metrics.

Decentralizing the innovation function

Another lead discussant described the institutional changes and underlying understanding of people needed to improve and support innovation:

  • Identify the real incentives that someone has – individual or project – and the disincentives to innovating. It is important to look underneath the excuses people come up with such as time constraints and additional work, and find out what is driving them.
  • Hire realistic optimists – Sometimes in the ICT4D space, people gloss over the challenges and promote the technology. It is important to hire people who are grounded and have a good analytical sense, and who can think beyond gadgets and hype.
  • Building and sharing expertise within the organization – Creating a champions group of mid-to entry-level professionals within the organization, who understand the power that new technology has, is another way to make innovation and ICT4D spread. Rather than keep the expertise isolated within a specialist unit, finding younger people who are hungry for knowledge and who see this kind of work as a way to help further their career and set themselves apart from their colleagues can help. Then the “innovation team” can provide them with support and guidance. Participatory workshops on new tools and approaches can be organized where these innovation champions are tasked to research and explore something and then present it. Equipped with tools and trainings, they will be able to better identify opportunities for innovation.
  • Getting innovation into the plan early and working with those who are putting proposals and RFPs together to make sure that it is part of the metrics being measured from the beginning. It’s hard to add new elements into the program later because people will perceive it as additional work.

One Salon participant said that her organization disconnected “innovation” from its other programs so that space for trying new things would be made, and the fear of failing would be reduced or “offloaded” to the innovation team. In this case, the unit is funded through private sources which support it to experiment. It still has to struggle for its existence and show the impact and value of either failure or success.

Ideas for taking innovation and ICT4D forward

Some ideas for moving ahead included:

  1. Flexibility in program planning- In reality, most times during program implementation the plan changes and we have to figure out how to cope with it. The solution lies in the ability to quietly promote innovation and to influence donor organizations to embrace more flexible implementation.
  2. Integrating User-Centered-Design – Ethnographic research can help to better understand how people use technology locally and what its meaning is. It also helps identify existing patterns and ways of doing things that could be enhanced or shared with other communities if they are working well. Agile methodology from the software world can be pulled into development programs in order to end the top-down approach of solving problems from afar and having everything cooked up from the start. Rather, focusing on small iterations and the impact of the deliverables can be a better approach.
  3. Collaboration with Universities – Universities can be great places for working on and trying out  new ideas. Links with universities can be used as ways to find solutions, but even moreso to “change the proteins” inside of a traditional organization.  Collaboration among staff and students provides opportunities for staff to learn how to think about things differently and for students to understand real-world challenges in development agencies.
  4. Bridging the gap – Involving educators, health experts, child protection specialists and others who are not very interested in gadgets can bring about strong understanding of the real needs. Then connecting them with “techies” and ICTs in plain language and asking them to relate their own use of tech (they probably all use mobile phones in their personal lives, for example) to the ways that community members use tech can help to bring about solid, practical, sustainable and locally driven solutions.
  5. Provide a safe environment – Many humans are innovative by nature, said one discussant. Hierarchies and organizational processes are often what prevent people from doing new things. Giving feedback and psychological support can help those who are innovative to flourish within a difficult environment.
  6. The interdisciplinary approach – One Salon participant said that his organization had started to work with some senior staff to think and structure data in a way that would help them understand their challenges and programs better in order to innovate. This makes people more comfortable, and working across different teams with a variety of people and skill sets can help new ideas and solutions to bubble up.
  7. Information intermediaries – Infomediaries working at various levels can help connect people with technology, conduct training, and ensure that staff can acquire skills to use the technology themselves and in programs.
  8. Open source – Making project documents, budgets, concepts, “open” online can make them more accessible and  help  enable sustainable projects and prevent issues and costs associated with proprietary tools, applications and content.
  9. Younger management – There’s an age differential between the people who lead most large organizations and large-scale projects and those who are more interested in technology. One participant suggested it would be important to get younger people into positions where they can make contributions of ideas and decisions without being blocked by higher level people that may be “past their innovation prime.” Another solution may be to hire more experienced people but to ensure that they are open to working with  younger people who bring in new ideas. (Some Salon participants, however, felt that age has nothing to do with innovation, and that it is more related to personality types and organizational environments).

