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)
Previous posts on ICTs and M&E:
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