For  additional resources on the Salon topic, look here – and add your resources as well.

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. Many thanks to our lead discussants and to ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing breakfast.

If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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Migration is central to the current political debate as well as to the development discussion, especially in conversations about the “post 2015” agenda, the ‘youth bulge’, and youth employment. Prevention work is not likely to end migration, regardless of the organizations and governments working to improve the well-being of children and youth in their home communities. In fact, improved economic capacity may actually enhance people’s capacity to migrate.

Our Technology Salon on January 16, 2014, discussed the role of ICTs in child and youth migration, ways ICTs are influencing migration, how ICTs could make migration safer and more productive, and ideas for mobile applications that would be useful for child and youth migrants. We welcomed Ravi Karkara, United Nations Inter-agency Network on Youth Development; Lucas Codognolla, Lead Coordinator, Connecticut Students for a DREAM; and Michael Boampong, Migration and Development Consultant, UNDP, as our lead discussants.

Some areas on where and how ICTs are playing or could play a role:

  • Sending money / remittances / mobile money. Costs to transfer money need to be reduced. Some studies have shown that the African diaspora pays up to 20% for money transfers. More needs to be done to extend mobile money services, especially in rural areas.
  • Finding a job. Many youth use ICTs from the very start of the migration process to look for work. They may also use ICTs to find work in their home countries if they return.
  • Getting a visa to migrate legally. Most legal immigration processes require making appointments with Embassies via the Internet and the ability to communicate via email.
  • Identifying migration routes. Often, youth who migrate irregularly investigate routes online before their departure. GPS can also help during transit. One program in Mexico is developing a “safe migration map” that provides crowd-sourced, near real-time information to migrants on which areas are experiencing high crime or other dangers so that they can migrate more safely.
  • Reporting abuse. Child help lines are expanding their services across many countries and providing support, advice and help to children in case of emergency or abuse, including during migration. Many help lines are experimenting with text messaging.
  • Connecting with other youth in similar situations.  Youth who have an irregular migration status are able to find others in the same circumstances and feel less alone. They can also connect with peers and organizations who can provide support, help and advice.
  • Keeping in touch with parents/family. ICT are useful for children and youth keep families informed of how they are doing, and to ask for support and help. The African Movement for Working Children and Youth works with telecoms operators to provide a free number to children and youth who migrate in West Africa. Parents and children can remain in touch that way while children are moving from one town to the next.
  • Sharing information on migration rights. Organizations like Connecticut Students for a DREAM use ICTs and social media to reach out to youth who have an irregular migration status to provide support and to engage them in organized advocacy activities. The organization encourages sharing of stories and a safe space to discuss migration difficulties. The “Pocket DACA” application helps young migrants understand the deferred action law and apply for it.
  • Engaging, organizing, and influencing government. Youth in the US are organizing via Facebook and other social media platforms. In some cases, government officials have reached out to these groups for advice on legislation.

Participants pointed out that:

Children/youth are not always victims. Often the discourse around children’s movement/migration is centered on trafficking, protection and vulnerability rather than rights, power and choices. More needs to be done to empower children and youth and to provide opportunities and participation avenues. At the same time, more needs to be done to create opportunities at home so that children and youth do not feel like their home situation is hopeless and that migration is the only option.

Children and youth are not a homogeneous population. When thinking about ICTs and children/youth, it’s important to know the context and design programs that are relevant to specific children and young people. Age, wealth, sex, literacy and other aspects need to be considered so that ICT applications are useful. Both traditional communication and ICTs need to be used depending on the population.

ICTs can widen generation gaps. In some cases, ICTs increase the communication divide among generations. Older people may feel that youth are working in a medium that they are not skilled at using, and that youth are not considering their input and advice. This can create conflict and reduce levels of support that might otherwise be provided from community leaders, elders and government officials.

The role of the State needs more thought. Often irregular migration happens because legal channels are difficult to navigate or they are prohibitive. The role of ICTs in influencing or facilitating legal migration needs more thought, as does the potential role of ICTs in advocating for change. The State may not always be friendly to migration, however, so the topic is controversial. States may also use ICTs for surveillance of youth or migrating populations, especially in places where there is political or ethnic conflict, so ICTs may put people in extreme danger.

Risks need to be considered. There are serious risks associated with using ICTs in general, and especially with vulnerable populations. These include everything from online grooming and risks of being lured into trafficking or sex work, to scamming sites that take advantage of youth, to political aspects such as surveillance and targeting of certain populations of youth by the State or other armed groups. ICTs could be a way to help break conspiracies of silence and to report and speak out about human rights abuses, but care needs to be taken that people are not put at risk when they do so.

ICTs need to fit local contexts. Rural areas are less connected and so other forms of information and communication are often more common. Both online and offline means need to be used when working with children and youth. In addition, different social media tools and platforms are used in different places. For example, though the end of Facebook is heralded by some in the US, because youth are reportedly fleeing as older people join the site, Facebook is taking off in Latin America, where many organizations use it for engaging youth and helping them to organize and get informed about their rights.

Not much is known about children, youth, ICTs and migration.  The area of child migration is relatively weak in terms of research. The upcoming World Youth Report centers on child and youth migration and has been a highly controversial process. Migration needs to be considered from an evolving age perspective, with focus on aspects that impact on children, adolescents and youth differentially. A gender perspective needs to be included. There is also a difference between children and youth who migrate for employment and those who move due to conflict or who are seeking asylum, and deeper knowledge is needed in all of these different areas.

Recommendations for future efforts included:

  • More youth voice and support for youth movements in the area of migration
  • More involvement of youth in the debate/dialogue on migration and ICTs
  • Micro-grants for youth who want to work on migration initiatives, including those that use ICTs
  • More nuanced research and understanding of the role of ICTs in child and youth migration with specific lenses on age, sex, ethnicity, and other factors

Resources on ICTs and child/youth migration:

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. Many thanks to our lead discussants and to ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing breakfast.

If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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This is a cross-post from Tom Murphyeditor of the aid blog A View From the Cave. The original article can be found on Humanosphere. The post summarizes discussions at our November 21st New York City Technology Salon: Are Mobile Money Cash Grants the Future of Development?  If you’d like to join us for future Salons, sign up here.

by Tom Murphy

Decades ago, some of the biggest NGOs simply gave away money to individuals in communities. People lined up and were just given cash.

The once popular form of aid went out of fashion, but it is now making a comeback.

Over time, coordination became extremely difficult. Traveling from home to home costs time and money for the NGO and the same problem exists for recipients when they have to go to a central location. More significant was the shift in development thinking that said giving hand outs was causing long term damage.

The backlash against ‘welfare queens’ in the US, UK and elsewhere during the 1980s was reflected in international development programming. Problem was that it was all based on unproven theories of change and anecdotal evidence, rather than hard evidence.

Half a decade later, new research shows that just giving people money can be an effective way to build assets and even incomes. The findings were covered by major players like NPR and the Economist.

While exciting and promising, cash transfers are not a new tool in the development utility belt.

Various forms of transfers have emerged over the past decade. Food vouchers were used by the World Food Programme when responding to the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa. Like food stamps in the US, people could go buy food from local markets and get exactly what they need while supporting the local economy.

The differences have sparked a sometimes heated debate within the development community as to what the findings about cash transfers mean going forward. A Technology Salon hosted conversation at ThoughtWorks in New York City last week, featured some of the leading researchers and players in the cash transfer sector.

The salon style conversation featured Columbia University and popular aid blogger Chris Blattman, GiveDirectly co-founder and UCSD researcher Paul Neihaus and Plan USA CEO Tessie San Martin. The ensuing discussion, operating under the Chatham House Rule of no attribution, featured representatives from large NGOs, microfinance organizations and UN agencies.

Research from Kenya, Uganda and Liberia show both the promise and shortcomings of cash transfers. For example, giving out cash in addition to training was successful in generating employment in Northern Uganda. Another program, with the backing of the Ugandan government, saw success with the cash alone.

Cash transfers have been argued as the new benchmark for development and aid programs. Advocates in the discussion made the case that programs should be evaluated in terms of impact and cost-effectiveness against just giving people cash.

That idea saw some resistance. The research from Liberia, for example, showed that money given to street youth would not be wasted, but it was not sufficient to generate long-lasting employment or income. There are capacity problems and much larger issues that probably cannot be addressed by cash alone.

An additional concern is the unintended negative consequences caused by cash transfers. One example given was that of refugees in Syria. Money was distributed to families labeled for rent. Despite warnings not to label the transfer, the program went ahead.

As a result, rents increased. The money intended to help reduce the cost incurred by rent was rendered largely useless. One participant raised the concern that cash transfers in such a setting could be ‘taxed’ by rebels or government fighters. There is a potential that aid organizations could help fund fighting by giving unrestricted cash.

The discussion made it clear that the applications of cash transfers are far more nuanced than they might appear. Kenya saw success in part because of the ease of sending money to people through mobile phones. Newer programs in India, for example, rely on what are essentially ATM cards.

Impacts, admitted practitioners, can go beyond simple incomes. There has been care to make sure that implementing cash transfer programs to not dramatically change social structures in ways that cause problems for the community and recipients. In one case, giving women cash allowed for them to participate in the local markets, a benefit to everyone except for the existing shop oligarchs.

Governments in low and middle-income countries are seeing increasing pressure to establish social programs. The success of cash transfer programs in Brazil and Mexico indicate that it can be an effective way to lift people out of poverty. Testing is underway to bring about more efficient and context appropriate cash transfer schemes.

An important component in the re-emergence of cash transfers is looking back to previous efforts, said one NGO official. The individual’s organization is systematically looking back at communities where the NGO used to work in order to see what happened ten years later. The idea is to learn what impacts may or may not have been on that community in order to inform future initiatives.

“Lots of people have concerns about cash, but we should have concerns about all the programs we are doing,” said a participant.

The lessons from the cash transfer research shows that there is increasing need for better evidence across development and aid programs. Researchers in the group argued that the ease of doing evaluations is improving.

Read the “Storified” version of the Technology Salon on Mobiles and Cash Transfers here.

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At the November 8th Technology Salon in New York City, we looked at the role of ICTs in communication for development (C4D) initiatives with marginalized adolescent girls. Lead discussants Kerida McDonald and Katarzyna Pawelczyk discussed recent UNICEF reports related to the topic, and John Zoltner spoke about FHI360’s C4D work in practice.

To begin, it was pointed out that C4D is not donor communications or marketing. It is the use of communication approaches and methodologies to achieve influence at various levels –  e.g., family, institutional and policy –  to change behavior and social norms. C4D is one approach that is being used to address the root causes of gender inequality and exclusion.

Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 7.24.48 AMAs the UNICEF report on ICTs and C4D* notes, girls may face a number of situations that contribute to and/or are caused by their marginalization: early pregnancy, female genital cutting, early marriage, high rates of HIV/AIDS, low levels of education, lack of control over resources. ICTs alone cannot resolve these, because there is a deep and broad set of root causes. However, ICTs can be integrated systematically into the set of C4D tools and approaches that contribute to positive change.

Issues like bandwidth, censorship and electricity need to be considered when integrating ICTs into C4D work, and approaches that fit the context need to be developed. Practitioners should use tools that are in the hands of girls and their communities now, yet be aware of advances in access and new technologies, as these change rapidly.

Key points:

Interactivity is more empowering than one-way messaging:  Many of the ICT solutions being promoted today focus on sending messages out via mobile phones. However C4D approaches aim for interactivity and multi-channel, multi-directional communication, which has proven more empowering.

Content: Traditional media normally goes through a rigorous editorial process and it is possible to infuse it with a gender balance. Social media does not have the same type of filters, and it can easily be used to reinforce stereotypes about girls. This is something to watch and be aware of.

Purpose: It’s common with ICT-related approaches to start with the technology rather than starting with the goals. As one Salon participant asked “What are the results we want to see for ourselves? What are the results that girls want to see? What are the root causes of discrimination and how are we trying to address them? What does success look like for girls? For organizations? Is there a role for ICTs in helping achieve success? If so, what is it?” These questions need to be the starting point, rather than the technology.

Participation: One Salon participant mentioned a 2-year project that is working together with girls to define their needs and their vision of success. The process is one co-design, and it is aimed at understanding what girls want. Many girls expressed a feeling of isolation and desire for connection, and so the project is looking at how ICTs can help them connect. As the process developed, the diversity of needs became very clear and plans have changed dramatically based on input from a range of girls from different contexts. Implementors need to be prepared to change, adapt and respond to what girls say they want and to local realities.

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Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 10.41.22 PMA second study commissioned by UNICEF explores how young people use social media. The researchers encountered some challenges in terms of a strong gender approach for the study. Though a gender lens was used for analysis, there is little available data disaggregated by sex. The study does not focus on the most marginalized, because it looks at the use of social media, which normally requires a data connection or Internet access, which the most marginalized youth usually do not have.

The authors of the report found that youth most commonly used the Internet and social media for socializing and communicating with friends. Youth connected less often for schoolwork. One reason for this may be that in the countries/contexts where the research took place, there is no real integration of ICTs into the school system. It was emphasized that the  findings in the report are not comparable or nationally representative, and blanket statements such as “this means x for the whole developing world” should be avoided.

Key points:

Self-reporting biases. Boys tend to have higher levels of confidence and self-report greater ICT proficiency than girls do. This may skew results and make it seem that boys have higher skill levels.

Do girls really have less access? We often hear that girls have less access than boys. The evidence gathered for this particular report found that “yes and no.” In some places, when researchers asked “Do you have access to a mobile,” there was not a huge difference between urban and rural or between boys and girls. When they dug deeper, however, it became more complex. In the case of Zambia, access and ownership were similar for boys and girls, but fewer girls were connecting at all to the Internet as compared to boys. Understanding connectivity and use was quite complicated.

What are girls vs. boys doing online? This is an important factor when thinking about what solutions are applicable to which situation(s). Differences came up here in the study. In Argentina, girls were doing certain activities more frequently, such as chatting and looking for information, but they were not gaming. In Zambia, girls were doing some things less often than boys; for example, fewer girls than boys were looking for health information, although the number was still significant. A notable finding was that both girls and boys were accessing general health information more often than they were accessing sensitive information, such as sexual health or mental health.

What are the risks in the online world? A qualitative portion of the study in Kenya used focus groups with girls and boys, and asked about their uses of social media and experience of risk. Many out-of-school girls aged 15-17 reported that they used social media as a way to meet a potential partner to help them out of their financial situation. They reported riskier behavior, contact with older men, and relationships more often than girls who were in school. Girls in general were more likely to report unpleasant online encounters than boys, for example, request for self-exposure photos.

Hiding social media use. Most of the young people that researchers spoke with in Kenya were hiding social media use from their parents, who disapproved of it. This is an important point to note in C4D efforts that plan on using social media, and program designers will want to take parental attitudes about different media and communication channels into consideration as they design C4D programs.

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When implementing programs, it is noteworthy how boys and girls tend to use ICT and media tools. Gender issues often manifest themselves right away. “The boys grab the cameras, the boys sit down first at the computers.” If practitioners don’t create special rules and a safe space for girls to participate, girls may be marginalized. In practical ICT and media work, it’s common for boys and girls to take on certain roles. “Some girls like to go on camera, but more often they tend to facilitate what is being done rather than star in it.” The gender gap in ICT access and use, where it exists, is a reflection of the power gaps of society in general.

In the most rural areas, even when people have access, they usually don’t have the resources and skills to use ICTs.  Very simple challenges can affect girls’ ability to participate in projects, for example, oftentimes a project will hold training at times when it’s difficult for girls to attend. Unless someone systematically goes through and applies a gender lens to a program, organizations often don’t notice the challenges girls may face in participating. It’s not enough to do gender training or measure gender once a year; gendered approaches needs to be built into program design.

Long-terms interventions are needed if the goal is to emancipate girls, help them learn better, graduate, postpone pregnancy, and get a job. This cannot be done in a year with a simple project that has only one focus, because girls are dealing with education, healthcare, and a whole series of very entrenched social issues. What’s needed is to follow a cohort of girls and to provide information and support across all these sectors over the long-term.

Key points:

Engaging boys and men: Negative reactions from men are a concern if and when girls and women start to feel more empowered or to access resources. For example, some mobile money and cash transfer programs direct funds to girls and women, and some studies have found that violence against women increases when women start to have more money and more freedom. Another study, however, of a small-scale effort that provides unconditional cash transfers to girls ages 18-19 in rural Kenya, is demonstrating just the opposite: girls have been able to say where money is spent and the gender dynamics have improved. This raises the question of whether program methodologies need to be oriented towards engaging boys and men and involving them in changing gender dynamics, and whether engaging boys and men can help avoid an increase in violence. Working with boys to become “girl champions” was cited as a way to help to bring boys into the process as advocates and role models.

Girls as producers, not just consumers. ICTs are not only tools for sending content to girls. Some programs are working to help girls produce content and create digital stories in their own languages. Sometimes these stories are used to advocate to decision makers for change in favor of girls and their agendas. Digital stories are being used as part of research processes and to support monitoring, evaluation and accountability work through ‘real-time’ data.

ICTs and social accountability. Digital tools are helping young people address accountability issues and inform local and national development processes. In some cases, youth are able to use simple, narrow bandwidth tools to keep up to date on actions of government officials or to respond to surveys to voice their priorities. Online tools can also lead to offline, face-to-face engagement. One issue, however, is that in some countries, youth are able to establish communication with national government ministers (because there is national-level capacity and infrastructure) but at local level there is very little chance or capability for engagement with elected officials, who are unprepared to respond and engage with youth or via social media. Youth therefore tend to bypass local government and communicate with national government. There is a need for capacity building at local level and decentralized policies and practices so that response capacity is strengthened.

Do ICTs marginalize girls? Some Salon participants worried that as conversations and information increasingly move to a digital environment, ICTs are magnifying the information and communication divide and further marginalizing some girls. Others felt that the fact that we are able to reach the majority of the world’s population now is very significant, and the inability to reach absolutely everyone doesn’t mean we should stop using ICTs. For this very reason – because sharing of information is increasingly digital – we should continue working to get more girls online and strengthen their confidence and abilities to use ICTs.

Many thanks to UNICEF for hosting the Salon!

(Salons operate under Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been given in the above summary. Sign up here if you’d like to attend Salons in the future!)

*Disclosure: I co-authored this report with Keshet Bachan.

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According to the latest GSMA statistics, nearly 50% of people own a mobile phone in the developing world and almost 70% have access to mobile phones. With mobile access increasing daily, opportunities to use mobiles in development initiatives continue to grow and expand. The area of Mobiles for Development (M4D) has attracted investment from all sides, including mobile operators, entrepreneurs, investors and international development agencies – all working to generate social impact and improve wellbeing at the base of the pyramid. However, efforts to scale M4D initiatives and make them sustainable have largely failed.

Our July 25th NYC Technology Salon examined the topic of Scaling M4D. Lead discussants Corina Gardner from the GSMA’s Mobile Development Intelligence (MDI) unit and Sean McDonald from FrontlineSMS joined us to kick off the conversation, which was hosted at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 10.52.13 AMThe Salon started off with key points from the MDI report “Scaling Mobile for Development: A developing world opportunity,” which highlights the issue of sustainable and scaled impact as the central challenge (and opportunity) in M4D over the next five years. Because the GSMA is commercially focused (it is made up of telecommunication industry members), business models that can achieve both revenue goals and added value to customers are a core concern. GSMA is interested in finding M4D business models that convince industry to re-invest and replicate. However not many of these examples exist.

Business models at the base of the pyramid (BOP) tend to be different than what the industry is used to. If scale is defined as the number of people reached with a service, and the population being reached has little money, then the only clear business model is via a huge customer base. Given that international development agencies also want to achieve scale with development programs, there is a good potential overlap in M4D. In order to achieve good impact, it’s critical to think through what BOP users want and need, and what offers real value to them for their limited resources.

Innovative vehicles are needed for investing in M4D. Currently, M4D financing tends to take two distinct paths: International Development funding and Venture Capital (VC) funding. Hiccups occur because the two operate very differently and do not always work well together. International development funds and processes do not move as quickly as technology-based funds. There is low tolerance for uncertainty and a desire for initial proof of potential impact, adoption and uptake. On the VC side, there is the desire for a light overhead structure modeled after Silicon Valley; however in African countries, for example, there is little existing infrastructure, meaning a heavier structure and a slower process. In addition, the exit strategy may not be clear. A worst-case scenario is when one of the two types of financing bodies is interested in investing, yet both walk away when they see the other at the table.

Though very few examples of M4D at scale exist, some elements brought up during the Salon that need to be considered include:

User-centric design. It is critical to understand the community and the end user’s needs, demands, and payment capacity. Both the private sector and international development agencies have existing approaches to developing M4D initiatives that focus on understanding local context and consultation and engagement with users, but the two sectors use different language to describe these approaches and they often talk past each other without connecting on their commonalities. According to one discussant, the best and most user friendly design is that with the lowest barrier to access, the simplest technology, the cleanest interface and configurability, so that people can build in more complexity if needed. These types of design will also tend to be the most replicable, an important element of scale. Iterative design and getting prototypes in front of users is needed to get their feedback, and this can be a challenge in M4D programs if they are being done within typical international development cycles of planning and funding.

User data. Users at the base of the pyramid are both financially poor and “data poor” and companies cannot create products for users that they know nothing about. Mobile can help gather data on user behaviors. This data can be used to inform business models, create products and services of value for BOP users, and to create revenue streams. One key question is that of how the data can be better used to benefit the BOP more broadly.

Understanding what ‘scale’ means for different parties. For mobile operators, scale is important because it is linked to numbers, volume and revenue. However this is not the element that matters for those working in international development, where impact may be a more important measure of success. Uptake of an M4D service may be due to advertising, rather than because it has a measurable impact on the life of a user. The difference needs to be understood and better analyzed and documented before success, scale, or impact is claimed. One measure of success is improved and sustained functioning of broader systems — and mobile may only be one small piece of a well-functioning development program, information ecosystem, or service delivery effort. As one discussant noted, “I don’t care if someone uses mobile banking or branch banking, so long as they are banking.” The mobile device may not be the central piece; it may be an additional access point for people who were formerly left out of these systems. In addition, “reaching” people is different than “influencing” people, and the latter will likely have more of an impact. Trust is critical in these efforts to influence, and often that takes more than a mobile connection.

Infrastructure.  The case for improved networks, coverage, and other infrastructure (electricity, for example) needs to be made to operators and government. The urban-rural divide when it comes to infrastructure is a global issue, not just one in so-called ‘developing economies.’ For example, using 4G and a credit card, someone can order a product on Amazon from the DRC, however Amazon will not be able to deliver that product. Similarly, someone can report poor government services via a mobile phone, but until infrastructure and governance improves, there may be no response. Poor infrastructure in rural areas is an issue globally.

Payment. Operators incorrectly give away free SMS to NGOs, said one discussant. Instead, having to pay a small amount (either as an NGO or an end user) means that much more care is taken in terms of what is communicated. “If it costs 5 cents to send a message, you will not spam people.” This is also critical for building in sustainability, and where the best ROI tends to be found in technology influenced programming. More thought and research is needed regarding payment and sustainable, scalable models.

Due diligence. A challenge in the M4D space is the high incidence of people seeing a problem, thinking no one has addressed it, and jumping in to build their own solution. This wastes money and time and creates churn. It is important to do research, layer, and build from other people’s ideas and existing solutions. One problem with the idea of due diligence, according to a participant, is that it means different things to different people. In technology it means “you have a problem, what is the cheapest and most robust solution,” but in the field of international development, context discovery takes a very long time and requires multidisciplinary knowledge and awareness that goes far beyond technology. There is also a need to consider whether technology (as opposed to non-digital efforts) is the most viable solution for the information and communication situation. ‘Horizontal due diligence’ (looking at partnerships) and due diligence with regard to maximizing systems are also needed.

Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). M&E is currently sub-par on most M4D initiatives, said one participant. Organizations are often doing their own M&E rather than having a third party conduct external M&E.  There is a lack of comparative data on M4D programs also, and often M&E is attempted at the end of a project rather than built in from the start. A greater presence of academia is needed in M4D work, it was noted, and we also need more qualitative data, as currently the emphasis is on the quantitative data that are collected more easily via mobiles. One benefit in M4D programs is the ability to digitize and intelligently store data from the very start. This is the way to show scale and impact, said another participant. However data need to be well-used and refined, and available to the right person or people at the right time. Greater respect and understanding of privacy and ethical issues along with helping people to understand and steward their users’ data are also critically important and need more attention.

Salons function under Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been made. Sign up here to join the Technology Salon mailing list to receive invitations for future events in NYC, DC, San Francisco, London and Nairobi!

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